DR WILLIAMS, returning from China, managed to hit the right note exactly in his piece for The Times. He was amused, shrewd, and reassuring: the kind of thing that requires very good timing. He wrote: "The proverbial visitor from Mars might have imagined that the greatest immediate threat to British society was religious war, fomented by `faith schools`, cheered on by thousands of veiled women and the Bishops` Benches in the House of Lords. Commentators were solemnly asking if it were not time for Britain to become a properly secular society."
A fortnight earlier, and this would have sounded a completely false note. But, though the stories about the veil and faith schools have stayed the same, the mood in which they are received has changed. I think that people were really frightened, and rightly so, by the upsurge of feeling among Muslims, Christians, and the enemies of either religion. The utter crushing of the Government`s proposals to bridle faith schools has frightened and disheartened secularists. It`s very notable that this was everywhere ascribed to the organisational power of the Roman Catholic Church, and not anything to do with the Church of England.
The business of the veil had managed to make Muslims appear both more threatened and more threatening --- but since no one has any idea what to do about this, we would rather believe that it is not a problem. Hence the welcome given to the Archbishop`s piece by everyone who noticed it, except the Daily Express.
Very little of his argument was concerned with the veil explicitly. He was much more interested in defending the right of churches to run their own schools and other social services. But his argument, after talking to the officially approved Chinese Christians, was that religion could not be stamped out except by a monstrously totalitarian regime. The rest of us should put up with it, therefore, for fear of something much worse.
This led him at last to the money quote: "The ideal of a society where no visible public signs of religion would be seen --- no crosses around necks, no sidelocks, turbans or veils --- is a politically dangerous one. It assumes that what comes first in society is the central political `licensing authority`, which has all the resources it needs to create a workable public morality."
I still think that this is an odd thing for an Archbishop of Canterbury to say. Dr Williams may be the first one to whom it makes no sense at all to remember that his own Church was once that licensing authority for Britain, or to suppose that things were in some senses better then.
The question of establishment has to be blurred, but I don`t think it can entirely be evaded. Nor will it entirely evanesce. Essentially, the fear of Islam arises from the fear that Muslims are not loyal to the same things as the rest of us. This is complicated by the fact that no one knows what the British are supposed to be loyal to nowadays. It is surely one of the dangerous attractions of belief in a global war on Islam that it seems to supply an answer this question.
THE Sunday Times had an extraordinary story from Dean Nelson in Delhi , about the long-running religious divisions in Pakistan. "Anglican Bishop Alexander John Malik, who is caught in the crossfire between leading members of his own flock and Islamic fundamentalists over the marriage of his daughter Nadia to the son of a prominent Muslim family.
"Nadia, one of Pakistan`s most glamorous models, and her husband Danyaal, a doctor, married in August in an opulent Lahore cathedral wedding led by her father, and attended by the country`s `Lollywood` film and fashion set.
"Bishop Malik`s critics claim his daughter had converted to Islam and married her husband in a traditional Muslim wedding before attending a Christian blessing ceremony. Rival bishops have called for his resignation and claimed he has betrayed his flock. Leading Muslim clerics say the church ceremony is an insult if Nadia had converted to Islam, and that her Muslim husband was wrong to agree to a Christian blessing."
The couple have since moved to Glasgow, which appears to be more tolerant.
PERHAPS the answer lies in Scientology. The Guardian devoted a full page to the very funny account by Paul Lewis of his attempt to join the cult. Starting with an instruction video: "The film`s presenter . . . staring at the camera, said that anyone is free to turn their backs on Scientology. But beware. `That would be stupid`. The camera zoomed close. `You can also walk off a bridge or blow your brains out.`"
Some days, thinking about religion, I just might.