Saturday, February 16, 2008


My latest contribution to the religious and civil law debate is Law, free religion and civic pluralism (OpenDemocracy's OurKingdom project exploring the future of the UK). This seeks to look at the distinction between the public role of voluntary associations in civil society and models of establishing or integrating religious interests or practices within systems of governance. I suggest that Rowan Williams' well-intentioned explorations are overshadowed by 'the Christendom mindset' and I follow Akhandadhi Das in his differentiation between the regulative function of civic law, which tries to establish common boundaries about what is acceptable, and the exemplary function of religion (and other life stances) which try to commend higher virtues and aspirations - though you wouldn't always know this, sadly.

The other important context for understanding Rowan's approach, as Nick Townsend, who teaches political theology on SEITE and STETS, has pointed out to Ekklesia, is the debate about the pluralist conception of the state grounded in the work of J. N. Figgis, G. D. H. Cole, the guild socialists, later strands of associationalism (and, I would argue, communitarianism). I do agree that this forms the backdrop to RW's understanding of pluralism. But I think it has a number of problems attached to it, including certain Whiggish assumptions about hierarchy, stability and the role of the church, that render it vulnerable to a privileging of organised religion which undermines both the freedom the theory espouses and the capacity of church to be truly radical. Put another way, it mortgages its ecclesiology and its understanding of civil society too much on a particular corresponding theory of the state.

I certainly do agree, as I mentioned at the end of my paper on Rethinking religion in an open society, that "Britain needs to move towards is a civic state rather than a market one" (Thatcher/Blair) "or a corporatist one" (old Labour/Butskellism). But I don't think that is best achieved by trying to pattern state functioning on the pre-existing make-up of civil society. Rather, the state has to be challenged and re-shaped from the ground up. A plural conception of the state can help in this, but in certain respects the way it has been attended to historically has been superseded by developments in postmodern organisational contexts. I will expand on this at some point. Sorry if it sounds too gnomic right now!

Meanwhile, I'm afraid I don't think Figgis lets the Archbishop off the hook of having his current discourse caught up too readily in the vested interests of the institution of which he is the figurehead, or, ironically, of being tempted by the role of "defender of faiths" he once warned Prince Charles against.

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