Jan 27th 2017
IS IT appropriate to read from the Koran during worship in a Christian church? This month, people close to America’s new head of state, and spiritual advisers to Britain’s long-standing one, have been forced to consider that question.
It started on January 6th at an Episcopal cathedral in Glasgow when a Muslim student was invited to read from her faith’s sacred text, and duly chanted verses from the Sura or chapter devoted to Mary, the mother of Jesus. The chapter has certain similarities with the Christian narrative and also some striking differences: it asserts that Jesus cannot be the son of God because the idea of God having progeny makes no sense.
Critics argued that the reading was supremely inappropriate at an important service marking the feast of Epiphany, which celebrates the appearance of the son of God to the world. Not all critics were polite. The cathedral’s provost, Kelvin Holdsworth, reported receiving a torrent of abusive emails, accusing him of betraying the faith; police said they were investigating a possible hate crime.
The Scottish Episcopalians’ senior prelate cautiously defended Mr Holdsworth’s freedom of action. But the bishop added that the church was “deeply distressed” both by the offence caused and by the abuse which the provost, who is also a leading gay-rights activist, received in response.
The Koran reading was denounced by Michael Nazir Ali, a retired, Pakistani-born bishop of the Church of England, and prompted, at least indirectly, the resignation of one of Queen Elizabeth’s personal chaplains, Gavin Ashenden. He said he wanted to be freer to speak out against such blurring of the boundaries between faiths. Soon after stepping down he declared that the Church of England (historically the mother church of all Anglican churches, including the Scottish one) was “dying” demographically and financially.
To an American religious conservative, all that might sound a tale of limey soft-mindedness. But on the very day after Donald Trump’s inauguration (ushered in by five Christian clerics and a rabbi) he found himself attending an inter-faith prayer service at Washington National Cathedral, a bastion of the American Episcopal Church which like its Scottish counterpart is small, socially prestigious, liberal and ecumenical. An Islamic reading was on the programme, and it was initially expected to consist of the Muslim call to prayer.
Before this event, controversy was more intra-Muslim than intra-Christian. The Sudanese-American imam who was invited to read, Mohamed Magid, had to defend himself from co-religionists who said he should not be welcoming a president who wants to stop Muslims entering the United States.
In the end the affair was handled with slightly more delicacy than the Scottish service. The imam chose two of the most emollient verses from the Koran. These passages assert that human diversity and mutual esteem between nations, communities and genders are part of God’s plan. His reading ascribed to God the words: “We have created you male and female and made you nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another.”
As Quranic statements go, that one is not especially challenging to Christianity; indeed it somewhat resembles the words of Saint Paul that God “has made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on all the earth and hath determined the bounds…of their habitation.”
Even Mr Trump and his advisers could argue, if pressed, that the fraternity between nations and communities which these verses enjoin does not exclude respect for one another’s integrity, including territorial integrity. Perhaps even fences are allowed.
But Mr Ashenden, the ex-royal chaplain, predicts that arguments over the Koran’s use during sacred state occasions in the Western world are likely to grow louder. He says pressure is already building up for the inclusion of a Koran reading in the enthronement of the next British monarch, who will inherit the rank of “defender of the faith” and has said he wants to interpret the title broadly.
In the right context, there are certainly interesting discussions to be had about ways in which the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity converge and diverge. The Koran honours Jesus more than many liberal Christians do, while clearly parting company with classical Christian doctrine over the nature of Christ. All that can be productively teased out in a seminar or even an inter-faith discussion in a community hall.
But experience suggests that mixing and matching readings during a religious service will generate more heat than light. And to almost any Muslim, the idea of a Christian reading during an act of worship in a mosque would seem almost incomprehensible: an absurd watering-down of Islam’s integrity.