Jury Waiting Room, XXXX Crown Court, London…
much of a “diary” this week, I’m afraid, as I continue to spend most of
my waking hours in this increasingly sweaty Jury waiting room. That’s
me in the corner, tapping away on the laptop with the Apple logo. Yes,
I’m one of them, those snotty Apple users from whom you instinctively
shy away in coffee shops the length and breadth of the nation. Lots of
moaning in the room about all the waiting around, but I’m loving it.
Which statistician could resist this: total immersion in a completely
random focus group of 250 Londoners who, despite their best British
attempts to talk about nothing more contentious than the weather and
the state of the tube, have nearly all given in to temptation and
started revealing their opinions about – well, I’d better not say. Yet.
I bet Jacqui Smith’s ears are burning though. A lot of good people come
That’s me in the corner, losing my religion. So, imagine you’re the
most senior primate of the established church of the country. There’s
this national discussion about the implications of the growing Muslim
population who live here, whose self-selected spokespeople have been
making increasingly vociferous demands for decades: from burning the
books of Salman Rushdie (I’m showing my age, aren’t I – east London’s
militants have moved onto more relevant issues, like preventing a film
being made of Monica Ali’s novel in Brick Lane), to the “right” to have
a muezzin issue a call to prayer across Oxford. Imagine that you’re Dr
Williams. What, in a very real sense, would you do?
You might seek to renew the compact between gentle, beautiful Anglicanism and the English people: all the people, not just the Christian ones. You might point out that, even for liberal atheists (like your writer), it is a tradition which has served this country well, at least from the moment that Elizabeth muttered her determination not to make windows into men’s souls (surely the most compelling psychological reason ever stated for being Tory?).
You would perhaps remind the nation that our entire legal system itself has evolved from the founding blocks of a Judaeo-Christian tradition, that it is the last from which we have moulded not only our laws, but also our cultural norms of tolerance and pluralism. If you were so minded, you could relate the national theology to the political concept of One Nation (and you could permit yourself an ironic aside about the original faith of the progenitor of that concept) – that we all have obligations one on another, and that government must frame legislation to apply to all of us, equally, without finding itself beholden to any single special-interest lobby group, whether that of labour, or capital, or religious minorities.
If you were slightly less left-of-centre, you might remark that the only concept of equality which makes sense is that of equality before the law, and so you could finish your address at the Royal Courts of Justice by reminding all newcomers to Britain that, by electing to reside here, the onus is on them to abide by the rules of the culture: to seek psychological accommodation with the British culture, as it were, analogous to the original physical accommodation which tolerant Britain was happy to grant.
Instead, Dr Williams decided to say something a little different. He decided to raise the spectre of sharia law being used in “parallel” with English civil and criminal law. Indeed, Dr Williams found such an outcome “inevitable”.
Are we supposed to deconstruct his text to see if the Archbishop intends Britain to set up mini-states of Saudi-like ferocity, or if he simply meant that laws about marriage and property should be set aside for anyone Muslim? I don’t really care. I’m not even going to list some of the current outcomes of Sharia in other countries: you are all aware of them, and so is the Archbishop. So is Gillian Gibbons. Channel 4 News interviewed a Muslim spokesperson on Thursday night, whose comments ought to send shivers down your spine. Why, asked this man, should I live under the laws of Jews and Christians?
Dr Williams has now given succour to men such as that. He has lost his moral authority with that speech; he has lost his right to be heard with respect; and if he couldn’t foresee the political outcome of his words before he uttered them, well, that’s just another reason for him to retire his position.
Perhaps, though, Dr Williams did intend to sever, finally, the compact between liberal-Tory Britain and Anglicanism, the cultural ties which bind atheists like myself to a church in whose God I don’t believe? There are some undercurrents in the media about this, usually mentioning the commonality between Muslims and Christians over issues to do with homosexuality, adoption, abortion etc. Perhaps Dr Williams has decided to be the leader of a new compact, binding together all religious Britain as a bulkhead against the rampaging secular horrors of the age?
He should take care, and not just because his new bedfellows will be ill-disposed to reciprocate those freedoms of legal diversity which he is so keen to share with them. If the Church of England gives up on its fraught attempt to be our binding glue, it will become indistinguishable from any other political grouping. I think religious friends find it hard to comprehend this, but to non-believers, any faith, once stripped of its transcendental elements and cultural signifiers, becomes a list of political demands. It is the appreciation of those cultural signifiers that leads most Tory atheists to remain genuinely respectful of, and protective towards, the Church of England. No compact between church and state, and those demands will be treated as any other set of political requests: left to flourish or die on their intellectual or empirical merits. Telling the legislature “God tells me to vote against this” would not be a sufficiently compelling reason for anyone who is not a co-religionist to listen. Is that what we want? Enforced polarisation, in place of courtesy and respect?
The sun is shining, and I’ve been released from the jury room a wee bit early, early enough to get back to the London Fields Lido for a swim before the evening light fades. I take a breath at the deep end … and a wasp crawls its way past my face, on the side of the pool. A wasp. In February. I shall require some counselling.