Comfortable Accommodation: Bishop Harries and Islam
On 27th November 2014, the retired Anglican Bishop of Oxford, Dr Richard Harries, proposed in the House of Lords that the next Coronation include readings from the Qur’an. The next morning, on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he spoke of the Church of England’s “creative accommodation” and called for more acts of “inclusive hospitality” such as he had witnessed at a cathedral service to mark the beginning of the legal year. The High Sheriff and the Lord Lieutenant were in attendance and, both being Muslims, they had asked for the ceremony to include readings from the Qur’an. Lord Harries admired the solution – a Qur’anic reading immediately prior to the entirely Christian service. There had been “no blurring of the edges, no syncretism”; but, said Lord Harries, the Church of England should provide for “reciprocity” towards other faiths in a multi-faith urbanised city, and there should be “scope” for other religious leaders to pray at significant ceremonies in national civic life. He had no doubt that this would feature at the next Coronation.
Lord Harries was challenged by the Spectator journalist, Douglas Murray, who complained of yet more Anglican leaders without faith in their own faith, possessing no ability to make an exclusive faith claim about the truth of Jesus Christ. He observed that there was no “inclusive hospitality” in Islam – no Christians are allowed in Mecca, there is no “reciprocity” on the part of imams inviting Christians or Jews to Islamic religious events preceded by readings from the Bible. British Jews, he said, pray for the Queen and the defence of the realm every week – where were such prayers on Fridays in Britain’s mosques? Furthermore, if the Islamic scriptures are to be read prior to Anglican civic services, why not Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh scriptures; or, for that matter, secularist writings? Murray’s answer to the Bishop was that fuzzy Anglicans don’t want their leaders to be fuzzy: they want them to set out what Christian belief is, the faith that Anglicanism proclaims. Even if some individual Christians are unclear about it in their personal faith, they want their Church to be clear. What they do not want is bishops who affirm Muslims in their faith, but who demoralise Anglicans by not affirming them in theirs. A reading from the Qur’an at the Coronation in Westminster Abbey, warned Murray, would cause great offence to Christians.
By the same token it could never happen that a British civic religious event took place in a mosque, let alone with a reading from the New Testament, even if prior to it. Islam only endorses Islamic jurisprudence, even though it expects Muslims to abide by the law of a non-Islamic society in which they live. Thus the request for the faith of Muslims to be shown “scope”, “reciprocity” and “inclusive hospitality” in an Anglican cathedral is disingenuous, since the favour cannot be returned. Christians believe the Word of God to be the Person of God the Son made flesh, speaking through His Body, and His Church’s Scriptures. Islam believes that the Word of God is a Book, conveyed by Gabriel in Arabic without modulation to Mohammad, who is honoured as its unimpeachable prophet. It assumes Christians are likewise a “people of the Book”, but according to an earlier and lesser revelation. Reading the Qur’an in Church (something the Queen already allows at the annual Commonwealth Day service in Westminster Abbey) lends credence to this false view of the Christian Scriptures and makes a wrong impression upon Muslims who believe that their faith to be the pinnacle and fulfilment of all others. Lord Harries counters that, just because Islam in the United Kingdom has not evolved as far as Christianity in its understanding of other faiths and their sacred texts, it does not mean Anglican bishops should not do the right, tolerant and hospitable thing.
But what he has encouraged, both as a legislator-for-life in our national senate, and with all the teaching authority of one of the Church of England’s most distinguished bishops, is the conclusion by Muslims in Britain and across the world that the established Christian Church in England does not believe in the uniqueness of the truth about Jesus Christ and presents it as one faith among many. If so, say those Muslims who beleaguer Christians across the world, why not recognise what lies behind all religions – faith in the only God there is; and why not go the whole way and make your belief explicit with the Islamic profession of faith? Find peace in submission to this ineluctable truth: “After all, the Qur’an has been read out foremost in a cathedral service in England, so they acknowledge the ultimate truth of Islam. If they do not believe exclusively in Christianity, why do you bother to continue?”
