Dear Rowan

Reading 1:

Human Family
I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.

The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.

I've sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I've seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.

I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I've not seen any two
who really were the same.

Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.

We love and lose in China,
we weep on England's moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we're the same.

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

~Maya Angelou


Reading 2:

The Body of Humankind
Norman Cousins

I am a single cell in a body of billions of cells. The body is humankind.

I am a single cell. My needs are individual, but they are not unique.

I am interlocked with other human beings in the consequences of our actions, thoughts, and feelings.

I will work for human unity and human peace; for a moral order in harmony with the order of the universe.

Together we share the quest for a society of the whole equal to our needs,

A society in which we need not live beneath our moral capacity, and in which justice has a life of its own.

We are single cells in a body of billions of cells. The body is humankind.



Over the past few weeks, you have probably noticed the sudden prominence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan William. His bearded visage has graced newspaper covers that more commonly bear the images of people whose lives we know altogether too much about. People like Amy, Britney, Paris, Kate, Pete. Today, of course, it is not wisdom and balance that gets noticed. Rowan Williams was vaulted into the glare of the public spotlight in the uproar that followed his remarks about Islam’s Sharia law and its potential place in British life and law in a lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice on 7 February 2008. 

I raise the topic of this controversy with some trepidation. This is a difficult and emotionally-charged issue.  While I will express one view of the Archbishops speech, there is ample room for others legitimately to hold very different views. I welcome your opinions and will be happy to speak directly with you or perhaps lead a discussion on this topic if there is interest.

In his speech, Williams was said to have welcomed some kind of relationship between the British legal system and Sharia – Islam’s system of jurisprudence.  The public response was immediate, angry, and it was harsh.  Williams was castigated.  He was accused of ‘selling out’ his own church. He was called every kind of name imaginable and ridiculed for his statements, his competence, his manner, his erudition, and even for his appearance.  His resignation was demanded by several prominent figures within the Church of England.   

What’s going on here?

The Archbishop’s speech was a complex, academic work. It was not easily accessible or understandable, but then I don’t honestly believe that most of his critics paused to actually read it carefully. In his speech, William touched on some very subtle issues and interacted with important yet nuanced philosophical arguments. In essence, Williams was asking how, given that we live in a largely secular society, we can uphold the right to religious freedom – a right that is also an important part of our enlightenment values.  He recognises, as we all should, that there can be clashes between religious freedom and secular society.  Since Sharia governs aspects of Islamic life that are also affected by the secular legal system, it is clear that conflicts will arise and that we can not afford to ignore those areas of difference.

And so Williams wishes to explore ways in which Sharia and other religious systems can be accommodated with the fabric of our secular society.  It is at this point that alarm bells go off for many and angry fingers race over computer keyboards to craft acerbic condemnations.  It’s important to point out, though, that the Archbishop very clearly and strongly emphasised throughout his comments that actions taken to protect and accommodate religious freedom should not and can not in any way be permitted to limit the freedoms that are guaranteed by secular law. Indeed, his approach was much more thoughtful and nuanced than they have been portrayed.

One particularly thoughtful objection that has been raised to Williams’s comments is that religious groups are already free to enter into private agreements based on their own religious teachings. This assertion then suggests then that there is little to be gained from a more deliberate relationship between Sharia and secular law – even for the Muslim community. This point is important because it leads us to a key, but subtle aspect of Williams’s argument.  The Archbishop opposes keeping religion entirely private.  In fact, he believes that such a wall between religion and secular society is exactly what produces fragmentation of society and to extremism and insularity among minority religious communities.  It is this separation, he claims, that contributes to abusive and extreme applications of traditional religious customs.

Instead, Williams argues, bringing Sharia into the public eye and under the influence of the British legal system opens it to accountability and public scrutiny.  This kind of interaction between religious and secular systems in the open public discourse is what the Archbishop is leaning towards.

Does this description sound anything like what the vitriolic commentators have described?   

What they have been saying has less to do with what the Archbishop actually said and much more to do with a visceral response to the word Sharia and to a pervasive unease about the effects of immigrants – and particularly Muslim immigrants – on British society.  When we hear ‘Sharia,’ we are understandably prompted to think about the worst we have heard – forced marriages, brutal punishments, women deprived of the most basic rights…  This is not a fair characterisation of Sharia.  Sharia is not a set of laws. It is not a legal code.  Rather, it is a process. The horrors we know so much about are not fiction – unfortunately. But they are not all there is to Sharia. Moreover, Williams is not calling for Sharia to be anyone’s law in Britain.  Rather, he is calling for engagement, for open discussion, for exploration of how different ways of life can interact and be accommodated in one society.

