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Transcript of Archbishop's BBC Interview with Sir David Frost in Sudan

Sunday 5th March 2006

The Archbishop visited southern Sudan, to offer support to Christian communities and to those projects relieving the suffering of the Sudanese. Whilst there he also gave the following wide-ranging interview to Sir David Frost for the BBC.

DF: Archbishop, you have a really fantastic welcome here, really at the first, first event, the first engagement of the al-Gariya displaced persons camp - there was real joy to see you there.

ABC: Well I think people here feel so forgotten a lot of the time because the effects of the peace agreement are so slow arriving, the number of displaced persons in this area alone is colossal so I think any signal - even the smallest - that, that they're not forgotten does impact on people here. One way and another, this area's been at war for decades, not just the big civil war but unrest that goes back as far as the Fifties. So yes it's a huge problem.

DF: And would you like to forge a closer union between the World Food Programme and the church?

ABC: One of the big areas of focus for this trip has actually been the cooperation that's going on in the Malakal area between the church and the World Food Programme...... we want to see what more can be done on the ground in the delivery of what the WFP has in mind. Food security - not famine relief - that is long term food security, to provide some sort of incentive for people to settle again.

DF: And Darfur remains a sort of extraordinary symbol of man's inhumanity to man.

ABC: Darfur is still clearly a running sore. Nobody has a quick formula for sorting it out. I think the difficulty many people find, or sense they find here in Sudan, is a feeling that some of the donors outside Sudan are waiting for Darfur to clear up before they can fully deliver on promises for the south and although that's not a completely accurate percentage, it's sort of skewing things a bit here, I think.

DF: And what do you see as the future for Sudan - do you see it mainly as construction rather than reconstruction.

ABC: It's bound to be a future of construction. As I say, infrastructure has to be put in place and there has to be, I think, trust in the national government. Because of the feeling of decades that, basically, the government has been run from the north for the north. The new government in the south, the people from the south that have been brought into the national government, need to display to the population as a whole that there is a worthwhile future for them in this collaborative enterprise. Now that means delivery; it means delivery of a fair share in oil revenues promised in the comprehensive peace agreement; it means access to food, employment, clean water, education and basic health care.

DF: Of course here in Africa we're in a fulcrum of the Church at the moment. Very much so, and Nigeria with its 17 million members and vows to double it in a few years and so on; why is the Nigerian church so successful? I mean what is it about their message that is working for the people of Nigeria?

ABC: An interesting question, which I'm not sure I can answer very comprehensively. But I think there are two factors - or perhaps three. The first is the Nigerians, as a nation, are hugely energetic and what they set out to do they want to perform well. And then, connected a bit with that, is an element of competition, a sense that Islam is on the march in that area, Christianity needs to get it's act together, it needs to send people out to untouched regions; it needs to create new territories for development and it has that kind of leadership, that kind of focus.

DF: This is predominately - here in Sudan obviously - a Muslim country, and I read this week in the British papers - and I quote - that in fact by 2012 - there will be more people in mosques in England than in fact there are in churches. How will that change your role, the role of an archbishop?

ABC: It's a lot more complicated than that, I think, isn't it? I mean I don't like playing with these predictions - the old story that in 1890 they were predicting by 1920 London Bridge would be six feet deep in horse manure definitely is a reminder of how little we factor in the unpredictable changes. As a matter of fact, church attendance in Britain seems at the moment fairly stable. There are lots of signs of growth in various areas. And, following on from that, however many people there are in the mosques in Britain, there's still a question, I think, as to what is the religious institution of first resort for the British people? Now culturally and historically I don't see that being the mosque in five years time. I think it remains true that the church on the ground is the basic network that the majority of people still want to plug into at moments of crisis or of challenge. Now that's something perhaps much less than full-fledged faith - yet, it's a bridgehead into the majority of the population.

DF: And in terms of the other end of the scale, The Sunday Times, Jasper Gerrard, had a headline saying "Pray tell Reverend when you will damn Muslim hotheads?" The feeling being that you had gone soft on the Muslim hotheads. Is that a fair comment?

