In February 2008 the Archbishop of Canterbury gave a lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice, "Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective." Much of the lecture dealt with the question of a possible recognition of some elements of Islamic law in England. Prior to the lecture, Dr. Williams said in an interview on BBC that the adoption of certain elements of Islamic law "seems unavoidable." That comment, perhaps more than the lecture itself, was labelled by Nigeria's Archbishop Peter Akinola as “most disturbing and most unfortunate."
Reflecting on that now almost forgotten controversy and on recent comments about the "American exceptionalism" of the Episcopal Church, I was reminded of a line from the movie Cool Hand Luke: "What we've got here is failure to communicate." I think that one of the central problems within the Anglican Communion is our seeming lack of awareness of the contexts in which others in the Communion are living. Was Dr. Williams not aware that any positive comments about Islamic law would not be well received by Anglicans who experience that law as oppressive in their own countries? And if he was aware, how did he communicate with Archbishop Akinola and others that his positive remarks should be understood as contextual, as appropriate in the English context, and not as in any way applicable in the context of, for example, Nigeria? And how aware was Archbishop Akinola of the English context and of the nature of the relationships between Christians and Muslims there?
Actions taken by the Episcopal Church during the past ten years have not been well-received in many churches of the Communion. In some places they have been seen as creating serious problems for relationships between Anglicans and other religious communities. To some extent, I see the problem as a lack of awareness - what one might call a lively awareness - among leaders in the Episcopal Church of the contexts of others in the Communion and how this church's actions might have an effect on them. I see also an apparent lack of awareness in other churches of the Communion of the North American context, the context in which the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada seek to live faithfully.
The challenge to the member churches of the Communion is not only to cultivate a lively awareness of the contexts in which other churches seek to live faithfully, but also to communicate with other churches in ways that honor that faithfulness. What might have been the response from other churches if the Episcopal Church, before it took controversial actions, had assured other churches that we understood that our actions might have a negative effect for many of them, but that the actions seemed right to us in our context, and that we were committed to supporting them as they dealt with those negative effects? I am not so naive to believe that any statements of that sort would have been universally received as enough to maintain unity in the Communion, but I do believe that such statements, far better than statements after the fact, would have been an indication of the Episcopal Church's deep desire to remain in relationship with all the churches of the Communion.