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Archbishop of Canterbury - 'Religion culture diversity and tolerance - shaping the new Europe

Posted on: November 8, 2005 10:25 AM
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The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams last week visited the European Institutions in Brussels the visit culminating with a call on the President of the Commission, President Jose Manuel Durao Barrosa on Tuesday afternoon.

In the course of a three-day visit Dr Williams held meetings and consultations with politicians and officials from the European institutions and delivered a major lecture - Religion, culture, diversity and tolerance - shaping the new Europe.

The visit comes two months after Dr Williams addressed political and religious leaders at a conference organised by the Sant' Egidio community in Lyons, where he spoke on questions raised of the European political institutions by faith communities and also took part in a forum on the future of Europe.

The Archbishop was accompanied by the Rt Revd Geoffrey Rowell, Bishop of the Church of England diocese of Gibraltar in Europe.

The Text of the lecture is as follows.

Recent discussions about the admission of Turkey to the EU have brought into the open all sorts of concerns about the historic Christian identity of Europe; and these in turn have given a little more focus to the wider issue of what exactly Europe thinks itself to be in the current global context. In what follows, I want to suggest a way of understanding Europe's Christian heritage that may open some doors for a common vision. Our international situation is at the moment deeply uncertain and fluid. There is widespread impatience with transnational institutions, from the EU to the United Nations, yet equally widespread anxiety about the dominance of a single power. We are increasingly aware of the issues that cannot be solved by single sovereign states on their own - ecological crisis, terrorism, migrancy - yet are uncomfortable with any notion of global jurisdictions. We in the Northern/Western sphere are conscious of facing (to put it as neutrally as possible) a highly critical, if internally diverse, global 'opposition' in the shape of the Islamic world, and we do not know how best to respond to its presence outside and inside our own borders. Enlightenment liberalism, the self-evident creed of reasonable people, now appears as simply one cultural and historical phenomenon among others. Its supposed right to set the agenda for the rest of the world is no longer beyond question, however much the American Right or the European Left assume that their positions are the natural default beliefs of intelligent human beings, and that cultural and religious variety are superficial matters of choice or chance.

The solution requires us first to retell the history of Europe. What we mean by 'Europe' culturally speaking tends to be the complex of civilisations and language groups brought into political relationship by two factors - the great Germanic, Turkic and Slavonic migrations that destroyed the Roman Empire, and the emergence of new institutions that sought to salvage the legacy of that empire. Among the latter, the Christian Church is quite simply the most extensive and enduring, whether in the form of the Western Papacy or of the 'Byzantine Commonwealth', the network of cultural and spiritual connections in Eastern Europe linked to the new Roman Empire centred on Constantinople. As some historians have argued, the emergence of Islam in fact produced a third competitor for the imperial Roman legacy; but we shall be returning to that notion later on.

In the West, the new Germanic kingdoms, governed by tribal law and feudal obligation, engaged in a centuries-long conflict with the renewed system of centralised Roman administration whose supreme court of appeal was the Pope. For the Roman-centred Church, the fact of Christian identity was a theoretically universal thing, which made it possible to legislate across cultural, linguistic and economic frontiers, and which generated an international civil service. Throughout the Middle Ages, the two models jostled, bargained, quarrelled and reshaped each other; by the sixteenth century, a new configuration was emerging, as the political world we recognise as 'modern' was born.

Although some scholars in the last century and a half have argued as if the battle had been between a damaging centralism and a healthy local independence, the truth is much more complex. The Roman system worked on the basis that any local jurisdiction was subject to a higher law; the local power of a monarch or an aristocracy could not be the last word, and tribal or familial loyalties should not determine people's possibilities. It was this spirit that, for example, enshrined the principle that consent was necessary for a valid marriage, challenging, if only implicitly, some of the prevailing assumptions about the status of women. It was this spirit that, in the hands of Thomas Aquinas, reserved for citizens the right to criticise, and even in some circumstances to replace, a monarch on the basis of universal law.

At the same time, the problematic result of the system was a legal language that gave no place to concrete local tradition and the networks of semi-formal mutual obligation which actually make up specific societies, and a stress on the absoluteness of the ultimate sovereign court as religiously sanctioned.

The Reformation produced a new map of the political territory. The evolving nation-states of Europe were eager to appeal to local sentiment in support of new levels of political independence, affirming the right of the state to assert its own jurisdiction as beyond appeal. The Roman Catholic Church emerged as still a resolutely international body as against the new national churches of the Reformation, but with no very clear account of how it saw the legitimacy of the new states. In due course, the final revolt against traditional forms of authority, feudal or ecclesiastical, led to the Enlightenment model of universal secular legality - the principles of the French Revolution and, in modified form, the Napoleonic Code. Both Catholic universalism and the remnants of 'common-law' custom and mutuality were removed from public life in the name of a universal system of legally conceived equality and freedom, divorced almost entirely from religious sanction.