ABC: No, not at all. I think that a lot of my own energy and the energy of a great many Anglicans in the last few years has gone into trying to build bridges to moderate Muslim opinion; strengthening precisely their own resistance to terror and violence. It's a process that my predecessor began very, very effectively and the annual conferences that we hold for Muslim and Christian scholars have been a significant way of reinforcing that moderate, mainstream Muslim resistance to their own extremists. I have no time for terrorism. I hold no brief for Muslim extremism. I think it's appalling; I think it's an insult to God and man. How are we going to make a difference when we apply the influence, the pressure that brings change? Well not just from outside but by engaging as best we can with Muslim opinion.

DF: And in terms of the huge fuss about the cartoons from Denmark. Eighty-six per cent of British people felt the Muslim reaction - or part of the Muslim reaction - was a "gross overreaction". Was there a gross overreaction in the response to those cartoons?

ABC: I think in some parts of the world there was hysterical overreaction, violent overreaction; but we then have to ask the next question - so why was this such an iconic issue? Why did it spark in the way it did?

DF: What's the answer to that?

ABC: It's a many-layered one. I think it has to do with this curious two-fold perception that Muslims in the West, and in the world generally, still feel they are at a disadvantage. We look outwards - we 'the British liberals, the right-thinking people' - we look out and we think Islam is strong, menacing, terrifying. Their own perception of themselves is that they're constantly being pushed to the edge of every discussion and every negotiation in the world. And we're not talking about terrorists but about the average Muslim.

DF: And in this context of a multi-faith country, can in fact Prince Charles be, as he put it, 'Defender of the Faiths' as well as head of the established church?

ABC: I hope that when he talks about being 'defender of faiths' what he means is that he'll have something to say for the public role, the public contribution of all faith communities to building a worthwhile society together. It's not the same thing as his historic role in relation to the Church of England, and that's perhaps a reminder that the Church of England still has this role of leverage, brokerage, presence, across the country, which is never very accurately estimated just in terms of the people who turn up on Sunday mornings.

DF: People who muse about your thoughts and so on, read your words, say that in fact the phrase you used earlier about 'a church of first resort', you would be quite happy for that to be the Church of England even if it was not Established?

ABC: I think that a great deal of what is meant by 'church of first resort' would survive changes in the legal position. But of course the, the complex side of that is that Establishment isn't just one thing - you can't just pass one bill, disestablishing the Church of England, you've got to unscramble a huge kind of cat's cradle of relationships, which is going to take a very long time. Now it's not, I think, at the moment something that's at the top of anybody's particular agenda. If the time comes for that legal relationship to shift, and it's almost bound to shift in bits and pieces, over time, I think the Church can weather it. But I don't feel I particularly want to go out campaigning for it at the moment!

DF: Does it, does it restrain you in any way - could you have said more about your feelings on the War in Iraq if the Church wasn't established? Or are you in fact free?

ABC: I'd regard myself as free there. You know, the constraints on the position of an archbishop, don't depend on government, I think. There may be circumstances where you think 'well if I've somehow got to find words that will make sense for the whole of this national community, then I've got to choose them very carefully'.

DF: People, for instance, wanted you to - some of them anyway -negotiate them an out for the Church of England in terms of the Civil Partnerships Act, similar to that that the Catholics got. Is that something you could have done more easily if it wasn't the Established Church?

ABC: In strictly legal terms, it would have been a lot more complicated to do that. I think what we ended up with was a situation which, to be honest, very few people in the Church are completely happy with but recognises that this is the law of the land, we have to define a position in regard to it, we are able to do so on the basis that the Civil Partnerships Act doesn't oblige us to change our doctrine about marriage.

DF: We were talking earlier on about the way in which the Church in Africa is a fulcrum and of course it's in the Church in Africa, and in particular in Nigeria, that's focused on the current controversy about gay bishops and so on. And on the one hand Archbishop Akinola made his memorable remark "We don't have to go through Canterbury to get to Jesus," - presumably not straight to your face, that wasn't, was it?

