'We'd like to keep dialogue with Muslims open'

The Inquirer
Last Updated 24 October 2010, 16:53 IST

He plays a central part in the national ceremonies such as the crowning of the king/queen of England. The current chief, Archbishop Rowan Williams, the 104th prelate in a line that goes back more than 14 centuries, was on a 16-day visit to India.

Acknowledged worldwide as an outstanding theological writer, scholar and teacher, Archbishop Williams, during his stay in Bangalore last week, spoke to Rasheed Kappan and J X Anthony Nicholas of Deccan Herald on a wide range of issues, including Christianity’s relations with Hindus and Muslims, corruption within his Church, and his marriage to Jane Paul born in Kerala.

In the last century, many foreign missionaries mastered the local language, compiled dictionaries and edited earlier writings. But after independence, this yeomen service to the local culture and literature has died out...

Many local/tribal languages wouldn’t have survived if the missionaries hadn’t taken care to write them out and preserve them. I don’t know if that enthusiasm has got any less. But there certainly was a period when the missionaries were more suspicious of indigenous cultures, of allowing Indian traditions to be part of Christianity.

Caste among Christians in India has survived many missionary onslaughts. In Goa and Kerala, some aspects of caste apparently survived even the tyranny of the Inquisition. How do you see this trend?

It is true that a lot of churches are now led by the Dalits, by the Scheduled Castes. There is certainly a strong sense in the Church of South India (CSI) that its true identity has to be driven by the resistance to the principle of caste in the churches and caste discrimination. I don’t see how we can, as Christians, practise the holy communions by maintaining caste distinctions. In our scriptures there are no such distinctions.

What about your family links with India? Your wife was born in Kerala and she even wished to tour that state.

Her father worked here as a theological educator for 15 years and was principal of the Cannanore Theological Seminary. All the five children were born here. My wife left Kerala when she was about eight or nine. So we have maintained links. We still meet people who remember her father.

Are you opposed to abortion and contraceptives? If not, why?

I am opposed to abortion quite strongly. So is my Church. I believe that unique individual life begins at the moment of conception, and therefore abortion is the ending of a human life.
On contraception, my Church has never been so strict, not for at least nearly a century. In the 20th century, the Church of England and the Anglican Church around the world agreed that contraception is an acceptable way of limiting the size of the family. That is, artificial contraception by medication.

What is your take on the role of religion in public life?

I have argued in the UK that it would be possible, as it is here, for a certain kind of communal law to be recognised by the law of the land, without taking away any of the liberties that people enjoy as citizens. This way the state can delegate to a community certain problem-solving issues. When I spoke about the Shariat law for Muslims in the UK, that’s what I had in mind. The state can safely, from time to time, ask for certain issues to be dealt with under the personal law. To deny all arbitrations through community means would be to drive some of these processes underground. Then the processes would be run by people who are not very competent to run them.

Have your dialogues with British Muslims opened up a new thinking in dealing with radical elements in Islam?

In the last few years, I have tried to meet some quite strict Muslims. We’d like to keep those conversations open. It is a very small minority who create the difficulties. In most cases in Britain, Christians and Muslims live as neighbours, have common concerns and are prepared to cooperate about issues affecting their families, their livelihoods. There is a Christian-Muslim Forum in the UK which is meant to deal with those grassroots issues. That has been quite successful. We also organise football matches between priests and imams.

Church attendance is dwindling in the US, in the UK…

Church attendance in the UK is not very high. At the maximum, all the churches put together, it is probably around seven per cent of the population. However, 70 per cent of the population still identify as Christians. In many communities, even when people don’t attend church, the church is an extremely important agent of social care and social change. 

Has your controversial remark in Ireland in April that the country’s Catholic Church has lost “all credibility” because of its poor handling of the scandal involving paedophile priests soured ties with the Vatican?

Actually, no. The Catholic Church and I had recognised how serious it is, and have taken quite a few steps to remedy it. In England, the Catholic Church has been very, very active in countering these abuses. I think within their own Catholic churches people know these things, although a few people were angry at the way it was reported inaccurately.

Lack of a hierarchical power structure in Islam contrasts sharply with Christianity. How do you view this?

One of the difficulties which many Muslim scholars would recognise is that because of the Internet and so forth, almost anybody can set forth as an Islamic expert. My Muslim friends sometimes despair at the ignorant material that appear on public TV channels and the Internet from people who have appointed themselves as experts. I think this is a matter for the Muslim community to sort out. It is a basic problem in a highly democratic religion like Islam. There may be abuses like these.

If Christianity has abuses because of hierarchy, Muslims have abuses because of democracy.

(Published 24 October 2010, 16:53 IST)

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