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Category - "Natural justice":

Woolwich, Language and Religious Lives: Taylor Carey


In 2011, the BBC’s Reith Lectures bore the title ‘Securing Freedom’.[1] Re-reading them recently, the theme struck a fresh chord in light of the horrifying murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, killed outside his Woolwich barracks in May. Freedom presupposes a measure of security, poignantly violated on September 11th 2001, but – as Manningham-Buller began to argue – equally put at risk by the temptations of power. If desiring an excessive curb on civil liberties might be excused as a temporary reaction to appalling tragedy, a clear head would nonetheless quickly identify its intolerable dangers. Yet now, three years later, we find ourselves haunted by the unsavoury echo of Nixonian paranoia: the growing scandal surrounding NSA surveillance in the United States and abroad, and evidence of duplicity and corruption at the heart of executive agencies in the United Kingdom. Amidst the increased security, our freedom seems as threatened as ever.

At the centre of it all, another tragedy. Another young man’s life wasted, grief and pain brought to yet another family. Lee Rigby’s attackers were deluded in their ideology, saturated with a venomous distortion of Islam which subordinated loving peace to violent command. Yet the sentiments they echoed pose worrying questions for democratic citizens today. How, in a state blessed with stability, peace and relative prosperity, can lives fall so far through the net? How can communal frames of reference still contain within them the possibility of the violent rejection of societal norms?  And how can narratives of religious and political fanaticism become so persuasive and alluring to those who walk our streets and grow up in our cities?

In this regard, the secular vocabulary finds itself curiously outmoded. ‘Evil’, as N T Wright has gone to some length to show, is routinely misunderstood.[2] Held at arm’s length for the most part as an anachronism in a disenchanted age, it is nevertheless heralded with dizzying frenzy by the tabloids, every time our assumedly self-evident sensibilities are brought into question. Evil in this sense is perhaps, at best, a manifestation of functionalist disapproval; a condemnation of irrational regress in the court of self-evident, reasonable progress. And whilst no-one would disagree that the slaughter of fellow human beings in wanton acts of violence showcases the worst of human nature, a secular vocabulary fails to grasp the essential problem it precipitates. Acts of gargantuan barbarity don’t lend themselves to neat digestion. Evil, as Rowan Williams puts it:

‘becomes a trivially emotive way of referring to what we hate or fear or just disapprove of…rather than a reminder of… the fact that there are aspects of human behaviour which we only make sense of when we say we can’t make sense; or of an awareness that the roots of motivation aren’t exhausted by what we…call reasons’.[3]

Wedded as it is to an uncritical narrative of progress, programmatic secularism tends to leave us ‘linguistically bereaved’.  ‘We are vulnerable’, says Williams, ‘because we have no way of making sense of the most deeply threatening elements in our environment’.[4] Moreover, our linguistic poverty finds scant cure in a discursive sphere utterly closed to transcendence. The net result is an ironic parity of both nervous secularism and religious fundamentalism; neither admits the possibility of viewing the world as ‘inexhaustible’ and already ‘seen’. Both attempt to categorise and control rather than disrupt and explore.

A secularism which thus monopolises transactions in the public sphere competes for space with, and feeds from, the insecurities of religious absolutism, which similarly seeks to regulate ‘acceptable’ speech. This leads to an often bizarre paranoia about religious expression – the banal debate about crosses in the workplace, for example. But, if we’re to take on board the warnings of those who, like Eliza Manningham-Buller, attest to the futility of a security strategy based on territorial claims (in the linguistic and political spheres as much as anywhere else), a serious reconsideration of our prevailing secular impulses is needed. Religious lives are negotiations of territory and environment. Gestures and expressions constitute responses to the world rather than arbitrarily adorned embellishments. Religious language admits the possibility of transcendence – and, as Williams points out, this encompasses most of what we would want to call, in any meaningful sense, ‘art’. Art invites interpretation and admits multiple perspectives. At least in this regard, art, music and poetic imagination are ‘non-secular’.

Imagination is a germane idea to discuss. After all, ‘terrorism’, however we might want to narrow its definition, is essentially a technique which utilises symbolic violence or threat to project political pressure. Al-Qaeda’s success depends in large part on the manipulation of public imagination – hence the necessity for spectacle on 9/11. The resulting paranoia incubates the creeping assumption that the tenets of Islamic religious community are essentially incompatible with Western democratic liberty, whilst, for Muslims, the imagery of siege and persecution is allowed to fester in the wake of heavy-handed legislation by secular governments. Viewed in this way, a ‘War on Terror’ not only becomes a nonsensical construction, but an astonishing strategic blunder for the West. The resolution of conflict, such as it might be, rests on elusive military success (thus ruling out effective closure), all the time playing into the rhetoric of persecution so widely disseminated throughout Islamic communities, and touted as an explicit justification for the Woolwich attack in May.

