We can't turn the other cheek

First published in Peter Mullen The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by

I BET the Archbishop of Canterbury walked home from church last Sunday with a grin on his furry face and a spring in his step. Dr Rowan Williams must feel enormous relief after announcing his retirement.

What an impossible job he has had to try to do these last ten years. Bed of nails and vale of tears are phrases that come to mind.

I treasure a letter I received from him a few years ago. It was to thank me for a little volume of my poems I’d sent him. He was particularly nice about one I’d written about Winchester cathedral. And he added that all the family had laughed at my scurrilous parody of Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer which I had entitled Adolf The One-balled Fuhrer.

This was very gracious of the Archbishop and indeed he is the kindest, gentlest man you could hope to meet. But I have been critical of him over the years and especially over his suggestion that we might incorporate a portion of Sharia into British law. Never mind Dr Williams’ original muddle which seemed to imply that there ought to be some parallel jurisprudence between the law of the land and Sharia. His clarification of the muddle was far more dangerous. He says his main aim was: “To tease out some of the broader issues around the rights of religious groups within a secular state.”

But we are not a secular state. The Queen is Head of State and Supreme Governor of the Church of England. She was anointed by two archbishops in Westminster Abbey. This is the 16th Century Anglican Settlement, born out of the carnage and destruction of civil war and modified and broadened over the intervening 400 years to provide a decent set of political liberties not only for devotees of the Church of England, but for dissenting minorities. This is an extremely tolerant arrangement in which the only requirement of dissidents is that they respect the common law and keep the peace.

How can an Archbishop of Canterbury diminish the national church so that it becomes just one “religious group” among many? And so the historic understanding that we are one nation under God and the monarch has been replaced by the view that we are only a collection of factions.

But what really scared me was the Archbishop’s attitude to the war on Islamist terrorism.

Dr Williams was in New York at a conference on 9/11. He gave us his reflections on the atrocities and their aftermath in his booklet Writing in the Dust.

Dr Williams thinks that the West should not retaliate: “If I decide to answer in the same terms, that is how the conversation will continue.” There is a confusion here between revenge and justice. While I may seek on my own behalf to follow the teaching of Christ to turn the other cheek, I must not do this on behalf of those who have suffered innocently.

Not to do this is to concede victory to the aggressors, and that would be unjust.

The Archbishop said he wanted to “understand” the terrorists’ motivation. He reckons they had no choice: “We have something of the freedom to consider whether or not we turn to violence and so, in virtue of that very fact, are rather different from those who experience their world as leaving no other option.”

But of course the suicide bombers had “other options”. Not every Muslim thinks that the only answer to his problems is to destroy New York.

The good Dr Williams has earned his respite at Cambridge.

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