Monday, February 11, 2008

what he actually said

As usual, what was actually said has been misreported and over-simplified - in this case the Archbishop of Canterbury's comments on Sharia law.
In his lecture, the Archbishop sought carefully to explore the limits of a unitary and secular legal system in the presence of an increasingly plural (including religiously plural) society and to see how such a unitary system might be able to accommodate religious claims. Behind this is the underlying principle that Christians cannot claim exceptions from a secular unitary system on religious grounds (for instance in situations where Christian doctors might not be compelled to perform abortions), if they are not willing to consider how a unitary system can accommodate other religious consciences.
I still disagree with what he said - in my opinion, the law should be single, unified and not make special exemptions for anyone (whether they be Christian homophobes seeking to discriminate against LGBT people, or Pagans who want to rebury ancient human remains, or the implementation of sharia for Muslims - most of whom have very sensibly asked, which sharia law are you going to implement? and in fact the Archbishop acknowledged the multiple forms of sharia) . It is OK to allow people to do stuff which doesn't hurt anyone else (e.g. there are special arrangements in place for Muslims to have mortgages without borrowing money at interest, which is usury and forbidden in Islam), and if Christian doctors don't want to do abortions they can refer women to clinics, and there are compromise options available in the ancient human remains situation. But discrimination in the provision of goods and services to LGBT people is just bang out of order.

Concomitant, however, to this unity of the law is the fact that every citizen has a right to contribute to the debate around law and the making of laws (and to bring in their unique perspective and experience, both secular and religious). For example, I am strongly opposed to ID cards and consider that introducing them is a form of oppression that I would strongly resist - and I think all people of conscience (religious or secular) have the right to resist such tyranny. But my ideas on this come from my political identity as a free citizen, not my religious identity as a Wiccan Unitarian animist (both my political and spiritual identity come from my personal values, and not the other way around). Similarly, if homosexuality was suddenly made illegal (fortunately very unlikely), I would do everything in my power to resist this, and to help my LGBT friends to hide or escape. So individual conscience should trump the law, but the law should not make special exemptions for it. Which seems like a paradox, but can be resolved by the fact that unjust laws can be campaigned against and resisted, and if the consensus is that they are unjust, they will be repealed (e.g. the death penalty, slavery, etc.)

I personally have a problem with the fact that the legal system in this country is more concerned about (and has more severe penalties for) violations of property than violations of the person; but I think this imbalance is being addressed by the introduction of human rights legislation. I also worry that many categories of difference, like being left-handed or having ginger hair, will fall between the gaps of the "six strands" of diversity (ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age).

I also wish that journalists would report these things properly.

Update: An excellent article by Simon Barrow, 'A Multifaith Muddle' in The Guardian

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