Rowan Williams sometimes comes across as a rather out-of-touch academic who's heart is basically in the right place and all the fuss about his recent statements on Sharia law appear to support that view.
Basically he was arguing that as there are communities who have allegiance to religious law, they should be entitled to seek recourse in those religious courts if they choose. He approached the issue by looking at muslim communities in which courts of religious officials preside over judgements in civil matters and argued that there are circumstances in which that might be considered acceptable. Already, there are arbitration courts in the jewish religion to which jews can agree to be bound.
So why is he doing all this? What's the reason behind his apparent concern for Sharia courts and their role in resolving civil disputes?
Essentially he sees a dilemma. If christians want to have the right to opt out of certain legal requirements on the grounds of their faith, such as catholics refusing to pass on names of children to adoption agencies with gay clients, they cannot claim such rights exclusively. Now there's already case law defining such prejudicial actions on the part of catholic adoption agencies so any case for exclusive opt out from the law won't work. But if it's possible, on cultural grounds, to allow the use of Sharia courts, then parity would demand that there was a place also for opt outs for christians. Now that might seem a bit cynical - but it's certainly a consequence of permitting Sharia courts for civil cases, and one which, clever man that he is, Rowan Williams will understand only too well.
In recent years, the church has been spreading its tentacles throughout the state whether it's getting in on running more and more schools (just look at how many foundation schools have religious control) or increasing the influence of religious people in the cabinet. At the same time, there has been a clear secular broadside to the influence of religious ideas with the exposure of creationism for the archaic nonsense that it is, and the increasing challenge to the claims of the religious to have something useful to say in matters of ethics and morality.
RW is trying to use other cultures to bolster the case for special treatment for "people of faith" - a way of saying that those who hold irrational beliefs should be able as a result to opt out of certain parts of the law.
If these courts were guaranteed to have the same or better levels of justice than the state court system, people might be forgiven for thinking it's OK. But whereas civil and criminal law, even if a little arcane, is clear and open and determined. Sharia law is the subject of massive disputes and ranges between kindly elders offering advice to youngsters through to bigots with a grudge against women. By interpreting medieval documents as the will of an almighty being, and interpreting the text as immutable commandments, this is prejudice perpetrated on people bound by culture.
Rowan Williams, in his naive pursuit of getting the christian opt out from parts of the law, is willing to permit medieval prejudice (christian as well as other myths) to gain the legal status. Although he may come across as a misunderstood academic, what he is arguing for is nothing less than the subversion of the law under religion and it makes it more urgent than ever to argue for the separation of the church and state.
Ask yourself: do you want the law to be made by someone who believes there is an invisible supernature being listening to your every thoughts who will condemn you to everlasting torment if you don't behave yourself? If such ideas weren't already called religion, you'd want to keep them well away from your children!