Archbishop of Canterbury on the EU, refugees and religious violence

[Anglican Communion News Service] The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has made front page news in the UK with an interview given to The House magazine which covers political affairs. The interview, which was conducted in the House of Lords, addressed the forthcoming UK referendum about whether or not the UK should leave or remain a member of the European Union; the refugee crisis, and tackling religious violence.

On the EU question, Archbishop Welby did not come down on one-side or the other. “You can’t say ‘God says you must vote this way or that way’” he told journalist Daniel Bond. “I don’t think there is one correct Christian view, one way or the other.”

The Archbishop said that fear about what may happen as a result of the referendum was “legitimate”, saying: “Fear is a valid emotion. Fear of what happens if we leave, fear of what happens if we stay. You can understand why that really matters. Fear is legitimate.”

But he said that he wanted the question to become “a really visionary debate about what our country looks like” with input from those advocating that Britain leaves and those who wish to remain.

But it was Archbishop Welby’s comments on the refugee crisis that made the headlines in Britain’s newspapers this morning. Britain, he said, “has this extraordinary history, going back hundreds of years, of outward-looking, confident, often wonderful work around the world.

“At the moment we’re one of the most effective people on international development, we’re one of the most effective people on international trade, we lead the world on tackling modern slavery, and we have huge skills and gifts to bring.”

And he went on to welcome the “absolutely superb” work done by the British government in the Syrian refugee camps; but he described the UK’s policy of resettling 20,000 refugees in the UK by 2020 as “very slim” compared to the “extraordinary” efforts of Germany.

“A problem of this scale can only be dealt with by a response on an equally grand scale right across Europe, and we have to play our part,” Archbishop Welby said.

“We have to be careful. I’m aware of the complexity. The Government is rightly concerned about effectively subsidising people smuggling. That is quite proper, that could make everything worse.

“But we can’t pretend we’re not part of this issue. We’ve got to find ways of taking our share of the load.”

But he was conscious, too, of those opposed to increased refugees being admitted to the country. “There is a tendency to say ‘those people are racist’, which is just outrageous, absolutely outrageous.

“Fear is a valid emotion at a time of such colossal crisis. This is one of the greatest movements of people in human history. Just enormous. And to be anxious about that is very reasonable.

“In fragile communities particularly – and I’ve worked in many areas with very fragile communities over my time as a clergyman – there is a genuine fear: what happens about housing? What happens about jobs? What happens about access to health services? There is a genuine fear. And it is really important that that fear is listened to and addressed. There have to be resources put in place that address those fears.”

On the battle against Daesh, Archbishop Welby has previously endorsed the British Government’s extension of its military campaign when it wanted to move from air strikes in Iraq to include targets in Syria too. But he said that the fight against Daesh would fail if was primarily a military one.

“For the first time in centuries in this country – certainly going back to the 18th Century, arguably going back to the Glorious Revolution, 1688 – we find ourselves involved in conflict which has very, very significant theological aspects.

“Not only in the Middle East but around the world, in all kinds of places, you’re seeing the outworking of that. You’re seeing it in Libya, in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, right across the Levant and Mesopotamia. And you’re seeing it with other faith traditions in other places, in the world, including Christians attacking minority faith groups, for instance in the Central African Republic.

“And therefore an intelligent response to this must include theological and religious literacy, and an understanding of what drives people when they are caught up in religious ideas.”

He continued: “The key thing is, if we are going to deal with extremism, mainstream religious leaders – which within many parts of the Islamic world includes governments – must be very, very clear about taking responsibility for the violence within their own traditions – as we must be as Christian leaders – and tackling that effectively.

“That will mean places like Saudi Arabia tackling extremist thinking within their own tradition. Much support has come from within those countries, and they need to be challenged on that. They need to stamp out the support for the extremist views from within their own societies. That’s really important.”

But this did not mean a secularisation of society with faith pushed to the edges. “We need to be confident about our own heritage, our Judeo-Christian heritage, whether we’re believers or not,” the Archbishop said. “That is what has shaped our own values, and we need to be confident in that.

“But within that confidence there needs to be a hospitality, a clear sense of what we believe to be right or wrong, not based on temporary values of one kind of another that come and go, but on the eternal values that spring from the very roots of our culture. . .

“I think the idea that you can separate secular life from religious life like separating . . . potatoes from peas on your plate, is just cloud cuckoo land. It’s not how human beings work. It denies the genuine inner sense of what a human being is.

“If someone is genuinely committed to a faith tradition, whether you agree with it or not, that faith will guide and inspire everything they do. Everything. You can’t separate it. It doesn’t make any sense at all.

“We’ve seen that in parts of Europe where they’ve tried to introduce very clear secularism, and it really doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked there, it won’t work here.”

“We’ve got a society with many faiths in it. It doesn’t work by some sort of extraordinary mush that stands for nothing at all. It never has. That’s why I say we must be confident in our own tradition. And with that confidence be deeply hospitable of the other traditions we find living with us. Listen, share, engage, enjoy the fact that we are a diverse society.”

  • Read the full interview on the Politics Home website.

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