The Head of the Anglican Church, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, speaks to Islamica about the challenges ahead in improving Christian-Muslim relations, and his concerns about the direction of the Christian community in an increasingly secular Britain
ISLAMICA: In your speech at the Zaki Badawi Memorial Lecture 2007, organized by the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS), in conjunction with Lambeth Palace, you speak about Islam, Christianity and pluralism. The late Dr Badawi was an ardent proponent of interfaith understanding. Given your experience of the Anglican and Muslim communities, what, in your view, would be the actionable priorities from which we can derive measurable improvements in interfaith understanding?
DR ROWAN WILLIAMS: The two main priorities are at two different levels. At the level of theory, I think we need to go on talking more about our understanding of faith in society: Christians tend to see Muslims as making no distinction between the religious and the political; Muslims tend to see Christians as having no effective doctrine of social morality. At the level of practice, it has to be learning how to inhabit a neighborhood together how to work together for a moral and humane environment at street level, at city level and in the international context. These questions come together when we try and think through the relation between divine law and the law of the society we’re actually in, for example; or when we reflect on what God’s view is of economic justice and what our current global economy takes for granted. How do we live with the awareness that divine and human law don’t always fit together, without assuming that the only answers are “privatized” religion (a typical Christian temptation), or some attempt at theocracy (a certain kind of Muslim temptation)? How do we work with what is constructive and God-oriented in our social environment, neither ignoring it nor seeking to take it over and dominate it?
The Chair of AMSS UK, Dr Anas al-Shaikh-Ali, spoke at length of the dangers of succumbing to a “climate of fear” and education as the prima facie force of reform. In your own assessment of rising levels of Islamophobia, how far do you believe focusing on effective change through the national curricula is a viable longterm strategy?
It is definitely a long-term strategy, but we need such long-term vision in a world of quick fixes. But it won’t work if the study of Islam becomes the study of some exotic and alien thing. Muslims living in the West and coping with the often-chaotic Western cultural agenda honestly and creatively are the best educators in this connection. Young non-Muslims in schools need to hear from the real-life young, educated and professional Muslims in their environment, not just to have a picture of distant cultures.
The late Dr Zaki Badawi’s visionary leadership of The Muslim College included establishment of interfaith courses to consolidate multicultural understanding and effect intelligent, and enlightened discourse with members of other faiths. In your opinion what wider implications does an award like the Building Bridges Award, presented to you by the AMSS UK at Badawi’s Memorial Lecture, have over and above that of recognizing the outstanding achievements of far-sighted individuals and the merits of their work?
I was humbled and rather astonished to receive the award; but what I think it recognizes is that there are contexts in which it is possible to discuss differences with candor in a spirit of friendship. It’s a happy coincidence that the annual seminar I chair on Christian-Muslim dialogue – a seminar in which Zaki was a deeply valued member is also called “Building Bridges”. Zaki was always keen to insist that Muslims should learn from Christians about Christianity just as Christians should learn from Muslims about Islam – so that we don’t assume too quickly that we know what the other is talking about! But that means facing our differences with patience – taking real time to understand.
In recent times, there has been a general rise in evangelical movements across the various Christian denominations and increasingly thorny questions posed by progressive theologians, together with the reassertion of conservative faith perspectives, in particular, from Africa, South America and Asia. As head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, how do you propose to address the challenges of maintaining doctrinal unity across this broad spectrum?
I wish I had a neat answer to this! But for me the doctrinal essentials are already contained within the actions we perform – in the sacraments and the disciplines of prayer. When we find ourselves saying things that make nonsense of these basic practices, we have left the doctrinal heart of things behind. And when we find ourselves reading our Scriptures in ways that are in tension with these practices, something has gone wrong. So my constant hope is to bring people back to these essentials – most of all to the central belief that the Christian Church exists not by human choice and planning but because of a specific action and call uttered by God in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If we believe this, we may find it possible to argue our other differences within the Church a bit more patiently. It isn’t just a standoff between people with a “conservative” attitude to doctrine and people who are “liberal” – that’s a lazy bit of journalistic labelling. It’s to do with where you see the centre of things – in ideas alone or in those ideas embodied in the shape of common life and prayer and the constant acknowledgement of our indebtedness to God.
With the emergence of modernity, the values of individualism and freedom of expression have become defining qualities of “enlightened” societies. This seems to have led to tensions between institutionalized interpretation of religion and an increasingly personalized interpretation. Though, of course, all religions must, at some level, operate in the personal domain, it still seems important to strike the right balance between institutionally informed scholarship and individualism. This seems to affect certainly both Christianity and Islam. How do you see this challenge and how do you expect to address it?