Here then, we return to the questions that the shocking attack in London’s streets pose. Anything like a sustainable and effective response must begin with an awareness of the role of imagination in shaping the narratives and discourses in plural public life. Simply amputating religious expression – following the tabloids’ lead by denouncing ‘evil’ as a momentary slippage in the otherwise plain sailing of progress – fails to engage with the complex social matrix from which manifestations of fundamentalism arise. A secular discourse tone-deaf to the imaginative concerns of marginal communities represents a very real form of fundamentalism to those for whom societal ‘progress’ seems a remarkably exclusive phenomenon – and not least those, like Rigby’s attackers, whose upbringings have been punctuated by a litany of squalid afflictions: substance misuse, alcoholism, abuse, urban decay and the effects of multiple deprivation.

If the temptations of fundamentalism creep into communities burdened with intractable deprivation because of a disdain for the bourgeois luxury of ‘imagining a better world’ (which serves only to mask particular interests), the nervousness in moderate and mainstream religious communities across the West is prompted by the loss of confidence in secular provision for public self-expression. Both scenarios suggest a basic failure of the secular political sphere to take seriously the realities of lives for which natural ‘liberty’ consists in responding to and negotiating with the ‘environment’, as understood from the particularities of religious conviction. This is a failure, first and foremost, to imagine a world that can be ‘seen’ in any other way; in short, a world increasingly closed to the possibility of sincere art, poetry or imaginative expression – or for that matter, human life. And thus we come full circle: programmatic secularism and religious fundamentalism make surprisingly comfortable bedfellows.

The death of another young person, full of potential and possibilities, does not deserve to be made instrumental to any line of argument. But, seeing Lee Rigby’s murder for what it was – a sickening and pointless slaughter – jolts us out of the false comforts of supposing linear societal progression. The answer to those who seek to twist imaginations into nightmares for the sake of dictating political change, is to use the very same imaginative capacity to build a public sphere continually open to argument, and thus beyond suspicion of harbouring oppressive ambitions. Securing freedom can never be a matter of slamming doors and holding tight; only in the endless humility of mature conversation can it be maintained and kept open to all.



[1] The BBC Reith Lectures, 2011, including lectures by the then-imprisoned Burmese political activist, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the former Director-General of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller. Access to the online archive can be found here .

[2] N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Illinois, 2006), pp.3-4.

[3] Rowan Williams, Faith in the Public Square (London, 2012), pp.11-12.

[4]Ibid., p.11.

Note by editor: The text is entirely Taylor’s; the illustration, however, was chosen by the editor who, like Taylor, read international relations at university and shares his interest in politics and the overlap with individual morality. Two related quotations – the price of liberty is eternal vigilance (authorship disputed) and Quis custodiet ipsos custodies – who guards the guardians themselves? – are often cited in this context, partly because there is no ‘correct’ answer: this is an occasion for judgment on a case by case basis, held under constant review. What do you say, dear readers?

Doctor Who, Star Trek and the Anglican Covenant

The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888 declared its support for:

“the Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church.”

Consciously, or more likely unconsciously, this formulation mirrored the understood rules of international diplomacy, time travel and natural justice. Since at least the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, it has been one of the tenets of international diplomacy that one nation should not attempt to impose its cultural norms on another. The collapse of colonialism could be said to be in part because the colonised nations were determined to  follow their own cultural norms without outside interference and reassert their right to ‘self-determination’.

And it is a recognised principle in science fiction. For example:

“In the universe of Star Trek, the Prime Directive, Starfleet’s General Order #1, is the most prominent guiding principle of the United Federation of Planets. The Prime Directive dictates that there can be no interference with the internal development of alien civilizations, consistent with the historical real world concept of Westphalian sovereignty.”

Similarly, the Time Lords in Doctor Who have a strict policy of non-interference. I am ready to be corrected by any SciFi buffs among you, but I think any attempt in science fiction to break this non-interference rule Leads To Tears Before Bedtime.

One could also say it is against the laws of natural justice:

Natural justice operates on the principles that man is basically good, that a person of good intent should not be harmed, and one should treat others as one would like to be treated.