And you know what? While open engagement across differences may sound easy enough, it’s not.  

One of our great Unitarian ministers, the Welsh-born Rev. A. Powell Davies whose ministry in Washington DC in the United States drew thousands to his congregation and to Unitarianism said this

"There are times when I stand aside and wonder at the strangeness of this world of ours. The years of all of us are short, our lives precarious. Our days and nights go hurrying on and there is scarcely time to do the little that we might. Yet we find time for bitterness, for petty treason and evasion… Here we are---all of us---all of us upon this planet, bound together in a common destiny, living our lives between the briefness of the daylight and the dark. Kindred in this, each lighted by the same precarious, flickering flame of life, how does it happen that we are not kindred in all things else? How strange and foolish are these walls of separation that divide us!... 

In this congregation with its diversity of beliefs, of backgrounds, of age, colour, sexual orientation, ethnicity, class, ability and more…  Even in this congregation, where we know that we are committed to treating one another with respect and to an understanding that there is no single right answer, even here, these walls of separation do continue to divide us.  It is extraordinarily difficult to speak openly about our individual differences.

And how could it be otherwise? Human beings have a need to make sense of the world. We need to find constructs and understandings and values that give us a structure within which to view life and upon which we can rely to make decisions. Can you remember a time when the assumptions and beliefs upon which you rely were shaken? I think of this experience like being in a lift and having the cable suddenly snap – everything supporting your worldview is suddenly gone. The floor falls out from under you and suddenly nothing makes sense – there is nothing left to stand on.

It is the experience of having your faith in humanity shattered when you are lied to or abused by someone you trust.  It is the experience of witnessing the unfairness of the world when something very bad happens to someone very good and finding your faith shaken to its foundations.  It is the experience of finding that all you have worked and struggled for – once attained – turns to dust in your hands.

Isn’t this why sharing how we differ is so difficult? Opening our minds and hearts to different world-views creates the possibility that we will be influenced by them – that they will call the anchors and foundations of our own views into question.  And so it is natural to resist.  It is natural to steer clear of viewpoints that are very different from our own.  Our natural tendency is to protect ourselves by avoiding the subject altogether.  It is much easier to talk about polite matters.  It is even easier to share our personal joys and pains than to get so close to the fundamental bases of our way of being.  And when we are exposed to a true, encounter with difference, we often respond by erecting a psychological barrier of denials and arguments to ensure that the ground upon which we are standing remains firm.

And yet, despite the obstacles, the work of understanding each other is deeply religious work that we must do. We must do it for others – for the friends in our community who long to be understood just as we do. 

We must do it for the strangers in our midst – whose ways and views may seem so foreign.  There can be no peace for any of us without this deep understanding. 

And we must do this work for ourselves. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates said.  We have come to Unitarianism in part because we have chosen not to live the unexamined life.  We have come because we are not willing to accept answers without questioning. We are seekers and explorers on the path toward wholeness and that journey calls upon us to ask hard questions of ourselves. If we fail to do that, we stop journeying – stop searching for the wholeness that we approach but know that we never fully reach.

This work is hard work and it is work that leads us toward growth and toward love. It is work that we can do together amidst the warmth of this community and especially in the safe, nourishing spaces we create in small groups of people committed to interact together in an authentic, deliberate, caring way. It is work that leads us to the discomfort of shifting foundations and to the far deeper assurance of our connectedness to one another and to all life.

I will close with Claire Batemen’s poem, Childhood of a Stranger, which evokes the depth of connection and understanding that lies beyond difference.

     You too once were carried in your sleep –
     you to someone a warm weight of breath and cloth.

     wisps of sleep like slow steam off your seamless face,
     day distilling into dreams in a skull yet soft.

     Now we are encrusted with barbed years,

     flinty, adamantine, ready to repel
     all assaults on our independence.

     But for that hint of honey, trace of down,
     that secret nerve that never has grown numb,
     there is a debt between us even now
     that our autonomy cannot remove: 

     a bent toward something more than tolerance,
     older than kindness, oddly akin to love.

So may it be with you.
Blessed be.