This relates very directly to the preceding question, doesn’t it? There is a tendency to approach religious faith in a “consumerist” spirit- what can I get from it? – and to ignore the element of a call to service and loving devotion. Christianity and Islam both have a major task in challenging pure individualism: not in the name of suppressing diversity or liberty of thought, but so as to demonstrate that the fulfillment of the person’s destiny is a shared wisdom, not just an individual set of convictions. One of my favorite Christian writers said that it was crucial to distinguish between the individual and the person-the person being the individual when he or she has grown up into the fullness of relationship with others with God.
Today, we see some theological schools having their conception of God subordinated to scientific principles and subject to the Laws of Nature rather than being, let’s say, to their Creator. Yet others are comfortable with a divide, externalizing God from His Creation and therefore not subject to His Laws of Nature. What is your perspective on this?
For traditional Christians – and in this re- spect I am certainly one – the Law of God, both in the processes of nature and in the or- dering of human affairs, flows from and re- flects the Being of God. God is not subject to any external law or force, and so is the source of all law; yet this does not mean that His Law is only the decision of an arbitrary eternal will. He wills in accordance with His own nature; His commands are the free and untrammelled expression of what He is. I think some of the medieval discussions in which Christian, Jewish and Muslim thinkers were all involved bring this out very clearly. All our traditions have some schools or elements that stress divine will and can make it sound arbitrary or irrational; but all also have elements that connect will and divine nature.
Recently we have heard an increasing amount of voices declaring that the God of Muslims is different from the God of Christianity and Judaism. Others continue to underscore that the God of Muhammad is the God of Abraham and of Jesus (peace be upon them all). Within each of the Abrahamic faiths, while there are debates about nuanced differences of the conception of God, there has traditionally been agreement about His being the same Entity. Do you conceive of God as the same Entity across the three monotheistic faiths?
This is a more complex question than it may seem to be. Certainly, when I look at the way in which God is understood in the Abrahamic faiths, it seems to be the same kind of being that is spoken of – eternal and free and purposive, just and compassionate, sovereign over the universe. We all agree about the divine nature, it seems, and we have much of the same history in common. But between the three monotheistic faiths, there is evident disagreement about how to speak of the divine person. For Christians, it is impossible to speak of- or speak to God without the acknowledgement of the divine agency in Jesus bestowing upon us through the divine Spirit the freedom to call God our Father. We think in terms of God as first a source of life, but then also as an eternal response to that source – both a giving and a receiving within God’s life, with Jesus Christ as the historical embodiment of that everlasting response of loving devotion to the everlasting gift – and also as the “overflowing” of that divine loving mutuality in the Spirit. And so we speak of God in “three persons” – a very misleading phrase in many respects, as it doesn’t mean that God is three individuals, or that the “real” God is accompanied by lesser beings. It’s more that God is eternally actual in a threefold movement and interrelation, like a chord of music. So I recognize that we are speaking about the same divine nature; yet when we pray a real difference appears. It is this closeness in thinking about what God is and the difference in how we understand our relation with Him and the character of His personal action that makes the dialogue so absorbingly interesting and challenging. I have several times had to speak about basic Christian doctrines in a Muslim context, and the great challenge is to see if I can make what I’ve just been saying at all intelligible to the philosophically educated Muslim. That for me is an enlargement and enrichment in itself.
Since 9/11, Muslims have been feeling increasingly beleaguered. We, the mainstream Muslims, seem to be caught between on one side the indiscriminate collateral damage befalling us from the War on Terror and on the other the efforts of extremists within Islam to define themselves and their religion in one-dlmensionally hateful terms. Indeed the War on Terror and the extreme Islamists seem to feed off each other, consuming the m iddle ground in the process. Many attempts have been made by mainstream Muslims such as with the Amman Message without “moving the needle” or getting noticed more broadly. In your view, what other actions can mainstream Muslims take to help unwind this destructive process and make their voices heard?
