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The Archbishop of Canterbury, it is said, was very surprised earlier this year by the furious response to his speech about civil and religious law. I am very much surprised that he was surprised; it was hardly likely that a recommendation to incorporate parts of sharia law into English law could fail to enrage people far and wide, especially coming from him. But I was still more surprised by a different public response: given that his speech was so difficult to follow, so confused, so incoherent, or so “nuanced” as his defenders put it, the general view was that he and it really belong in academic life.

It was an academic speech, commentators said, to an ecclesiastical audience. In other words, if a man cannot make his meaning plain, he belongs in the groves of ­academe. Astonishingly, no one seemed to disagree with this. To be obscure is to be admitted to the highest of intellectual circles.

I was reminded of a remark made by Jane Austen’s innocent young heroine in Northanger Abbey, when talking to her sophisticated hero, who tells her that he understands her very well. “Me?” she replies. “Yes; I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible”. “Bravo!” he says. “An excellent satire on modern language”.

Some things don’t change; but I think it is quite new for so many people to assume without quite realising it — but rightly — that universities, instead of upholding the highest standards of intellectual discipline, have become centres of muddled thought and impenetrable language — just the place for a right-on, woolly-minded prelate.

July 15th, 2008
5:07 PM
Muddled thought always translates into 'impenetrable' language. However,for all sorts of reasons, clear thought may be expressed in impenetrable language, as well. Presumably, we'll never know how hard has the Archbishop worked at his speech. Nevertheless, it will probably be remembered for many years to come and, I'm very much afraid, not for the right reasons.

June 17th, 2008
8:06 PM
Well said! I have always felt this about Rowan Williams. It's really 'The Emperor's New Clothes'. People are afraid to say that they don't understand what he's talking about, because they feel that people will think them stupid. If he were as intelligent as it is claimed, he would be able to communicate his ideas clearly to 'ordinary' people.

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