It is wounding to think that a bishop from the comfort of retirement in England, after a lifetime of following Christ and serving in the Church’s leadership, is proposing the reading of the Qur’an in Church, especially at the anointing and coronation of our next king whose reign and government is meant to be patterned on the universal rule Christ, while in Iraq, Syria, Kenya and Nigeria, as well as many other places, even children and teenagers are bravely refusing to deny their love for Jesus by submitting to Islam at the point of knives and guns, thus accepting martyrdom rather than giving up on the Body of Christ.
Christian Witness in Interreligious Dialogue and Friendship
This is not to say that interreligious dialogue, friendship, solidarity and common action for peace, mediation, justice and the relief of need are not beauties that humanly unite all those who are spiritual people. A hopeful aid to building peace and good relationships is “scriptural literacy”. This involves learned and devout followers of different religions meeting in mutual charity and respect, but without compromise to the integrity of each one’s belief, to discuss problems and disagreements by examining one another’s sacred texts. This not only heightens awareness of what each religion truly believes, but illuminates where all can bear witness to together - for instance the sacredness of human life from the womb to the grave, and the stewardship of the created environment. And who can forget the love and faith of those Egyptian Muslims who held hands to form a cordon around Coptic Churches to protect them from desecration by Islamists, or the shared lamentation of Christians, Muslims and Jews at the terrorists’ destruction of the shrines of the Old Testament prophets, sacred to all three?
Such close approach to one another furthermore involves a recognition that in each religion people honestly strive to respond to the deepest questions that human beings and their societies have to deal with, questions that only faith and spiritual living can answer. This very point was made repeatedly by Pope Benedict XVI on his State Visit to the United Kingdom in 2010, especially in his Address to Civil Society at Westminster Hall. Pope Francis in Istanbul symbolised it too at the Sultanahmet Mosque, which he respected as a House of Prayer and where he stood in moments of silent adoration. We should likewise be strong enough in Christian faith to visit other holy places with the same respect, the same spirit or prayer and praise. But he was not saying, “it is all the same”; “it makes no difference in the end”. He did not remove his Cross, nor did he make well-meaning Westerners’ error of referring to the founder of Islam as “The Prophet”. That would be to accept what he and the Qur’an say about Jesus: that he was not Son of God born to Mary, or die on the Cross and rise again.
The way to the end is for God to lead us on and it is patently not “the same”. How God will lead us and others to union with Him is for Him alone to judge. Our task in the Church is to bear witness to the truth that has been revealed to us in Christ. The Christian knows that this is neither in a book, nor an institution but in a person: the Person of Jesus Christ who is Son of God and Word made flesh, true man and true God, the Light from Light that lightens every one. Islam does not accept this faith and denies that Person. It holds that the Qur’an supersedes the Scriptures of other faiths and corrects Christianity.
The right Christian response is indeed one of “inclusive hospitality”: respect, welcome, dialogue, friendship and inviting each other to join in the practice of the spiritual values that our religions give us to share. It is notable thus that the most telling defenders of Christian holy days and the school Nativity plays have been Muslims who demand that the officials preaching inclusion on ethnic, gender and racial grounds do not achieve it by excluding the religious. The wrong response is the unmeant respect of praying out loud in a Christian Church the Scriptures of a faith that does not share the Church’s belief in Christ. Paul Couturier in 1933, when he re-worked the Church Unity Octave, saw this clearly: Christian Unity is not just an objective for organising or projecting the Church better, it is about the unity of all humanity in the charity and truth of Christ. This comes about not through the “creative accommodation” of what you know by faith to be false, but by prayer that we will all be sanctified more and more by the God we adore. The holier we become, the closer to God we are drawn, the more at one in Christ we find ourselves. Thus when he launched the Week of Universal Prayer for the Unity of Christians, he imagined it like the Good Friday Liturgy’s prayers to include prayer for the sanctification of those who do not believe in Christ, as well as those divided among themselves in His Body. But mostly he saw that Christianity hides Christ by its division, since the Lord Himself had prayed, “Father, may they be one so that the world may believe that it was You Who sent me.”