ABC: No, but I think if he had said it to my face I would have agreed entirely. (LAUGHS)

DF: And the situation does look in terms of their strong point of view, for the Church in Nigeria, someone wrote "Sexuality is a defining issue - they would leave the Anglican Communion if a non-repented American Church remained within it." And on the other hand the American Church seems to be unlikely to say yes to no more gay bishops and to repenting and so on. It does look to bring those two points ... together does seem to need a miracle really. Now, there's no one better at miracles than God, obviously, but, but what can you do?

ABC: Well you pray a lot.

DF: Yes.

ABC: I can try, I think, to find ways, as long as possible, of getting these two sides to make sense of themselves to each other. The biggest problem is people don't listen very much. That's, you know, that's human nature, and the Church is no exception. And so long as people are aware that they've enough in common to disagree, rather than just to tear it all up, so long as that's true, it's worth working at. Now the point may come where people say 'well we no longer have enough in common' and we may reach that point - I don't know. Meanwhile, my first priority is to try and keep the conversation going, to say 'do you understand why this matters?'.

DF: And it may have to walk apart, as one quote said. And I mean if in fact this issue led to a situation where a new formula was created that, let us say, was more of a federation, more of where each country, in addition to the freedoms they have now, would have a doctrinal freedom as well and Nigeria could have a different doctrine, perhaps, definitely, than American or whatever ... Now would a federation, or an umbrella, be practical?

ABC: I think we have to wait and see on that. There are other world churches, the Lutheran Reform Churches, which get on with a federal pattern. There's always been, I think, a higher expectation in the Anglican Communion, that we, we have more, more at stake than that. And of course what that means is that if there is rupture, it's going to be a more visible rupture, it's not just going to settle down quietly into being a federation. And, I suppose my anxiety about it is that if the Communion is broken we may be left with even less than a federation.

DF: Even less than a federation?

ABC: And there will have to be an awful lot of bridge-building; it would take absolutely decades to restore some sort of relationship there.

DF: Yes. At the moment is it that the majority of the Anglican Communion are quite clear that active gay relationships should not be blessed in church and actively gay clergy should not be ordained and that these are unwelcome new developments in America? I mean that would be the common view, wouldn't it?

ABC: That's very much the majority view. And I think on a matter of real substance like this, a matter that effects the interpretation of the Bible, the discipline of clergy and lay people, what actually the Church will bless in God's name; for a change on that I think we would need, as a Communion, to have a far greater level of consensus than we in fact have. Which is why the American determination to go it alone is worrying.

DF: And is the convention in June likely to be that moment of decision?

ABC: A lot rides on that and people have projected lots of expectations. I'll wait and see.

DF: And as if that was not enough, there's women bishops as well. But that is more under control, isn't it?

ABC: Never a dull moment in the Anglican Church!

DF: So will we see a female Archbishop of Canterbury in your lifetime? It depends how long you live....

ABC: It depends how long I live, I think - and I'm certainly not speculating on that!

DF: But at the moment the compromise - obviously while waiting for further developments in 2012 and so on - makes the women in the Church of England, the women clergy, slightly second class citizens, doesn't it?

ABC: There is certainly a feeling that if woman are priests it's an oddity to have a category of priests who could never be bishops - that's something which the Church hasn't ever had. Those against, I think, would say it's not a matter of seeing you as second class citizens, it's a matter of all sorts of considerations about the wider Church, about our relations with other Churches. But it's inevitable that women will feel this and will feel that they're being, if you like, fobbed off with something.

DF: Have the women priests who've come into the Church, have they enriched the Church do you think?

ABC: I think they have enormously. The level of pastoral care that women have brought has been universally appreciated - and, again, it's good to hear those who were opposed to women clergy on principle saying 'look we're not challenging the pastoral excellence and the theological excellence that's been brought by this'. It's not personalised in that way.

