It’s a pity that Rowan Williams made such a fool of himself with the Sharia lecture. He has said some interesting things since then, which no one will take any notice of; some of them are in his lecture on human rights. To the extent that this has been noted at all, it is because the Church’s only role in the matter is to deny the human rights of gays, women, and so on to the jobs they may want. Now, it seems to me a grotesque mistake to suppose that a policy of denying practising gays places in the priesthood is the same offence as urging that they be jailed or killed for their activities. Both are wrong, but only the Nigerian policy violates human rights. There’s no such thing as a human right to a particular job. I’m doubtful that there is any meaningful right to employment, either. But it certainly makes no sense to talk about a human right to be a bishop.
I’m a sucker for anyone who has absorbed Alasdair MacIntyre, and Rowan has certainly done that. But the most thought-provoking part of his speech comes in his argument about how the Christian view of human rights developed from Christian interaction with slavery. I think this encapsulates all the most attractive aspects of his thought, and draws together two of his central ideas: that truth emerges to the Church over time and through experience, and that bodies are made as instruments of love. Both of these have obvious relevance to the gay debate, but he uses them in the lecture in a much less political way:
bq. The principle that has been established is that the human body cannot in the Christian scheme of things be regarded as an item of property. It is not just that I have an ‘ownership’ of my body that is not transferable, though some moralists (including a few recent Christian writers) have tried to argue something like this; it is rather that the whole idea of ownership is inappropriate. I may talk about ‘my body’ in a phrase that parallels ‘my house’ or ‘my car’, but it should be obvious that there is a radical difference. I can’t change it for another, I can’t acquire more than one of it, I cannot survive the loss of it. The body – and this is where Aquinas and the tradition associated with him significantly refuses to accept a separation of ‘soul’ and ‘body’ as entities existing side by side – is the organ of the soul’s meaning: it is the medium in which the conscious subject communicates, and there is no communication without it. To protect the body, to love the body, is to seek to sustain the means of communication which secure a place within human discourse. And so a claim to control the body absolutely, to the point where you could be commanded to deny your body what is needed for its life, would be a refusal to allow another to communicate, to make sense of themselves. The ultimate form of slavery would be a situation in which your body was made to carry the meanings or messages of another subject and never permitted to say in word or gesture what was distinctive for itself as the embodiment of a sense-making consciousness.
And, as usual when he is making these points, one wants to argue a lot. In particular, I want to ask when the soul arrives and when it departs. Without, if possible, wandering into the swamp of abortion, we might ask what are the necessary attributes of a body which render it able to communicate and make sense of itself. When do they arrive? When do they leave?