The Urgency of Unity in Christ’s Kingdom
For this reason, Christian unity and prayer for it are under repeated attack. One cannot help noticing that while a bishop calls for the “inclusive hospitality” of Islamic texts at significant ceremonies for which Anglicanism has responsibility, no such “creative accommodation” conducive to the union of all Christians with the Apostolic See of Rome - and not to its exclusion - has been facilitated by the final ratification of changes to the ordained ministry in the Church of England. This seemingly insurmountable block to reunion is a blow for all who have upheld unity in the Catholic faith, offering a convincing account of the hope that lies within us in the Risen Christ, as the true vision for the unity of all humanity in the charity and truth of Christ, especially in this Anglican land where the largest number of churchgoers is actually Catholic. The fading of the ecumenical dream of visible, organic unity is a blow to Roman Catholics as much as to Anglican Catholics alike, because as fellow Christians we ought to rely on each other for mutual strength and encouragement; and for the sake of the Gospel we cannot afford for our separation to loom so large as to obscure the glory of Christ.
So we press on, without relenting in prayer for unity in the Church because of the holiness of our union in Christ, but knowing that God maps out a path that for the moment we cannot see. For its part, our Catholic League recently sponsored the conference in London to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, especially the Decree on Ecumenism. The message from all sides was telling: we are tempted to give up and more easily go our separate ways; but years of prayer, and friendship and mutual theological learning have disinclined us to. No one part of the People of God can go it alone, as if it were exclusively the Body of Christ, and it is the essence of Catholicity to work as a countervailing force to wilful schism and as the impulse toward the truth that binds in one faith the Universal Church. So Catholicism is not Catholic if it operates as one mere movement among many. Its work is constantly to seek and to realise this Universal Church, the Church as God sees it from His perspective, the spotless Bride adorned for her Husband, inseparable from His Son. In other words, the supposedly failed Ecumenical Movement which has not led to the union we hoped for has still changed everything: the idea of the One Great Church cannot be avoided by divided Christians; everyone in honesty must know that no separate denomination is willed by Christ to serve as an end in itself, be it Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant or Pentecostal; and the Catholic Church’s engagement with other Christians and Churches is not only a current commitment, it is permanently the way that the Church is. Providentially for now it seems that, if we cannot be visibly one, the important thing is to walk as one wherever and whenever we can. What is at stake is the direction of humanity – whether it is still to be enslaved by the market of human options that take us away from true choice, by the forgetting of the sanctity of life and by the relative weighing up of advantageous options, or whether to be captivated by the truth about God and humanity in Christ, and to live it even now in the Kingdom of Christ.
Can it be that, in moving together against the world’s injustices, resistant to the hatred of peace, and contrary to the abomination of desolation that hides the Devil’s lust for blood and death behind a religion, to the horror of most Muslims and perverting Islam , whose name derives from peace (the word Islam is related to salaam), we will render “One Lord, One Faith, One Church” visible to those with confidence in nothing? Can it be that in together meeting the need of the world for relief as well as hope, spiritual as well as material, even separated Christians will be seen at one with the Lord, and be convinced that it is believable the He was sent by the Father after all?
Some think that ecumenism is wishful thinking, “finished”, or even a harmful delusion. But the prayer for the Church of the Christians to be one so that the Lord may make Himself seen will not stop its echoing. The fact is that we have all died and been raised in Christ, we have all been given His Spirit; the Kingdom has been given to us and we have all been rendered blessed, in order to live in it. Thus we can either persevere in disunity, complicit with the world that is satisfied with one Church strained into many, and falling short of our blessedness. Or we can act on the capacity we have been given to place our Catholic faith and our Catholic Church at the indefatigable service of the “unity of all humanity in the charity and truth of Christ” (words from the annual prayers of Paul Couturier for the Week of Prayer). Now is not the time to despair of Christian unity or to disdain those who we feel are walking away from its objective. It is no harm to our integrity as Catholics to walk with them still, in firm conviction that our steps together will enable our leading by the Light that lightens everyone to the fullness of truth. For the sake of the salvation of humanity, and its true “creative accommodation” at the “inclusive hospitality” of the Celestial Banquet in the Kingdom coming on earth as in heaven, it is nothing less than our duty.
Fr Mark Woodruff, Priest Director