The Anglican Church stepped in to defend the Archbishop of Canterbury last night after he faced fresh criticism from MPs, Muslim leaders and rights activists over his comments that the adoption of parts of sharia law in Britain was "unavoidable".
In a memorandum to MPs, the Church of England's parliamentary unit denied that the Archbishop had made any proposals for sharia to be operated as a parallel legal system with the courts in Britain and insisted that his remarks had been misinterpreted. "The Archbishop ... [was] exploring ways in which reasonable accommodation might be made within existing arrangements for religious conscience," said the memorandum.
Dr Williams had "sought to carefully explore the limits of a unitary and secular legal system in the presence of an increasingly plural society", it said, adding: "Behind this is the underlying principle that Christians cannot claim exceptions from a secular unitary system on religious grounds – for instance, in situations where Christian doctors might not be compelled to perform abortions."
The statement did, however, concede that the Archbishop had "indicated his assent" when it was put to him in a radio interview on Thursday that the application of sharia in certain circumstances seemed inevitable. It added: "He [merely] observed that certain provisions of sharia are already recognised in our society and under our law."
The memorandum came after a day of sustained criticism of Dr Williams's remarks, made in a lecture and the radio interview. David Blunkett, the former home secretary behind measures to promote integration of Muslims in Britain, condemned the belief as "catastrophic for social cohesion".
He added that the Archbishop's words were "very dangerous" because he had used the term affiliations. "We have affiliations to football clubs, to cricket teams, to all sorts of things that aren't central to our citizenship," Mr Blunkett said. "We don't have affiliations when it comes to the question of the law. And when it comes to equality under the law, we have to be rigorous in terms of making sure people do not find themselves excluded for cultural or faith reasons."
Two leading Church of England bishops said that any acceptance of sharia would cause problems in the English legal system. The Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, who has both a Christian and a Muslim family background, said all the codes of sharia "would be in tension with the English legal tradition on questions such as monogamy, provisions for divorce, the rights of women, custody of children, laws of inheritance and of evidence".
The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Rev Tom Butler, acknowledged that "formalising" the sharia courts already in existence in Britain "might be better" than the informal arrangement at present. But he added: "It will take a great deal more thought and work before I think it is a good idea. The Archbishop has a way with language, but this was a very heavy lecture."
Diana Nammi from the Iranian & Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation, which helps victims of forced marriages and those at risk of honour killings, said any suggestion of supplementary sharia courts would not be welcomed by Muslim women and said her group would fight for "one law for all" in Britain.
Shahid Malik, the Labour MP for Dewsbury, an area with a large Muslim population, said: "I haven't experienced any clamour to have sharia law in this country. If there are people who prefer sharia law there are always countries where they could go and live."
The Islamic Sharia Council claims to have dealt with 7,000 cases in its court in Leyton, east London. About 95 per cent of cases were said to involve divorce or financial disputes.