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Forum debate: Is Europe at its End? - Sant'Egidio International Meeting of Prayer for Peace

Monday 12th September 2005

A speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, delivered at Sant'Egidio International Meeting of Prayer for Peace - Palais de Congress, Lyons.

Europe is, historically speaking, an unusual experiment. It is a cultural and political community which has developed steadily towards a situation in which power is understood and exercised in a 'secular' framework; but that secular framework exists because of a set of religious and theological foundations, sometimes acknowledged, sometimes not.

Lord Acton, the great English Catholic historian and political theorist of the nineteenth century, said that the separation of Church and state was the foundation of all political liberty. It sounds like an extravagant or eccentric claim, but it deserves to be taken seriously. The Christian Church from the beginning has believed that it exists as a community witnessing to a future yet to be fully realised. It speaks of the gift of God's Spirit as an arrabon, a pledge and foretaste of things to come (II Cor.5.5, Eph.1.14). Its sacraments announce and make present what we believe the world will be when God's will is fully done. But although it thus points to, and indeed embodies the future, it recognises that it is set in a world where what has been promised is not yet realised. In the greatest classical work of theological reflection on human political life, Augustine's City of God, we are warned against thinking that God's future has arrived, against the danger of thinking that our hopes and longings can be satisfied here and now with what this world has to offer.

In the jargon of theology, it is eschatology, the doctrine of God's future, that makes the Church restless in the present; and it is thus eschatology that keeps the Church critical of the world in which it lives. The New Testament encourages us to work for the inclusion of all people and all nations within the community of Christ, but it is ambiguous as to whether this encouragement gives us any grounds for thinking that such a universal inclusion will be realised. Many texts in the gospel suggest that Christ does not guarantee that there will be a period before the world's end when all are brought into the Church. So there is an expectation in the Christian mind that there will almost certainly be a lasting gap between the way the world is organised and the supernatural reality of the Church's common life. The Church offers a 'citizenship' distinct from any kind of belonging in a merely human political community. It lives by a distinct power and ethos; the citizens of the Church are not, as the early Christian Letter to Diognetus says, distinguishable by dress or speech, yet they are foreigners in the present political world, 'the soul in the body', secretly giving life and meaning to the world around, yet never identified with it.

The Church works with a system of authority and accountability distinct from that of the state – sometimes co-existing, even co-operating, with it, sometimes in conflict with it, as the experience of the martyrs testifies, and the witness of Christian leaders who challenged secular rulers in the name of the Kingdom of God. The authority of the state is therefore always being questioned by the very fact of the Church's existence. It cannot be seen as ultimate; it is open to challenge, debate, reconstruction, and its authority has to be justified. And if it is in this way a 'penultimate' reality, if it does not have the absolute and final claim on the lives or integrities of its citizens, it is inevitably oriented towards a measure of tolerance and plurality. As Protestant theologians like Karl Barth and Ernst Wolff argued in the mid-twentieth century, Christian theology implied that the state had lost its sacred quality and that human beings were thus enabled to start debating what 'political virtue' might mean, what ways of conducting public business were just, defensible and capable of nourishing a fuller set of human possibilities.

This is what Acton meant, I believe. Once you have recognised the distinction between the Church and any particular political system, you declare that political systems do not have automatic religious sanction and thus that political liberty, plural convictions and practices, are to be expected in public life and need balancing and negotiating. States may or may not work by Christian principles, they may or may not succeed in realising certain Christian hopes and values; Christians will work with them – and against them at times – to persuade them to a greater fidelity to these priorities and values, but they will not set their final hopes on what can be achieved here. Christian political involvement may be passionate but it will also be sceptical and realistic.

Of course, this is not by any means how Christian history has always worked out. The Church, composed as it is of sinful human beings, has typically made various sorts of mistake. At times it has indulged the fantasy that the future has come, that the system by which the world is ruled has now become identical with the rule of Christ in history. Some of the Eastern Christian world during and after the reign of Constantine came dangerously close to this; Western Christians in later ages were always (fairly or not) suspicious that the Byzantine and Russian Empires had fallen into this error. At times, though, Western Christians too have fallen into different errors, as Lutherans have justified the divine rights of whatever system of power may be in operation at any given moment, and Anglicans have defended the idea that only monarchy can possibly be accepted as a legitimate form of government, since it alone is divinely sanctioned.