Now the point of this rather breathless (and by no means uncontroversial) tour of Western European history is to try and identify what the argument is that has made Europe the way it is. The history just summarised tells us that the conflict of the so-called Dark Ages, the encounter between the tribal kingdoms and the Church, the tangled relations of common law, canon law and Romanised civil law guaranteed that political power in Western Europe was always a matter of negotiation and balance. Despite what some historical caricatures have maintained, sovereign state power in Europe was never consistently treated as a sacred thing. Political power is answerable to law and to God, and it is therefore right in some circumstances to challenge it.

This is what I should regard as the central conviction of political liberalism (as distinct from theological or social liberalism) - the idea that political life can and should be a realm of creative engagement. It is not, notice, a principle simply of democratic rights, nor of individual liberties; it affirms rather that loyalty to the state is not the same thing as religious belonging: not that the state has no claims, but that it is a mistake to see those claims as beyond challenge in any imaginable circumstances. And in this sense, to the extent that Europe has pioneered such 'liberalism', Europe is what it is because of its Christian history.

Let me elaborate this a bit further. The Church of Christ begins by defining itself as a community both alongside political society and of a different order to political society. Its membership is not restricted by race or class or speech, and in that way it puts questions against the absoluteness of any local and tribal identity. Yet it does not seek to set up another empire on the same level as the Roman imperium. It has 'citizens', but their citizenship is not something that requires them to set up societies in rivalry to the existing systems. Until the state makes ultimate claims which Christians cannot obey, Christian citizenship is largely invisible; in the Roman Empire, when the Emperor requires worship from citizens, the hidden potential for dissent appears. Martyrdom establishes the distinctiveness of Christian belonging over against all other kinds.

That model of an alternative citizenship is what gradually produced the systems of ecclesiastical law. But when the Western Empire collapsed, it was only the Church that retained any sense at all of a unifying legal frame of reference.

But this means that Western modernity and liberalism are at risk when they refuse to recognise that they are the way they are because of the presence in their midst of that partner and critic which speaks of 'alternative citizenship' - the Christian community. What I have been arguing is that the distinctively European style of political argument and debate is made possible by the Church's persistent witness to the fact that states do not have ultimate religious claims on their citizens. When the Church is regarded as an enemy to be overcome or a private body that must be resolutely excluded from public debate, liberal modernity turns itself into a fixed and absolute thing, another pseudo-religion, in fact. It is important for the health of the political community that it is able to engage seriously with the tradition in which its own roots lie. To say this is not to demand the impossible, a return to some past age when the institutional Church claimed to dictate public policy. But without a willingness to listen to the questions and challenges of the Church, liberal society is in danger of becoming illiberal. Wholesale secularism as a programmatic policy in the state can turn into another tyranny - a system beyond challenge. The presence of the Church at least goes on obstinately asking the state about its accountability and the justification of its priorities. It will not do to forget that the greatest and most murderous tyrannies of the modern age in Europe have been systematically anti-religious - or rather, as I have already hinted, have become pseudo-religions.

What I am arguing is that the virtues we associate with the European identity, the virtues of political liberalism in the sense I have outlined, will survive best if they are seen as the outgrowth of the historic European tensions about sovereignty, absolutism and the integrity of local communities that were focused sharply by the Christian Church and its theology - a theology that encouraged scepticism about any final political settlement within history.

It is, of course, such engagement that the draft European Constitution envisages; and this needs to be affirmed and held on to. But we should also note one important implication of the model that has been sketched so far. If the state ahs no sacred character, it is not the sole source of legitimate common life: intermediate institutions, guilds, unions, churches, ethnic groups, all sorts of civil associations, have a natural liberty to exist and organise themselves, and the state's role is to harmonise and to some degree regulate this social variety. This 'interactive pluralism', rooted in the liberalism of thinkers like Acton, Maitland and Figgis, would see the healthy state neither as a group of suspiciously coexisting groups, nor as a neutral legal unit whose citizens all possessed abstractly equal rights, but as a space in which distinctive styles and convictions could challenge each other and affect each other, but on the basis that they first had the freedom to be themselves.

While it is essentially hospitable to the stranger and the migrant, it has to confront the risk that it may find itself being hospitable to some sort of bid to alter the foundational idea of Europe as a sphere of 'liberal' interaction between communities within the frame of law.

And this, of course, raises the spectre that haunts so much of our discussion, the fear of a militant Islamic ideology that seeks to replace liberalism with a new theocracy. I noted earlier that Islam itself was culturally and historically one of the systems that replaced the Roman Empire, providing - only now on a profound religious base - the same sense of belonging in a single culture of equality and justice. To be a citizen of the umma was to be assured in principle of belonging to a reality for which nationality and class were irrelevant to the theological and legal status proper to a believer. It is true to say that Islam is in its most robust historical form, both 'Church' and 'state'; and thus it is a challenge to any Muslim to make sense of living outside that unitary reality. The uneasy and sceptical relationship between the political community and the community of belief that has characterised the Western Christian world (and often even the eastern Christian world as well) is at first sight largely foreign to Islam.

