Image"The Solitary Cyclist" - one of the Sherlock Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle a century ago - involved an intrigue in which a young woman fell into the hands of brigands who knew she was about to come into a large inheritance of which she was unaware. She sensed danger because a cyclist kept following her whenever she bicycled on a lonely country road. At length, she was forced into a "marriage" with one of the plotters who hoped to gain access to her money. A defrocked clergyman named Williamson performed the bogus ceremony. (In the end, the young woman was rescued and all turned out well.)

That story came to my mind recently when I read a news article about Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. (Actor Ellis Dale, who played the Williamson character opposite Jeremy Brett in the 1984 TV adaptation of "The Solitary Cyclist", is the dead spit of the real archbishop.)

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Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams

His Holiness - for any readers who haven't been following the news lately - is in deep doo-doo with both British politicians and Anglican bishops for coming out publicly for bringing Islamic Sharia law into Britain. In recent comments, the Archbishop called the incorporation of Sharia law into the British system "inevitable", to prevent disruption and violence. (Approximately 1.8 million Muslims constitute 3% of Britain's population.)

Reactions to Archbishop Williams' comments were swift and fierce. George Carey, his predecessor as archbishop, joined the Bishop of Rochester (the Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali) in challenging Mr. Williams' views. Members of the General Synod - the Anglican Church's "parliament" - have called on Mr. Williams to quit.

Col. Edward Armistead - one of the Synod members calling for Mr. Williams' resignation - has said, "I don't think he is the man for the job. One wants to be charitable, but I sense that he would be far happier in a university where he can kick around these sorts of ideas..."

One unnamed government minister said the archbishop's Sharia-advocacy was a "recipe for disaster". A spokesman for Prime Minister Gordon Brown declared: "The prime minister is clear that in Britain, British laws based on British values will apply." Politicians from both major political parties have called the archbishop's ideas "wrong", "chaotic" and "catastrophic".

The Sun (Britain's leading tabloid) said: "It's easy to dismiss Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams as a silly old goat. In fact, he's a dangerous threat to our nation." One imagines cockneys saying, "'E's gone dotty, is wot..." over their toast and coffee.

Americans don't comprehend the British system because a "state" or national church funded by the government is outside our experience. We know there's a clause in the First Amendment of our Constitution about "separation of church and state".

Actually, there is no such clause. But our Constitution does say Congress "shall make no law (emphasis mine) respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Not in Britain, however, where the sovereign is Supreme Governor of the Church of England (i.e., the Anglican Church). The Archbishop of Canterbury - also called the Primate of England - is the highest ecclesiastical authority below the royal rank.

The archbishop has a political role - part of it being to assure that the sovereign acts correctly as "defender of the faith". The archbishop also comments on moral and spiritual aspects in the affairs of state, with an expectation that such comments will carry gravity and perspicacity. In the 1936 crisis over King Edward's intention to marry an American divorcee (Wallis Simpson), Church of England leaders ruled that the king could not be married in the Church to a woman who had two living ex-husbands. (Mrs. Simpson was twice-divorced.) Ultimately, this determination led to the king's abdication. The Church changed history.

Is the Sharia-flap, the last straw for Dr. Williams? Perhaps. Intimates report that the archbishop is "completely overwhelmed" by the hostile responses to his comments and is in a "state of shock" over the criticism. Actually, one would have thought a previous "straw" might have broken the camel's back some time ago. Dr. Williams has "presided" rather ineffectively over a dispute within the American (i.e., Episcopal) branch of the Church - a dispute arising from the ordination of V. Gene Robinson as bishop of the New Hampshire Diocese. The Reverend Robinson is a practicing homosexual living openly with a male lover. He has publicly called the Bible an "outdated" book and demanded church blessing of same-sex unions.

The Archbishop's failure to correct that situation has now led to open schism in the 2.1 million-member Episcopal Church. In Virginia, eleven churches [1] have voted overwhelmingly to secede from the Episcopal Church and re-associate themselves with the Anglican Church of Nigeria, under the authority of Archbishop Peter J. Akinola. The Rt. Rev. Martyn Minns - Senior Pastor of historic Truro Church in Fairfax, VA - has been named missionary bishop of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA).

The Episcopal Church disputes the "right" of any congregation to leave its assigned place in the Church hierarchy. At present, the non-payment of "assessments" for 100,000 seceded Church members is at issue, but property is a key matter as well. The Truro property is valued in excess of $25 million. Other properties among the rebellious congregations are less valuable, but their aggregate value has been estimated in the tens of millions of dollars. Worse yet for Episcopal Church leaders, the movement shows signs of growing across the nation.

Why should we care what happens to the Anglican Church, or to its American segment, the Episcopal Church? Because it has been a stabilizing influence in the world, and its disruption or potential dissolution is a serious matter. Whatever his good intentions might be, Dr. Williams has treated his charge like a toy of little account. He has neglected his responsibilities and allowed divisive influences to arise unchecked within the communion.

Now he has thrown gasoline onto an incendiary situation by proposing the introduction of foreign "law" which conflicts fundamentally with the Christian-derived law of his native land. Sharia Law prescribes practices (e.g., stoning, punitive amputations, death sentences for adultery, and other abnegations of women's rights) that Anglo-Saxon people would find shocking and reprehensible. It simply cannot work in an enlightened, modern nation. That the archbishop has proposed it shows either his ignorance of Sharia or his contempt for Britain's legal heritage.

The archbishop is becoming the loneliest man in the world - more so than the Solitary Cyclist. More and more Brits are saying, "'E's ‘ad it..." It's time for Dr. Williams to go, and not a moment too soon for this historic and important institution.  

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[1] Seceding Virginia churches are: Christ the Redeemer, Centreville; Church of the Apostles, Fairfax; Church of the Epiphany, Herndon; Church of Our Saviour, Oatlands; Church of the Word, Gainesville; Potomac Falls Episcopal, Sterling; St. Margaret's, Woodbridge; St. Paul's, Haymarket; St. Stephen's, Heathsville; Truro, Fairfax City; and the Falls Church, Falls Church.