DF: There are many, many issues that face you every day......controversial issues...... David Irvine, the controversial historian, has been given three years prison in Austria for denying the Holocaust. Is that a hate crime?

ABC: I think it has to be really, I think it's the case always that words have consequences. People who live by words sometimes don't understand the practical consequences. At a moment when, for example, the President of Iran is able to say the things that he has said about Israel and it seems to regard the Holocaust as an arguable matter, words about the Holocaust aren't neutral. They're not just in midair.

DF: It's so often the balance between free speech on the one hand and respect for religion, or...

ABC: Well absolute free speech, you know, the liberty to say exactly what you want, to whom you please, at any time you want, has never really been the foundation of legal systems. What we've valued, I think, about free speech, as an ideal, as a political ideal, is that governments don't have the right to tell us what to think; and that, you know, that's entirely right and proper. And the encouragement of what I once called 'an argumentative democracy' is always a good thing. That within those overall recognitions it's possible to say things that have appalling consequences, we have to register those consequences. And as in our laws about racial abuse and racial hatred, we reckon the consequences of our words.

DF: Your colleague the Archbishop of York has spoken out strongly on Guantanamo, as have you indeed. Not just 'an anomaly', he said, but it's a breech of international law and a blight on the conscience of America. Your wording would be similar to that?

ABC: I think what we've got in Guantanamo is an extraordinary legal anomaly, as my colleague has said, creating a new category of custody with prisoners. These are not people who have been found guilty, and these are people who don't have the kind of legal access we would normally assume to be proper. Now precedents matter in law, nationally and internationally. Any message given, that any state can just over-ride some of these basic habeas corpus type provisions, is going to be very welcome to tyrants elsewhere in the world, now and in the future. Once again, words have consequences, policies have consequences. What, in ten years' time, are people going to be able to say about a system that tolerates this?

DF: In terms of your faith, do you believe there's a God or do you know there's a God?

ABC: I believe there is a God, with all the trust and the hope and the love that there is in me. I don't know that there is a God, in the sense that I know him sitting opposite me here in Khartoum. It's not that kind of evidence, but it's certainly, I think what people have called moral certainty; something that I would have to say I'd stake my life on when it comes to it. Now I say that blithely and hopefully, knowing with another part of my mind that in crisis none of us quite knows how we'd respond. But that's where the faith of a Church like the Church of Sudan is so important - I have seen people staking their lives on this - I can see how significant it is. I pray and hope that when it comes to the crisis I would have that courage.

DF: And will you carry on with this job 'til you're 70 or more? You can can't you?

ABC:I can, yes. I'll carry on with it as long as I believe God is giving me the strength and the vision to do it and I try not to think about how long. I try to think 'what have I got to do today and tomorrow?' Because that's what I'm asked to do like every believer. 'What's the rule of God now? What's the rule of God tomorrow morning?' And I respond as fully as I can.

DF: And, and when you contemplate the future, what is your vision of heaven?

ABC: My vision of heaven, probably best expressed, because I ... I like poetry, something like George Herbert's poem about love. "Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back, guilty of dust and sin." Heaven is complete unequivocal welcome, such as none of us can imagine. It's knowing that we are utterly at home where we were made to be. The Shakers of North America had that hymn "This a grace to be simple, this a grace to be free, this a grace to come down where you ought to be." And that coming down where you ought to be is heaven, I think...... and yet in that poem, of course, it ends with love saying "but I've dealt with all that," relax, you must sit down says love, and taste my meat, so I did sit and eat.

DF: Well it's been a joy to meet here in Khartoum and to follow you round on your very successful mission. And what would you hope would be the outcome of your mission here?

ABC: I hope that the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church here in Sudan will feel encouraged and affirmed and feel that we haven't forgotten them; that our commitment will take practical shape in the future; that we can help them do what they can do in building up a new country here. I hope too that being here will remind people in public life and the government of the international role of the Church and of the need to build a properly plural future where people of different religious communities have their freedoms.

DF: Archbishop, thank you very much.

ABC: Thank you.

© Rowan Williams 2006

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