Among the Intellectualoids

Bull in Durham

N.T. Wright's defense of Rowan Williams is daffy.

By 2.21.08

Send to Kindle

Being an American of Irish and Mexican heritage has certain advantages, and one of them is that I do not usually fret about the pronouncements of Anglican leaders. John Henry Newman had it indelicately but indubitably right some 120 years ago, I think, when he asserted, "There are but two alternatives, the way to Rome, and the way to Atheism," before adding that "Anglicanism is the halfway house on the one side, and Liberalism is the halfway house on the other."

Like Newman eventually did, I look to the Pope and the Catechism of the Catholic Church for theological guidance. Accordingly, I had promised myself that I was not going to write about Anglican troubles.

But that was before Nicholas Thomas Wright, Bishop of Durham, England and fourth-ranking Anglican prelate, volunteered an insufferably condescending defense of his colleague Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Now I feel like Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part III: Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

You already know that in a recent interview with the BBC, Williams mused that the British legal system ought to formally accommodate Islamic Sharia law where it can, in the interest of greater social cohesion and because Muslim influence in Britain will not wane anytime soon. There was more than a hint of the apocryphal Victorian resolve to "lie back and think of England" in this prescription.

Coming as it did from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Williams' preemptive capitulation and nonchalant attitude toward taking a sledgehammer to one of the pillars of western civilization was viewed with dismay in many circles. The editor in chief of this magazine even dubbed Williams "Islam's most recent celebrity convert."

RET, as Bob Tyrrell is known around these parts, had company. Satirist David "Iowahawk" Burge lampooned Williams with a brilliant update of The Canterbury Tales. On the other side of the Atlantic, Craig Brown rewrote "the cat sat on the mat" in over-processed prose that sounded like it had come from the Archbishop himself. Meanwhile in Missouri, Christopher Johnson tracked events with the same bemused diligence he applies to all things Anglican, pausing to note that the celebrated N.T. Wright had defended his colleague in perhaps the worst possible fashion.

As one who characterized what the Bush administration did in response to the attacks of 9/11 as "astonishingly immature," and as a champion of what some Protestants call the "new perspective on Paul," Wright has long been controversial. The man knows what the back of a podium looks like, and can usually dream up something sonorous and theological before his first cup of coffee. But what he had to say in defense of Rowan Williams was spectacularly ill-considered.

In an essay posted February 13, Wright said Williams was talking to lawyers, focused on civil rather than criminal matters, and had distanced himself from those aspects of Sharia law that non-Muslims frequently find abominable. If the rest of you were not so twitchy about Islam, he implied, you might understand that the relationship of individual conscience to society is an important question.

By way of concluding comment, and in spite of that fact that Williams had two days before allowed for the possibility that his remarks caused may have caused "distress or misunderstanding," Wright huffed, "We should be grateful that we have an Archbishop capable of such work, not demand that his every word be instantly comprehensible by the casual uninformed onlooker."

The aforementioned Mr. Johnson rejected that defense "Wright quick," so to speak, observing that "the idea that Britain or anybody else can cherry-pick which aspects of Islamic law will be accommodated and which will not is the apotheosis of the term 'pipe dream.'"

IT'S SAFE TO SAY that British triumphalism of the kind that once set a poem to music with the idea that a singer "would not cease from mental fight or let my sword sleep in my hand till we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land" is long gone and little missed, but one does not lightly substitute Mecca for Jerusalem.

Wright's tone was more irksome than his surprising failure to grasp the idea that Sharia law grows like kudzu wherever it gains a foothold, precisely because Islam does not make the Christian and Enlightenment distinction between church and state. Moreover, the under-remarked aspect of Wright's "you people just don't understand" defense is that it's lifted from the same playbook that some Episcopalian and Anglican leaders have used to criticize conservative African bishops who think homosexual conduct is sinful even if a bishop in New Hampshire says differently.

Wright does not explain how people who allegedly misunderstand the Archbishop of Canterbury can nevertheless grasp the overtly theological language in the Book of Common Prayer. Similarly, too many of the voices raised against Nigerian prelate Peter Akinola and his allies stop just short of suggesting that conservative African theologians would agree with progressive churchmen if only they had a little more seasoning and a lot more practice at reading between the scriptural lines.

Snootiness is not unique to the Anglican Communion, of course. At least one Catholic bishop objects to a more accurate translation of liturgical prayers on the grounds that accuracy might be "pastorally challenging" and "hard for ordinary churchgoers to understand." But there are more reasons to call balderdash on the benighted idea that an interview aimed at barristers ought not also be bandied about by barkeeps, ballerinas, and perhaps even bosun's mates on banana boats.

Had Rowan Williams been as technical as Tom Wright claims he was being, he would not have shared his thoughts so willingly with a non-specialist at the BBC. Had the people arguing with the archbishop been as immune to nuance as Wright seems to believe they are, Williams' cautious advocacy of Sharia law would not have been parodied as quickly and skillfully as it was.

Even the left-leaning Guardian, hardly a bastion of lawyers or theologians, correctly paraphrased his assertion that laws are not just instruments of control, but also public affirmations of "the affiliations that people owe to one another."

In short, we must look to none other than legendary lisper Daffy Duck for a deft description of the defense offered by the Doctor of Divinity in Durham, because it's "dethpicable."

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.