Williams is dangerous. He must be resisted

You say,” said Lord Napier (confronted as Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in India by locals protesting against the suppression of suttee) “that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”

The present Archbishop of Canterbury is no Napier. He was not, however, proposing tolerance for the wilder excesses of Sharia, let alone suttee, in his speech on Thursday. Rowan Williams is not in favour of letting people stone adultresses, or chop off thieves' hands, or force the marriages of daughters. He made it clear that a line must be drawn. But he failed to say why or how. And it is that failure that marks what I hope is just the incoherence - but fear may be the disingenuousness - of the Archbishop's argument.

It is not useful, it is not even interesting, to begin an argument on whether Sharia should be given some kind of status within British law, unless you think there are otherwise potential conflicts. I am not aware of speeches by Anglican clerics stoutly defending the proposition that the rules of chess, or football, or the Caravan Club, or Boodles, or indeed the governance of the Church of England, should be permitted sway within their own domains by British law. They already are. No defence is called for. They challenge nobody and nobody challenges them.

Only when rules agreed among a group's own members (let us call these “private laws”) sit uneasily with the spirit of the law of the land (let us call this “the general law”) does any issue arise. Hence (for example) the controversies about smoking in private clubs, or the exclusion of women, Jews or blacks from private-members-only organisations. Unless, therefore, Dr Williams is proposing that elements of Sharia should be tolerated even though they appear to conflict with the general law, he is saying nothing interesting.

They do conflict. And what happens when they do? The moment a private law appears to defy the general law, one question, and one alone, becomes central. It is the question of consent.

But not the consent of the group's members alone. Consent must be examined on two fronts. Of group members, of course - and first - we must ask: is consent real, unanimous, complete? Is there duress? Is there undue influence? How about children? Who truly speaks for the group? What opportunities are offered to opt out? These are the questions about which we agonise, for example, when looking at the practices of cults, or members of sects who oppose medical treatment.

Secondly, we examine the impact upon (and therefore consent of) citizens outside the group. Are the rights of any of the rest of us prejudiced? Is confidence in public morals damaged? Such are the questions we debate, for example, when looking at the position of a Jew who feels a right to be considered on an equal basis for membership of a golf club; or the health risks to barmen in clubs where members smoke; or the effect upon society as a whole of the knowledge that there exist clubs where members nail each other's penises to the floor for fun.

These are difficult questions and by no means always to be decided in favour of state and against private laws. Some “voluntary” cessations of liberty may be allowed in the interests of liberty itself. Some threats to the general interest are too slight or indirect to sway the decision. There are usually questions of degree, and we are right to agonise. But nowhere is our national discomfort with private laws more intense, or more justified, than when dealing with religious groupings. There is a sound reason for this, and it, too, centres around consent.

Faiths capture people. I do not mean this disparagingly. So of course do patriotisms, ideologies, families. But a religion, properly understood, makes profound claims on an individual and community, quite unlike the demands of a golf club. It involves the use of public places and public services, the subordination of the individual's will; and may demand that he subordinate his spouse's and children's wills too. Hence our unease about duress, and the completeness of “consent”.

Dr Williams, in a welter of words, makes no serious attempt to resolve this. Those who read his speech properly will see that his entire argument turns upon the freedom of the group member to “opt out” of the “supplementary jurisdiction” and choose British law instead. But repressive faith groups make it culturally difficult - sometimes well-nigh impossible - for a member to opt out. This gives them the very togetherness and focus that Dr Williams wants to foster.

A religion is more than a collection of rules and habits: it is a complete moral and philosophical system with deep claims upon the inner and outer life of the adherent, from cradle, through schooling, and beyond. The rules it lays down - the private laws - are of a more commanding kind than the rules of Scrabble or the High Peak Hunt because they are morally joined-up: joined with a loyalty beyond the State; joined within an overarching faith and its explanations of the Universe.

Dr Williams knows this. He preaches it. It is the reason he wants more autonomy for faith communities. And it is the reason we should resist him.

Many commentators are mistakenly seeing demands like the Archbishop's as “liberal”, “progressive” or “PC gone mad”. They are anything but.

Properly understood, the effect of devolving national law and national morality to local and group level is profoundly conservative. Dr Williams's ideas really represent the wilder fringes of a bigger idea: communitarianism. Communitarianism can come in a surplice, a yarmulka or from a minaret and is all the more dangerous because armed with a divine rather than a local loyalty. It almost always proves a repressive and reactionary force, fearful of competitors, often anti-science, sometimes sceptical of knowledge itself, and grudging towards the State.

There is absolutely nothing “left-wing” or woolly-liberal about empowering it. A Britain in which Muslim communities policed themselves would be more ruthlessly policed, and probably more law-abiding than today. But it would be a Britain in which the individual Muslim - maybe female, maybe ambitious, maybe gay, maybe a religious doubter - would lose their chances of rescue from his or her family or community by the State.

The State, not family, faith or community, is the guarantor of personal liberty and intellectual freedom, and it will always be to the State, not the Church, synagogue or mosque, that the oppressed individual needs look. Some two centuries ago Nonconformism in Britain, by offering the individual an unmediated approach to a personal God, started to liberate Christians from the Church. Dr Williams seems not to understand this. Or perhaps he does, and is on the other side.

Matthew Parris