The Archbishop of Canterbury: Hope at Lambeth Palace
by Akbar Ahmed
The proximity to a great spiritual master is always inspiring. And perhaps there are few masters as eminent as the archbishop of Canterbury.
On Oct. 8, 2012, my daughter Amineh Hoti and I had been invited to participate in what was probably the last major public event of the Most Rev. Rowan Williams during his ten-year engagement with Muslims as the archbishop of Canterbury. The event was held at Lambeth Palace, the archbishop’s London residence. The who’s who of Britain was there including the archbishops of Wales and Ireland, several bishops and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the first-ever female chairman of the Tory Party. Also present was my dear friend James Shera, MBE, a Pakistani Christian, the first Pakistani mayor of Rugby and the only Pakistani in the United Kingdom with a road named after him.
The lectures of the archbishop to Muslim audiences in Egypt, Libya and Pakistan had been compiled into a volume and translated into Urdu and Bengali. The translations were presented that day to the archbishop along with glowing speeches made by Muslims recording the contributions of the archbishop in promoting interfaith dialogue.
The archbishops of Canterbury have been at the center of English history. Their clashes with the reigning monarchs in attempting to preserve the primacy of the church are legendary. In the 12th century, Henry II prompted the murder of Thomas Becket in the church itself and Thomas Cranmer, who helped build a case for Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, was executed in the 16th century, but not before he compiled the English Book of Common Prayer. Balanced against this, however, have been the many occasions when the church has reached across sectarian lines to embrace those of other faiths.
Given this storied history of the position of the archbishop of Canterbury and his standing in British culture, it is significant that Archbishop Rowan Williams’ final public event would promote interfaith dialogue between the Christian and Muslim faiths. Special significance was given to Christian-Muslim understanding in Pakistan, and I had been asked to deliver the keynote address in the afternoon session.
We had lunch in the State Drawing Room where the past met the present. Thomas Cranmer looked down on us dolefully from a painting and a radiant Prince William and Kate Middleton had signed their picture for the archbishop.
In the middle of this most hectic of days, the archbishop graciously gave my daughter and me a private interview. He had always been a particular supporter of my daughter. He came to Cambridge to launch her book project “Valuing Diversity: Towards Mutual Understanding and Respect” at Michaelhouse, one of the oldest educational centers in the UK. The book is a valuable learning resource and useful tool to promote understanding. Some 2,500 schools now use it.
When I asked him what he felt was his greatest achievement after a decade as the archbishop, he talked of the educational development programs for schools. He has always been an advocate of faith-based development projects. His calm scholarly exterior was ruffled once only when I raised the issue of the dreadful film made in Los Angeles which insulted the prophet of Islam.
When I asked if he had a message for Americans about promoting better understanding with Muslims, he said, “We need higher standards of civility” and “we need a higher standard of public education.” Without these, society itself breaks down and all the efforts in interfaith dialogue are thus jeopardized.
He advised Americans “to watch Muslims pray.” When people watch others of different faiths in prayer we understand them better. It is the best way to build bridges. “Don’t see religion as a political entity but in its own context,” he said. Americans need to be in touch with Muslims including through the use of e-mails. That is one way greater understanding will be created.
The archbishop pointed out that the earliest translation of the Koran was carried out by a Benedictine monk 1,000 years ago in Europe. The aim was “to understand our neighbors better.” Even though the reception was generally negative regarding the Koran itself, at least it established the importance of scholarship in understanding the faith of others.
For Muslims, his message was that such films are no more typical of Christianity than the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks was of Islam. The actions of small groups like the film makers must not be allowed to draw the global community into conflict which leads to so many unfortunate deaths.
Looking back at the contributions of the archbishop at the end of his tenure as head of the Anglican Church, the archbishop will be perhaps best remembered in popular culture as the man who presided at Westminster Abbey over the most important wedding of this generation – the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. It was estimated that some 3 billion people saw the ceremony on TV.
But, he will also be remembered for his bold intellectual initiatives in interfaith dialogue which created so much controversy when he raised the issue of sharia law and its compatibility with English law. Britain was in uproar. Even prominent Muslim leaders – in both parties – attacked the idea. The sharia controversy confirmed that here was a man of extraordinary intellect prepared to take logic where it led him.
But it convinced both Christians and Muslims that this man was a sincere explorer of the truth regardless of the path it took him on, well suited to his next position as a master of a Cambridge college.
The archbishop was justifiably proud of his record in interfaith dialogue. He told us that whenever he is in Europe people point out that the UK is a model of interfaith understanding and ask him how can Europeans replicate the model.
Thanks to his goodwill Muslims at this final gathering felt completely at ease among their warm and welcoming Christian hosts.
At the end of the day, the Rev. Rana Youab Khan, the assistant to the archbishop in interfaith matters and the first Pakistani in history appointed on the staff of the archbishop, insisted on showing us Pakistani hospitality. Khan takes pride in the fact that he was educated in a madrassah in Pakistan. He is playing a vital role himself in bridge-building between the two civilizations. He talks of the archbishop with a mixture of awe and adoration.
Khan showed us around Lambeth Palace and its beautiful garden, the largest in London after Buckingham Palace. A large lush green fig tree in the main courtyard was given as a present from the patriarch of Jerusalem 500 years ago. Some parts of the palace date back to the 12th century. These buildings were old before Columbus set sail for America.
Then Khan, his wife and sons welcomed us to their rooms which are adjacent to the living quarters of the archbishop for a Pakistani meal. Afterwards, Bishop Mano Ramalshah, the Pakistani bishop of Peshawar, offered to drive us with characteristic warmth to the railway station at King’s Cross for the Cambridge train.
The day had begun with the English approach to spirituality which is through the mind – reason, logic and systematic argument. It ended with the Pakistani approach to spirituality which uses the heart – emotion, sentiment and intuition. The two halves of worship had come together.
At Lambeth Palace the east and west, Muslim and Christian, the mind and the heart had met for a brief moment. In that meeting I saw the hope for mankind.
Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and visiting professor at the University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies and Jesus College, Cambridge. He is the author of the forthcoming book “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam.” (Brookings, Jan. 2013)