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Williams resists calls to resign over sharia row

Andrew Grice
Monday 11 February 2008 01:00 GMT

The Archbishop of Canterbury has rejected calls for him to resign over his controversial comments about sharia law and will face down his critics in the Anglican Church today.

A deepening row over Dr Rowan Williams's suggestion that the adoption of parts of Islamic legal codes in the UK "seems unavoidable" will overshadow a meeting of the Church's ruling General Synod in London. The Archbishop, who has denied calling for "some kind of parallel jurisdiction to the civil law", is expected to mention the affair in his presidential address.

Some traditionalists may table a motion calling for an emergency debate about his remarks. Although two members have called for him to resign, he is likely to win the strong backing of the Synod.

But some senior figures said Dr Williams's standing as the Church's worldwide leader had been diminished, adding that this would make it harder for him to broker an agreement to resolve a deep split over the role of gay clergy, on which he is a voice for moderation.

Yesterday, there was little sign of an end to the controversy which he sparked in a BBC interview and speech last Thursday. His predecessor, Lord Carey, took the unusual step of criticising him directly. "There can be no exceptions to the laws of our land which have been so painfully honed by the struggle for democracy and human rights," he said. "His acceptance of some Muslim laws within British law would be disastrous for the nation."

But Lord Carey, who has spoken to Dr Williams, said that the Archbishop should not resign and was "a great leader" who was "horrified" by the reaction sparked by his comments.

Archbishop Gregory Venables, who is responsible for Argentina and most of South America, said it was a surprise for Dr Williams to talk about sharia at such a sensitive time for the Church. "It would just add to the general sense that confidence in the leadership of the Anglican Church has plummeted," he said.

But Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, defended Dr Williams' right to speak out and said he had been misunderstood. Although he is wary about the introduction of sharia law, he added: "I think he did raise a point of considerable interest and concern at the moment."

The Rev Giles Fraser, the vicar of Putney, told BBC Radio 4 that the media had descended on Dr Williams like a "pack of dogs without even trying to understand what he said". "That is the big moral picture here. There is something sinister about a culture that judges first and tries to understand later," he said.

Geoff Hoon, Labour's chief whip, said the Archbishop had not been wise to raise the issue. "Certainly there is a debate to be had about that but there cannot be any kind of debate about the single authority of our civil legal system and any confusion about that can only cause problems," he said.

Col Edward Armitstead, a Synod member from the diocese of Bath and Wells, said: "Rowan Williams is a godly, gracious and clearly very able person in many ways, but I don't think he's got the gift of leadership that the Church needs at this present time. It seems unfortunate that he has set this hare running when there are other things of perhaps greater importance for the Church to consider."

Alison Ruoff, a Synod member from London, said: "He is a disaster for the Church of England. He vacillates, he is a weak leader and does not stand up for the Church. I would like to see him resign."

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