But the history of Europe is the history of a culture in which, because religious authority has always remained distinct in principle from state authority, the ideal of a politics of questioning and creative adjustment and change has slowly taken shape. Political arrangements have never been beyond question. The way this has developed, especially during and since the Enlightenment, has taken a shape which often looks deeply hostile to religious faith; but the paradox which the secularist fails to see is that this vision of a free and self-determining political life, this classical liberal vision, is what it is primarily because of the particular religious faith that moulded Europe. Without the eschatological focus of the Christian Church, it is not at all clear where the impulse would have come from that released political life to be its secular argumentative self. And principled comprehensive secularism simply risks becoming another unquestionable ideology, another kind of sacred system, refusing challenge and visible difference or variety.

We forget very easily just how strange the Christian vision was against the background not only of the ancient Mediterranean world but in relation to all ancient societies. Political authority is religious authority in the pre-modern context; modernity may have turned savagely against Christianity, but it would not be what it is without it. The very fact that the Church has so regularly been drawn back towards a glorification of state authority witnesses to the force of the ancient assumption. And the great tyrannies of the twentieth century, while violently anti-Christian, can be seen as powerful 'pseudo-religions' in that they claimed absolute sanction for their ideologies and disciplines.

Europe's distinctive identity, then, is a 'liberal' identity, in the broadest meaning of the word: a political identity which assumes that argument and negotiation, plural claims adjudicated by law, suspicion of 'positivist' notions of political power, are all natural, necessary features of a viable and legitimate communal life in society. But the crucial point for the Christian is the conviction that this 'liberal' identity is threatened if it does not have, or is unaware of, that perpetual partner which reminds it that it is under a higher judgement. Unless the liberal state is engaged in a continuing dialogue with the religious community, it loses its essential liberalism. It becomes simply dogmatically secular, insisting that religious faith be publicly invisible; or it becomes chaotically pluralist, with no proper account of its legitimacy except a positivist one (the state is the agency that happens to have the monopoly of force).
The Christian sense of what matters about European identity, then, is not about some mythical unity between the faith and the historic culture of Europe, a 'Christendom' picture. Nor is it to insist that what is now politically defined as Europe cannot expand beyond the boundaries of what were once the Christian nations of the continent. It is to argue that the bold experiment of a political life that is not sanctioned by comprehensive religious power, a political life that is not held to be in some way sacred, should continue to leave space for the voice of its critical partner, the community of faith, to be heard. This means a willingness on the state's part both to safeguard religious liberty (and not to assume that the state can legislate for the religious community) and to enter into some sorts of partnership with the community of faith. It should be willing to entertain collaboration in education, social care and community regeneration, allowing its own goals to be questioned and informed by the agenda of faith, without submitting to any kind of religious tyranny. That is, in the argument and negotiation of public life, the voice of communities of faith can be heard without anxiety or fear of a takeover by religious zealots.

This may help us think through the relationship between the 'modern' state and Islam in a new way. Islam, of course, begins from a different starting point from Christianity. The Muslim umma is inseparably a religious and a political reality, and Islamic political thought seems to have no obvious place for the kind of separation of powers that has been seen as the consequence of Christian theology. Yet in historical practice, there has been differentiation between the responsibilities, within the one umma, of preacher and ruler; some sense of a gap between the community at prayer and the community in legal and administrative mode, and of the need at times for one to challenge the other. Clearly in a non-Muslim society, interesting issues arise over this; and contemporary Muslim legal scholars have given increasing attention to them in recent years. We should not assume that the only valid or serious Muslim position is that which is usually expressed in terms of working for a universal 'caliphate', the restoration of a practically homogeneous social order under the governance of a religiously-legitimated ruler.
So that the presence of Islam within Europe, whether in the shape of significant minorities or through the presence of a majority Muslim state, need not be seen as an insoluble problem for what a Christian might see as the European identity. Islam, in such circumstances, is invited to become, along with the historic religious communities of Christian Europe, the critical friend of the modern state, asking awkward questions, forming partnerships. This does suggest the challenge to Islam to continue formulating new ways of understanding itself in a non-Muslim environment; but not some wholesale abandonment of its reflective theological history.

In short, my hopes for the future of Europe are that it will continue to be a culture of question and negotiation – because I believe that this is the way it is truest to its Christian roots. But given the enormous dangers of a dominant secularism, a denial of the public visibility of religious commitment and its role in managing and moulding social identity, I hope for a political climate in Europe that is open to co-operation between state and religious enterprise. If this does not happen, the state becomes unselfcritical in its godlessness and religious communities become isolated and defensive; they too lose the capacity for critical awareness. For Islam – and other religious traditions – to join the Christian churches in the work of co-operating and negotiating with 'secular' states is the best hope for the avoiding of an extremism and violence fuelled by the resentful sense that faith is not taken seriously in the public realm.

© Rowan Williams 2005

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