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Sunday, November 26, 2006

When an Archbishop Stands up to an Airline

Rome/London: Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has frequently felt impotent in the face of a divided and troublesome Church congregation he leads. On Friday, however, he proved he was a force to be reckoned with when he stepped into the row over whether a British Airways check-in worker could wear a crucifix on a necklace at work.

Speaking in Rome, where he had met the Pope, Dr. Williams said consultations had begun on a possible disinvestment of BA shares. A few hours later, faced with the possible sale of the Church's £10.25 million-worth shares in British Airways and the lingering possibility of a boycott, the U.K.'s flag carrier suddenly announced a review of its 34-page uniform policy, saying it was "unfairly accused" of being anti-Christian.

Dr. Williams spoke with fervour, declaring that, if the airline felt the cross was a source of offence, then he himself would find that fact to be "deeply offensive."

The Church's Ethical Investment Advisory Group, which advises its investment bodies, contacted BA shortly after Dr. Williams's comments and sent a letter to chief executive Willie Walsh requesting a meeting.

Nadia Eweida will hear next month the outcome of an appeal against the company's decision that she cannot openly wear a crucifix on a necklace at work. Ms. Eweida, 55, has refused to go back to her job at Heathrow Airport.

Mr. Walsh did not suggest she would be able to wear her necklace, but said: "Our staff has suggested that we allow the wearing of religious symbols as small lapel badges. This will be considered..."

Dr. Williams is not only leader of the Church of England, but also of the 77 million-strong worldwide Anglican community. If the Church of England sold its shares — small in comparison with the £5.6 billion stock market value of BA — it might have a passing effect on BA's share price. But an Anglican boycott could damage sales and angry customers had been contacting the airline.

Asked at a Rome press conference if he would support a boycott, Dr. Williams noted the dispute had erupted after his own flight to Rome on BA had been booked. "I have a responsibility for the proper use of the resources of staff and money and reorganising at short notice expensively and complicatedly didn't seem to me a responsible use of them," he said.

But then he added: "I'm actually consulting with others in the Church of England about our whole attitude to BA in which, as you know, we have some financial investment. And that's a question that's already been raised for discussion with the Church Commissioners in London."

The Church owns around £10.25 million shares through its church commissioners body, which owns £9 million, and the pension fund which owns £1.25 million.

The Archbishop said: "People of any faith should have the right to display the signs of their faiths in public."

Dr. Williams had clearly made the best use of his time in the air. "It is just perhaps worth noting with some irony," he said, "that amongst the duty-free jewellery items for sale are some crosses."

— © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

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