This is the text of Section 4 of the Anglican Covenant:

4. Each Church affirms the following principles and procedures, and, reliant on the Holy Spirit, commits itself to their implementation.
4.1 Adoption of the Covenant
(4.1.1)  Each Church adopting this Covenant affirms that it enters into the Covenant as a commitment to relationship in submission to God. Each Church freely offers this commitment to other Churches in order to live more fully into the ecclesial communion and interdependence which is foundational to the Churches of the Anglican Communion. The Anglican Communion is a fellowship, within the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, of national or regional Churches, in which each recognises in the others the bonds of a common loyalty to Christ expressed through a common faith and order, a shared inheritance in worship, life and mission, and a readiness to live in an interdependent life.
(4.1.2)  In adopting the Covenant for itself, each Church recognises in the preceding sections a statement of faith, mission and interdependence of life which is consistent with its own life and with the doctrine and practice of the Christian faith as it has received them. It recognises these elements as foundational for the life of the Anglican Communion and therefore for the relationships among the covenanting Churches.
(4.1.3)  Such mutual commitment does not represent submission to any external ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Nothing in this Covenant of itself shall be deemed to alter any provision of the Constitution and Canons of any Church of the Communion, or to limit its autonomy of governance. The Covenant does not grant to any one Church or any agency of the Communion control or direction over any Church of the Anglican Communion.

(4.1.4)  Every Church of the Anglican Communion, as recognised in accordance with the Constitution of the Anglican Consultative Council, is invited to enter into this Covenant according to its own constitutional procedures.
(4.1.5)  The Instruments of Communion may invite other Churches to adopt the Covenant using the same procedures as set out by the Anglican Consultative Council for the amendment of its schedule of membership. Adoption of this Covenant does not confer any right of recognition by, or membership of, the Instruments of Communion, which shall be decided by those Instruments themselves.
(4.1.6)  This Covenant becomes active for a Church when that Church adopts the Covenant through the procedures of its own Constitution and Canons.
4.2 The Maintenance of the Covenant and Dispute Resolution
(4.2.1)  The Covenant operates to express the common commitments and mutual accountability which hold each Church in the relationship of communion one with another. Recognition of, and fidelity to, this Covenant, enable mutual recognition and communion. Participation in the Covenant implies a recognition by each Church of those elements which must be maintained in its own life and for which it is accountable to the Churches with which it is in Communion in order to sustain the relationship expressed in this Covenant.
(4.2.2)  The Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion, responsible to the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting, shall monitor the functioning of the Covenant in the life of the Anglican Communion on behalf of the Instruments. In this regard, the Standing Committee shall be supported by such other committees or commissions as may be mandated to assist in carrying out this function and to advise it on questions relating to the Covenant.
(4.2.3)  When questions arise relating to the meaning of the Covenant, or about the compatibility of an action by a covenanting Church with the Covenant, it is the duty of each covenanting Church to seek to live out the commitments of Section 3.2. Such questions may be raised by a Church itself, another covenanting Church or the Instruments of Communion.
(4.2.4)  Where a shared mind has not been reached the matter shall be referred to the Standing Committee. The Standing Committee shall make every effort to facilitate agreement, and may take advice from such bodies as it deems appropriate to determine a view on the nature of the matter at question and those relational consequences which may result. Where appropriate, the Standing Committee shall refer the question to both the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting for advice.
(4.2.5)  The Standing Committee may request a Church to defer a controversial action. If a Church declines to defer such action, the Standing Committee may recommend to any Instrument of Communion relational consequences which may specify a provisional limitation of participation in, or suspension from, that Instrument until the completion of the process set out below.
(4.2.6)  On the basis of advice received from the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting, the Standing Committee may make a declaration that an action or decision is or would be “incompatible with the Covenant”.
(4.2.7)  On the basis of the advice received, the Standing Committee shall make recommendations as to relational consequences which flow from an action incompatible with the Covenant. These recommendations may be addressed to the Churches of the Anglican Communion or to the Instruments of the Communion and address the extent to which the decision of any covenanting Church impairs or limits the communion between that Church and the other Churches of the Communion, and the practical consequences of such impairment or limitation. Each Church or each Instrument shall determine whether or not to accept such recommendations.

(4.2.8)  Participation in the decision making of the Standing Committee or of the Instruments of Communion in respect to section 4.2 shall be limited to those members of the Instruments of Communion who are representatives of those churches who have adopted the Covenant, or who are still in the process of adoption.
(4.2.9)  Each Church undertakes to put into place such mechanisms, agencies or institutions, consistent with its own Constitution and Canons, as can undertake to oversee the maintenance of the affirmations and commitments of the Covenant in the life of that Church, and to relate to the Instruments of Communion on matters pertinent to the Covenant.
4.3 Withdrawing from the Covenant
(4.3.1)  Any covenanting Church may decide to withdraw from the Covenant. Although such withdrawal does not imply an automatic withdrawal from the Instruments of Communion or a repudiation of its Anglican character, it may raise a question relating to the meaning of the Covenant, and of compatibility with the principles incorporated within it, and trigger the provisions set out in section 4.2 above.

I submit that these provisions are against the rules of international diplomacy, science fiction and natural justice. Is it bound to lead to tears before bedtime?

P.S. Alan Perry has written in a more detailed and much more scholarly way on the Anglican Covenant and Natural Justice in his blog, ‘Insert Catchy Blog Title Here’. I strongly recommend it.

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