I think it is important to help people under- stand that many Muslim “radicals” are those who have largely turned their backs on the actual tradition and history of Islam, repu- diating the whole history of interpretation and discovery – very much like the Chris- tian fundamentalists who behave as if there had never been a history of reading and dis- cussing the Bible. But I think also – and I hope I speak with proper caution and humility here – it matters that the rest of the world hears Muslim voices that are not trapped in a narrow self-image as victims. The reduction of a whole complex set of global conflicts to a series of variations on one theme, the victimisation of the Islamic world, leaves many outside Islam baffled and frustrated. Granted the absolutely undeniable fact of huge anti-Muslim prejudice and the rhetoric of some in power in the West, the truth is surely more complex. Both the Western Christian and post-Christian world and the Islamic world in the West and East need to be self-critical about their history; both need to get out of reactive and resentful postures. And, to go back to an earlier answer, the active presence of the young and educated Muslim in public debate and in the processes of education and opinion forming is going to be crucial to moving beyond the reactive rhetoric of mutual blame.
What ought to be the role of religion in British public life in the 21st century? Is the emphasis upon restating core Christian values as the bedrock of the nation’s spiritual inheritance, or is it upon an inclusive Christian leadership of public religion in an increasingly multifaith Britain?
We need to be clear that communities of faith are primary contributors to the health and openness of society; and that means that we must continue to challenge the widespread idea, connected to the French variety of secularism, that religion should never be seen in public. A sensible political order, I believe, is one in which the state secures the liberty of religious groups and their freedom of conscience, but also engages them in collaborative projects, educational and social, for the common welfare. In an historically Christian country, where the Church has a specific public identity and therefore a particular sort of “leverage”, it’s natural that the Church should be in something of a coordinating role here: the fact that the Church of England has representation in every community still means something. But this has to be fleshed out – as in practice it regularly is – by the Church being willing to act at times as the defender or advocate of religious minorities in the public sphere. I’m a bit cautious about the language of promoting “Christian values” if those values are seen as exclusive of others or as denying what we actually share with the other faiths. But equally I’m not keen on a pluralism that pretends we haven’t got a largely Christian history or that refuses to use the resources of the mainstream churches creatively in our public life. A culture that recognises its dominantly Christian roots as a matter of history certainly doesn’t have to be hostile towards minorities or ideologically oppressive. I think we have a reasonably good balance in the UK about this; the threat is from a historically and religiously illiterate secularism which imagines that, if we are a “multifaith” society, this means that all religions are equally irrelevant and equally to be tolerated as private eccentricities. Neither the Church nor Islam can regard this as the right way forward. I am strongly committed to the idea that the Church has to use its resources for the sake of all communities of faith in Britain, so that all may play their proper role in public. The support that has been forthcoming from many Christians for Muslim schools is a good example.
As the Vatican has done previously, will the Church of England seek to state in clear theological terms the relationship between Islam and Christianity, as it rightly does quite naturally with Judaism, in the 2008 Lambeth Conference?
As it happens, we have been working on a document that is meant to clarify our interfaith vision, and we hope it will be discussed at the Lambeth Conference. It is important to remember, though, that the Anglican Church worldwide is a far less institutionally unified body than the Roman Catholic Church, so that we don’t generally have completely binding statements. The important work is done by the international networks of the Anglican Communion, in this case our interfaith network, which seeks constantly to build relations and strengthen local cooperation.
Is the government’s rebalancing of its relationship with British Muslims, in counter-terrorism terms in autumn 2006, as stated by the Minister for Communities and Local Government, unbalancing relations between faith communities in the UK? And if so, how ought the Church of England and the other faith communities respond?
I’d guess that a British Muslim, faced with some of the governmental language of recent months and years, might well feel that he or she was being treated as primarily a problem, and that they might equally feel that it would be welcome to be regarded as simply a particular kind of citizen among other kinds of citizens. I wish we could get to this point. And I’d like the government to think about how it positively encourages Muslim citizenship not only by worrying about it as an issue but by providing-as the Prime Minister has said-a social and international vision that people of deep moral and religious conviction think worth supporting.
Without wishing to appear boastful, the readership of Islamica Magazine tends to be open-minded, intellectually discerning and spiritually aware. Beyond the scope of your answers to the foregoing questions, what would be your most important message to them?
I’d refer back to the very first answer. Carry on contributing to public debate at every level about these basic issues of common moral vision in society; don’t be afraid of self-criticism; in every context, ask, “How do I, with others of different conviction, help to build an inhabitable human neighborhood?”
Do you believe that the Common Word document recently endorsed by 138 leading Muslim clerics and leaders could be instrumental in promoting reconciliation between Muslims and Christians?
The Common Word statement is a welcome contribution, not least because it quotes Jewish and Christian scripture directly and so tries to engage other faiths in their own terms and on their ground, which is essential to proper dialogue. I’m sure it will open some new doors in constructive relations between us.