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Interview with Roger Bolton for The Sunday Programme on Radio 4

Sunday 27th January 2008

The following transcript of the Archbishop talking to Roger Bolton is from the Sunday Programme recorded at Liverpool Anglican Cathedral and broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

Roger Bolton: Last night Dr Williams gave a lecture here in the Cathedral on Europe, Faith and Culture. As you must know by know Liverpool is the European city of culture for 2008. The Archbishop argued that much of what we must admire in western culture such as concern for human rights, freedom of choice and thought, and democracy itself is rooted in Christianity. I asked Rowan Williams if he was irritated by the aggressive secularism that he identified as an increasingly dominant voice in our cultural life.

Archbishop of Canterbury: I suppose so yes. I am irritated by the assumption that no free thinking person can think otherwise. That, really all the thinking about human rights and human dignity as it were fell from heaven in the 18th century and didn't come from a longer tradition of thinking and reflecting about Christian themes.

RB: You also expressed, I won't say it, your displeasure/unhappiness/sadness perhaps that in the European constitution there isn't a specific reference to Christianity.

ABC: I think it is a pity really. As I said, I don't think it is a huge issue but I think that the reasons for not mentioning it in the preamble for the constitution were not necessarily very good reasons. I think that it was a sort of loss of nerve, its as if our roots in the classical world, the classical Mediterranean world were all that mattered or were as important as the Christian centuries and I didn't think that was truthful or honest and I would have liked that acknowledgement.

RB: You also talked about the relationship with Islam and said in part of your speech 'One of the tragedies of our time is that an Islamic world which has historically produced a vastly sophisticated material an poetic culture is threatened from within by those who acknowledge the bare words of the sacred text, divorced from learning and interpretation'. But given that is the case, what can we do about it? Can we do anything except watch?

ABC: I think we can go on conversing but many people in the Muslim world, probably the overwhelming majority – certainly the overwhelming majority of educated Muslims – would say we actually need some support, some deepening, some strengthening in resisting the sort of neo-puritan Sawafi wahabi trends which wipe out Islamic history and make Islam something rather barbaric.

RB: But how do we do that without making the Islamic world feel defensive without seeing you, and people like you, as representatives of a sort of western imperialism?

ABC: I think it can only be done through building up trust over quite a long period and some of the experiences over the last few years, internationally and nationally, has been an exercise in building that idea of trust. The experiences I have had with interfaith dialogue is that trust does come and that there are plenty of people who want to be friends and who want to engage in that level.

RB: You talk about 'over a period'. Some would say that there is an immediate problem, indeed Bishop Michael Nazir Ali talked about 'no go areas' in this country because of their concentration of Muslims. Do you believe there are such 'no go areas'?

ABC: Most of the people I talk to who are in areas of Muslim majority wouldn't say that that is an accurate characterisation.

RB: What do you think?

ABC: I have never lived in that sort of area. I have lived in a city with a very large Muslim population, in Newport, and of course I live in one now in London and 'no go areas' doesn't seem quite the way in which I would catagorize it either. I would say though that there is another kind of question you might almost put it the other way around. There are a lot of Muslims who feel that there are 'no go areas' in British society for them, and that is also something that needs to be addressed.

RB: Bishop Michael said that it is now also less possible for Christianity to be the public faith in Britain. That we are so keen perhaps to stress the multi faith nature of society, when we aren't stressing its secular side, that the primacy of Christianity is difficult now to assert.

ABC: Its still there in so many of our public rituals. It is still there in the fact so many communities regard the Church as a place to resort to in crisis or difficulty. I don't feel that anxiety so deeply. I feel it is still very much rooted in society and here in Liverpool it does seem to me that the Church remains something which without having power in society has credibility. It is where people look for certain things.

RB: Can I turn now to the question that must have dominated your life for what you may think is far too long, the Anglican Communion meeting at Lambeth in the summer, and are you worried that homosexuality will inevitably dominate?

ABC: What I have said more than once is that I want this conference if you like to do justice to the huge number of Anglicans for whom that is not an overwhelming issue. We really want to talk about mission, about development and questions like that. I want them to have the space to do it.

RB: It's not an overwhelming question for you? Do you think that it is given too much prominence?

ABC: I think that it probably is though it is inevitable living in a very sexualised society that these are the questions that most people get worked up about in these context. But part of the purpose of the Lambeth Conference is to remind Christians from Britain or the United States is that they are part of a world Church in which there are many other issues, life and death issues, that need attention, that need space, and if those are crowded out by our preoccupations then I think that is really not doing justice to our brothers and sisters in other contexts.

RB: What do you think is the best that the Lambeth Conference can achieve?

ABC: Two things that I am hoping and praying for. I hope that we will be able to have a good serious look at what structures we need to avoid the kind of confusion we have had over the last couple of years. That we will actually look hard at the ways we manage conflict, the ways we meet and how often and who. I think that the last few years have shown us that somehow there is a bit of a lack of confidence in how we do our business together, we need to get that back. The second thing is that I would hope that both ends of the spectrum will say we are willing to take a step forward and make some concessions to stay together; so if the American Church is willing to say 'Alright we won't rush things' if the African and other Churches are willing to say 'We won't instantly condemn'.

RB: Finally, can I turn to the question of the National Holocaust memorial ceremony. Why is it important? Why do we need this memorial day?

ABC: Memorial days aren't just about information. They are about somehow beginning to identify yourself with the story that is being told and, just as for Jewish people it is important to recover your identity as part of a people who have been appallingly, cruelly mistreated, so I think for the whole of our western society we need to recover our identity as a society which once allowed this to happen. I know it is an odd comparison in a way but just as we continue in the Church to commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus every week or every day in our ceremonies because it is a story that we want to be part of; so I think Holocaust memorial day is saying that is our story and that we still need to look into that and recognise that we are capable of making a world in which such things happen.

RB: And the Christian Church is capable in many ways of aiding and abetting that?

ABC: The Christian Church must bear its share of responsibility for creating an environment in which it was possible to see Jews as less than human. Now I don't think it is solely the Church's fault but the Church cant escape from that recognition.

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