The response to the Archbishop tell us much more about our society, media, politicians and (even more sadly) our church than it does about him and what he said. His main failing ”“ and the costs of it are now enormous – amounts to an almost lethal combination of naivety in relation to the soundbite that would be taken from interview and opacity in relation to the lecture. The response is marked by prejudice (including against him ”“ the names of those calling for his resignation are no surprise to those who have followed certain conservative evangelical reactions to him since his appointment, despite the fact that his central argument is one with which they should have much sympathy), ignorance and misrepresentation. And yet, when such a storm results one has to ask why it has happened and its spiritual significance. The Archbishop has clearly touched a very raw nerve as did the Bishop of Rochester a few weeks ago. Interestingly, both of them made a very similar tactical error in relation to how to raise important issues through the media. The comment of the Archbishop of Canterbury in his interview referring to Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali’s article could now be applied to his own references to sharia ”“ “I think the phrase, because it echoed of the Northern Irish situation ”“ places where the police couldn’t go ”“ that was what it triggered in many peoples’ minds. I don’t think that was at all what was intended”. As with that earlier article from a different perspective, this latest incident is perhaps initially most revealing in relation to our attitudes to Islam.
However, like the lecture, the revelation perhaps also goes deeper. What we have witnessed in the last few days is not only the inability of our secular society (especially in and through the media) to think seriously about an important issue. We have also been shown our inability to understand the importance of religious commitments and communities in and for our public life. Deeper still we have had demonstrated our refusal to consider that we need God even for the apparently simple task of understanding ourselves as a society and discerning how we can live together in our diversity of cultures and faiths. Rather than acknowledging this failure to comprehend and seeking to listen, to understand, to dialogue and to learn, our response ”“ from the Prime Minister down – has been one of immediate distortion, disbelief, dismissal and disdain to the Archbishop of Canterbury. It therefore looks like our common off-the-shelf understandings of ourselves are indeed ”˜not adequate to deal with the realities of complex societies’. In fact, what the reactions of the last few days have clearly revealed is that our public life and our ability to communicate and reason together as a society faces much more widespread, deep-rooted, pressing and serious challenges than the narrow question of how best to respond to sharia law. It is these challenges, starkly revealed by the ill-informed hysteria of recent days, that, along with the issues the Archbishop’s lecture has so accurately highlighted, we urgently need to address through reasoned and civil public discussion.