Yet in fact Islam has had a history outside its historic majority cultures. It has had experience of negotiating its way in other settings. Its celebrated principle that there is no compulsion in religion means that it is not absolutely and theologically committed to an imposition of specifically Muslim law even in majority contexts - or so some would argue. The work of Muslim thinker like Tariq Ramadan on the identity of Western Muslims spells out some of the principles by which a Muslim identity outside a Muslim majority state can be understood. On the basis that cultural habits that do not directly conflict with Islamic precept become Islamic in virtue of being practised by Muslims, it is possible for a Muslim to see his or her Western cultural identity as integral to their Muslim identity. There is, says Ramadan (Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, p.53) no single 'homeland' for Muslims: they can be at home in any geographical and political environment, and they need to avoid 'self-ghettoization', becoming 'spectators in a society where they were once marginalized' (55). They need to be arguing and negotiating in the public sphere. But the acceptance of such argumentation is undoubtedly a development, as Ramadan agrees - a necessary recognition of distinctions between primary and secondary concerns in social life, a following-through of principles rooted deeply in classical Muslim thinking about ijtihad, the labour of interpretation (43-48). In modern conditions, this labour is something needed not simply in the context of jurisprudence within Muslim society, but in relation to an irreversibly plural and complex environment.(65-77). Ramadan can even say - surprisingly for the Western reader - that the Muslim distinction between religious and social authority, between what is enjoined for the good of the soul and what is ordered for the stability of an external environment, is really much the same as the Christian distinction between Church and state. What is different is that the Islamic world has never gone so far as to sanction the absolute institutional separation that emerged in the Christian world (145).

I have devoted some time to Ramadan's discussion of Muslim identity in the West partly for its intrinsic interest and partly to reinforce the main argument of this paper. 'Europe' has introduced into the cultural map of the world a particular habit of argument, a particular recognition of diversity which carries with it also a certain recognition of the limits of the state's authority. By denying to the state an unquestionable freedom to reshape the conditions of social life, by giving place to arguments that call the state to account in the name of a higher law, this political and philosophical tradition assumes that the political realm will always be one in which mediation and mutual listening will be normal and in which law exists as a means of such mediation. Where the state is not an essentially religious unit and where the religious community does not seek to become a universal executive, diversity is inevitable. However, this does not imply the necessity of relativism, or of what is sometimes called 'consumer' pluralism (the availability of a plurality of lifestyle choices). If religious communities are acknowledged as participants in public argument, they are bound to some level of creative engagement with each other and with the secular voice of the administration, so as to find a solution that has some claim to be just to a range of communal interests.

We misunderstand our situation, then, if we imagine that the world's current problem is a neat binary opposition between a totalising religious culture (Islam) and a single 'enlightened' or 'democratic' world of rational neutrality. The reality is a lot more interesting - and it is interesting precisely because of the theological roots of modernity. A Muslim thinker like Ramadan helps us to see that, while it was Christianity, for a variety of internal reasons, that crystallised in its most extreme form the idea of the state's relativity and secular character, Islam itself acknowledges the same tension between levels of human identity and aspects of human virtue and implies the same liberty of criticism against specific political systems. But both equally allow that loyalty to these systems is not inconsistent with the loyalty of faith; commitment to the lawfulness of the processes of argument in a society and acceptance of the outcome of ordered negotiation is presupposed by the political ethics of both traditions. Without that, we should simply revert to the ghetto ethics from which Ramadan is seeking to liberate his co-religionists.

But we cannot leave the subject without revisiting the dangers of a secularism that is equally forgetful of history. The political style that seeks to keep religious communities in the private sphere, insisting that religion is always and primarily an individual option related only to the supposed wellbeing of that individual and like-minded private persons, is at risk, as I have said earlier, of becoming itself a pseudo-religion, a system that is beyond challenge. A mature European politics will take another route, seeking for effective partnership with the component communities of the state, including religious bodies. It will try to avoid cresting ghettoes. It will value and acknowledge all those sources of healthy corporate identity and political formation (in the widest sense) that are around.

And perhaps this is the central contribution to be made to a future European identity by the Christian tradition. It challenges the global socio-political juggernaut - consumer pluralism combined with insensitive Western promotion of a rootless individualism, disguised as liberal democracy. It affirms the significance of local and intentional communities, and their role in public life. It is able to welcome the stranger, including the Muslim stranger in its midst, as a partner in the work of proper liberalism, the continuing argument about common good and just governance. When it is allowed its proper visibility, it makes room for other communities and faiths to be visible. By holding the space for public moral argument to be possible and legitimate, it reduces the risk of open social conflict, because it is not content to relegate the moral and the spiritual to a private sphere where they may be distorted into fanaticism and exclusion. For Europe to celebrate its Christian heritage in this sense is precisely for it to affirm a legacy and a possibility of truly constructive pluralism. And for the Church to offer this to Europe (and from Europe to the wider world) is not for it to replace its theology with a vague set of nostrums about democracy and tolerance but for it to affirm its faithfulness to the tradition of Christian freedom in the face of the world's sovereignties.

© Rowan Williams 2005