Sharply Unclear

Via this Evolving Thoughts post, I found my way to a post on Language Log about The Archbishop, The Law, and The Press. It prompted me to do what I’ve been meaning to do for days, and read the actual text of the lecture by the Archbishop of Canterbury that so raised everyone’s hackles, including mine.

Having now read the lecture, I have to agree with Language Log’s assertion that the Archbishop did not specifically say that the inclusion of elements of Sharia within British law “seems unavoidable”. However, by my reading of the lecture, he seems to be proposing something which is just as bad, if not worse.

Why do I say “seems”? Well, the first thing to say about the lecture is that whatever the Archbishop is trying to convey is totally obscured by complex language and poor sentence structure. The Archbishop is clearly not a communicator even if he is an educated, intelligent and deep-thinking theologian. It is no wonder that he is so frequently misunderstood. Or is he?

My understanding of his lecture is that he believes that the law of the land needs to take the law of religion into account when dealing with an individual or group. He also seems to be saying that religious convictions and actions that are a matter of religious conscience should be dealt with differently when they conflict with the law of the land. He refers to the case of “medical professionals who may be asked to perform or co-operate in performing abortions” as an example. This is, of course, a valid point but the questions it raises regarding best practice and treatment do not seem to exist for the Archbishop. Nevermind the difficult, often asked question of whether a medical profession who refuses to perform a procedure (be it an abortion or scrubbing-in) because of their religious convictions should be practising medicine at all.

During the lecture much mention is made of Islam and Judaism and their treatment under law. In my reading of the text, you could substitute any religion for either of these. If you substitute the Church Of England, then the lecture is open to the interpretation that members of the Church Of England should be allowed to treat people differently because of their sexuality (ring any bells?). And this has a parallel in that under some interpretations of Sharia, it is acceptable for women to be treated as inferior. I don’t see how either of these positions can be accepted as tenable under any just legal system.

As I say, these are my interpretations of what the Archbishop says in a lecture which is weighty in content but light in both grammar and clarity. Others will (and have) interpreted his words differently. But whatever the interpretation I feel the Archbishop remains in error however well-meant his remarks were. Reading his lecture has not changed my belief that government and law must remain secular and must take precedence over religious dogma and interpretation.

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