Critics within the church marvel that a man of such intelligence could misjudge the public reaction so badly.
“It has been an own goal,” said one bishop. “I’m disappointed because it makes Rowan look silly. People stopped at a certain point because they heard the term sharia.
“It sounds as if the Archbishop of Canterbury is saying, ‘Let these Muslim people do their own thing’, and this is, of course, not what he is saying. Who on earth was advising him? Anyone could see that a speech mentioning sharia would create its own headlines.”
As has been his habit from his days as an academic, Williams did not consult widely on the lecture, preferring to work alone. He did, however, discuss its content in the broadest terms with his fellow primate John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, and a number of Muslim scholars.
He told friends that he found the reaction to the speech “all very unpleasant”. When pressed on why he had raised this issue now, he said it was so important to prevent further isolation of the Muslim community.
He said he had been drawn to the subject of “religious conscience” by the recent row over whether Catholic adoption agencies should have to accommodate same-sex couples and questions about Ruth Kelly’s suitability to be a cabinet minister when it emerged that she was a member of Opus Dei, the Catholic group.
Yet his erudite and heavily caveated exposition of his ideas was lost in the moment that he evoked sharia.
He regards it as part of his role as leader of the church to address issues from which others shy away and which may make him unpopular.
Indeed, this week he risks raising the ire of ministers again by voicing his opposition to plans to extend the detention without charge for terrorist suspects to 42 days.
Last year he was accused of exaggeration when he suggested that America wields its power in a way that is worse than Britain during its imperial heyday. He claimed that Washington’s attempt to intervene overseas by “clearing the decks” with a “quick burst of violent action” had led to “the worst of all worlds”.
The problem with his intervention in the debate about inter-faith relations was that his true message was almost completely obscured.
Some within the church – already upset by his favourable attitude towards gay rights – regard him as terminally wounded. In the age of quick and easy headlines, can the church be led by such an unworldly figure? This weekend there were calls for him to resign.
“He is a disaster for the Church of England. He vacillates, he is a weak leader and he does not stand up for the church. I would like to see him resign and go back to academia,” said Alison Ruoff, a Synod member from London.
That prospect is unlikely. Williams told friends this weekend he would not resign and he cannot be sacked for doctrinal or political reasons. He can, if he likes, remain in his post until his 70th birthday in June 2020.
This weekend he may look to the past for comfort. In March 1556 one of his predecessors, Thomas Cranmer, was burnt at the stake in Oxford for expressing unpopular views.
Williams may reflect that at least a media firestorm is nothing like a real one. Read more
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