Geoffrey Kirk takes a closer look at Archbishop Rowan Williams’ controversial lecture on law, and finds more problems with its form than with its content

The easiest way to organize a standing ovation is to get people to clap when they are already on their feet. That is precisely what happened when Rowan Williams entered the Synod chamber to give his presidential address. But, whatever the prior manoeuvring, he should not take too much heart from the reception. The Synod, which prides itself on its generosity and fairness, loves to express support to members who have recently been mauled by the press.

A memorable example is the ovation given to Michael Turnbull after it emerged that he had performed improbable acts in a well-known public lavatory in Hull. The Synod was sorry for him, whilst not necessarily condoning the offence.

One thing Rowans synodical supporters and press attackers had in common: they had not read the speech in question. Who can blame them? Nine pages of complex argument, in convoluted English, peppered with learned references to papers in obscure journals, and reaching no very certain conclusion, must have seemed like a waste of time. But we should surely, in that case, give the Archbishop the benefit of the doubt – unless we are prepared to say what he said and to say why it was both wrong and inflammatory. So what was Williams really on about?

That question, in the case of the Archbishop, is always a difficult one to answer. Someone who learnt his thought processes and prose style at the knee of Donald MacKinnon is hardly likely to major on comprehensibility A friend of mine attended one of Rowans lectures in Cambridge which ended up as his book, The Resurrection of Jesus. ‘Well, was it all right?’ the lecturer asked, as the two walked together out of the building. ‘Marvellous,’ my friend replied, ‘but answer me one thing. Did he really rise from the dead?’

It is worth, then, looking more closely than the press at the Archbishop’s paper, and asking some basic questions about form and content. What was said, and how was it expressed?

Content first: Williams was expressing a fear that Law, viewed as an absolute concept imposing its tenets on every section of society equally and indifferently, could easily, in a society made up of different religions and cultural traditions, become a vehicle for the tyranny of the majority. This, he argues, is contrary to the true purpose of Law, which should be to guard the beliefs and integrity of individuals and groups, whilst regulating relations between them.

The Archbishop, because of the brief given him in by the course of lectures in which his own was the first, majored on the place of Islam in Britain. But he clearly had in mind the position of other religious groups – Orthodox Jews, traditional Christians – whose faith might prove at odds with the moral consensus expressed in law. They might, for example, like the black couple recently refused adoption rights in Derbyshire, find themselves unable to undertake to teach that homosexual relationships are morally equivalent to heterosexual ones, and might even insist on taking any child in their care to church with them each Sunday.

All this seems reasonable, unexceptionable, and needing to be said. But there are problems.

The problems lie both in the changing nature of the law and in the necessary intransigence of religious belief. English Law (and especially as it comes to embrace a wider framework of European Law) is increasingly less pragmatic and more doctrinaire. And religious belief is inevitably less flexible than its secular well-wishers would like. Of course, as Rowan points out, it is possible to portray the dialogue of Law with religion as one between (to adapt Schleiermacher’s phrase) its Cultured Admirers and believers who are already well down the path of self-secularization. If every protagonist in the debate was a Thought-for-the-Day Muslim on the one hand and John Humphreys on the other, matters could readily be resolved. But they are not.

Williams knows this well, but in my view is less than honest when it comes to admitting the fact. The war between revealed truth and a priori ethical assertion is now being conducted among religious people themselves. It is the war between Peter Jensen and Katharine Jefferts Schori, or, nearer to home, between Forward in Faith and the Christina Rees Tendency.

There is no real and present hope for reconciliation between the two parties; and it is pie in the sky to suppose that it can be achieved and imposed by the secular law. The best that legislators can do is to negotiate a temporary arrangement with those religionists they find most congenial – liberal Christians on the one hand and revisionist Muslims on the other. But an agreement with Christians who favour abortion on demand and Muslims who believe the Koran demands the full emancipation of women is no way to respect the rights of those who do not.

Williams’ paper founders on the hidden premise that everybody is as decent and reasonable as he is. The press reaction to his unfortunate summary of its conclusions on Radio 4 demonstrated beyond doubt that they are not. Who can be surprised that he was taken aback and hurt?

But something needs also to be said about form – about the way in which the Archbishop’s argument was cast. He himself apologized for ‘unclarity’. The neologism masked an understatement. Williams was not unclear: he was opaque. One pities those who listened to it. Even on the printed page, whole sentences have to be read and re-read to untangle their structure and unravel their meaning. The piece is spattered with novel coinages, words used with an unfamiliar meaning, learned references and self-referential allusions. Even delivered with Rowan’s mellifluous charm it must have been hard to follow. Perhaps this is why, in the question-and-answer session that followed, few if any of the questions referred directly to it.

Such language, a virtual parody of the argot of academe, is hardly appropriate, whatever the audience, to a topic which the lecturer knows to be of lively concern to all sectors of the wider community. It invites misinterpretation and defies direct quotation.

The lecture was, alas (and the better parts of the press commentary realized this), a tenable but not particularly original set of insights, drowning in their own syntax.