This lunchtime I had the privilege of hearing The Rt Revd Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester (who you will know by now I admire) speak to an audience of mainly Civil Servants at St Margaret’s Church Westminster.
These are my impressions of the lecture and what the Bishop said, to the best of my recollection. I do not have shorthand so this is not to be treated as a verbatim and faithful transcript.
First we were welcomed by the Rector of St Margaret’s to what is to be the first in a series of lectures by theologians on topics of interest to government.
He introduced the Bishop to speak on Faith and the State.
Bishop Michael opened by saying that it was good to be here and that these lectures are a wonderful initiative. He joked about the Speaker’s Pew (Speaker of the House of Commons) to his left in which by tradition no one is to sit without the Speaker’s written permission. He said that he knew that the Speakers perks were in the news, but that particular one had never been mentioned.
He spoke briefly of his situation, being Bishop of Rochester a diocese which covers much of Kent and South East London, and also his work “over the road” in the House of Lords where he will be later this afternoon.
He said that he had some observations to make on how faith is “popping up all over the place”. This is an important question for people in daily life.
He believes that the spiritual dimension in life is innate, part of our human nature. But faith also has a social dimension, which we could call religion, which binds people together.
Every society across the world has, or until very recently had, a belief system.
In the House of Lords they have been considering matters affecting the beginning and end of life, mental health and mental capacity. These problems cannot be resolved solely by appeal to public opinion. We have to apply moral and ethical considerations.
Faith also has a prophetic dimension, about challenging society on matters such as freedom from oppression.
He said that the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, have always had a lively attitude to this. But that it does exist in the other religions, and that for an example Buddhism and Sikhism were founded in part as a result of challenging caste.
However this prophetic dimension is not always benign. He must admit it now, religion can and does go wrong. It is not unique in this. Many things can go wrong, patriotism can go wrong. It can become chauvinism based on ethnicity as well as religion.
The charge is often made that religion causes conflict.
Yes it can, but it is not unique in this. If we look at the big conflicts of the 20th century they were secular, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot even Sadamm Hussein harked back to a form of 20s/30s fascism which was secular.
We live in a world where our faiths have to be accountable, hence the need for dialogue with each other. But dialogue not just to make us feel nice about each other. Faiths have to be accountable to one another and at the bar of world opinion.
Islam and Christianity come to mind as both are missionary faiths, expanding across the world such that we now live cheek by jowl. This brings great opportunities for friendship and for conflict.
He spoke of a trip to Kaduna in Nigeria where he was taken to a bridge and shown that this side is the Christian area and that side was the Muslim area and that should a crisis occur he was told do not cross the bridge. Thus Christians and Muslims have to be particularly concerned to talk to each other.
Turning to the question of the relationship of faith to the state, what should it be? The UK is formed by Christianity.
He mentioned a judge he had known in the Pakistan Court, Mr Justice Cornelius who was a Roman Catholic but who referred to himself as a Constitutional Muslim because he knew that if law was to develop in Pakistan the influence of Islam had to be understood. His own notion of an Islamic state was one where people are enabled to be good Muslims but not coerced.
Both Christians and Muslims have been tempted into the direction of theocracy. He wonders why anyone would think that human rule can be identified with that of God. We are not God!
In Christian state there have been intermediary institutions, the medieval guilds, the universities, even the monarchy.
In Islam there has been the Caliphate or the Muftis who issued fatwas, and not every fatwa has been negative, also the Sufi orders.
He considered the question of the relationship of faith to what he called “government by consent” as the term “democracy” is often misunderstood in some parts of the world.
It is a matter of contributing to politics. There is an Afghan institution where the Pashto elders come together, and he believes this can be extended to include women and younger people to make contributory consensual decisions. There are similar institutions in the Arab world which can be used to facilitate participation.
The relationship of Faith and Law.
Law must have moral force if it is not to be tyranny. Many people without faith can be very moral, more so than some believers.
He considered Sharica law, where the relationship to law is different in different countries. In some countries of North Africa it is an inspiration for their law. In some countries it is the only law.
He said in his view the question the question of Sharica should be raised in the context of religious conscience. Lawmaking can take into consideration that believers have to follow their conscience. Beyond that, in the way that Sharica law is constituted it can go no further without tremendous conflicts. We cannot have bigamy as a crime for one, but not for another. Likewise law about divorce, children, inheritance and evidence are in conflict. Believers may bring the moral code behind their faith but this is not the same as accommodation in another legal system.
Faith and Conflict
Christianity has a place for pacifism and also for the concept of the Just War which has to re-thought within the context of current unconventional conflicts. In Islam they have the concept of jihad.
It is one of his dreams that one day Christians and Muslims will discuss Just War and jihad and explore circumstances when military intervention can be justified.
There was time for some questions from the floor.
Q How did you come to faith?
A My family were mostly Muslim but my father was Christian. In Pakistan when I reached tertiary education there were three options, to be a Muslim, to ne a Marxist or to be a Christian. But my main influence, in so far as it was my decision and not God speaking, my main human influence was a university chaplain. At the University of Karachi at that time religious chaplains were not permitted on campus, not through prejudice against Christians but to keep fundamentalists out. This man was very resourceful, he enrolled as a post graduate student. They couldn’t keep him out. He made Jesus come alive for me and showed me a vocation to the ministry.
Q On the position of Biblical principles and how they relate to what he has just said.
A We should be guided by Christian principles, human dignity, equality cannot be settled when we appeal solely to utilitarian principles. We are all made in God’s image.
Justice should be rooted in a spiritual tradition, and not rely merely on the use of punishment as a deterrent.
Q On the subject of a decline in morals and an increase in street crime.
A He referred to the wonderful work of Street pastors. He said “I couldn’t do it”. And that we must make efforts to strengthen the family.
He spoke of seeing a near Dickensian scene in Rochester, which is a Dickensian city, one cold winters Sunday evening, of young people gathered round a lamppost. They had a curfew in reverse, they were not welcome at home until after 11pm, for reasons such as not being welcomed by their Mother's new partner. Hence his firm belief in the need for solid families.
There was an opportunity for tea and conversation afterwards.
I was in a group where we were able to discuss with the Bishop the possibility of reform of Islam and some of the effort being made in that direction which may or may not have a chance of success. The current Turkish initiative to work on the ahadith came up as did the alternative interpretations of jihad. It can genuinely mean “spiritual struggle” which was a Sufi interpretation. There was a school of thought in the 19th century which took it to mean a struggle to improve social conditions. There is also the school which believes that, as an armed conflict jihad is only appropriate when Islam is under threat and I got the impression that Bishop Michael thinks that work on that theme might prove worthwhile.
He is quietly impressive, a good sense of humour, approachable and interested in people. I have heard someone special. Pray for his wellbeing and safety and that of his family.