Just who is to be worshipped in a worship service?
On January 6th, St. Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow, Scotland, hosted a guest reader for this Scottish Episcopal Church’s Feast of the Epiphany worship service. The reader was neither clergy nor Christian layman. Indeed, the reader was not a Christian at all. Moreover, the reading was not from the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, or some other Christian text. The guest reader was a Muslim woman, Madinah Javed, an undergraduate law student and self-described activist, who read, in Arabic, from the Quran.
Understandably, this has resulted in a great furor among Anglicans and many other Christians throughout Britain and the world.
In a blog post titled, “Keeping the Faith,” the Cathedral’s Provost, the Very Reverend Kelvin Holdsworth, defended the inclusion of Ms. Javed’s reading on the grounds that it had been done before at St. Mary’s and that it was an effective tool for outreach to Muslims in the community. According to Holdsworth, the service created “dialogue and great interest and an enormous amount of good will.”
Perhaps among Muslims, but this does not seem to be the case among many Christians. Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, strongly condemned the Cathedral’s decision to include such a reading in its worship service:
Christians should know what their fellow citizens believe and this can include reading the Qur’an for themselves, whether in the original or in translation. This is not, however, the same thing as having it read in church in the context of public worship. The authorities of the Scottish Episcopal Church should immediately repudiate this ill-advised invitation and exercise appropriate discipline for those involved.
The bishop has a point. In a time when many Christians are struggling with answers to complex questions, one might have thought the Provost would incline toward teaching his flock their own holy scriptures. But the Provost’s recklessness goes beyond blurring the line between Christianity and Islam.
What the Very Reverend Holdworth’s blog does not say is what the Quranic reading included. Congregants were given an English translation of Maryam Surah 19, verses 16-33. That, it was agreed upon, would be the text for Ms. Javed’s recitation. Those verses speak of Jesus as a sinless prophet who was born of the Virgin Mary. So far as it goes, the text is somewhat consistent with the biblical account. What few, if any, in the congregation knew at the time was that Javed continued to read an additional three verses not included in the handout. Those verses deviate from the biblical account significantly, saying that Jesus is not the Son of God and is not to be worshiped. Verse 36 concludes: “[Jesus said], ‘And indeed, Allah is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him. That is a straight path.’”
In a letter to The Times (of London), the Queen’s chaplain, the Reverend Gavin Ashenden, wrote:
Quite apart from the wide distress (some would say blasphemy) caused by denigrating Jesus in Christian worship, apologies may be due to the Christians suffering dreadful persecution at the hands of Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere. To have the core of a faith for which they have suffered deeply treated so casually by senior Western clergy such as the Provost of Glasgow is unlikely to have a positive outcome. There are other and considerably better ways to build ‘bridges of understanding.’
Reverend Ashenden was not done:
There was no dialogue in the Epiphany Eucharist; only a refutation of what Christians hold most dear and upon which salvation depends. In over 30 years of interfaith conversations, I have never yet come across a Muslim community which allowed those passages in the Gospels acclaiming the divinity of Christ to be read in Friday prayers.
For his part, Provost Holdsworth was fiercely unapologetic, asserting that he and his Cathedral are being attacked unjustly:
This same Qur’anic reading has been given before in services and no outcry has happened. Is it because this is in a cathedral run by a gay man? Is it because the recitation was given by a young woman?
We hold fast to Christian orthodoxy and we welcome those who come in peace.
This last bit may be the greatest blasphemy of all. There is nothing “orthodox” about the Provost’s sexual proclivities or his willingness to allow a Muslim to stand in his pulpit and deny the divinity of Christ. The assertion that the controversy is due to him being gay does not seem justified. That deserves a controversy all its own. Why such readings did not generate an outcry in past is not clear. Perhaps it is because they were not posted on YouTube as this one was. Perhaps it is because no one present understood Arabic. Or perhaps congregants at St. Mary’s, ignorant of their own faith and Scriptures, didn’t know it was blasphemy. Whatever the reason, the controversy is justified and demonstrates an extraordinary naivete regarding Islam and a total disregard for the persecuted Church.
According to The Spectator (UK), an average of 100,000 Christians die each year for their faith. That works out to eleven per hour, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. This makes Christians the most persecuted people on the planet. Most of this comes at the hands of Muslims.
Gavin Ashenden is right. Christians are due an apology from Muslims, not a respected place in the pulpit to denounce the Christian faith and proclaim the supremacy of a religion that looks an awful lot like an oppressive political structure and one of the most terrible engines of war and violence ever devised by man.
This whole episode is yet another sad example of how many Christians have made an idol of secular notions of tolerance and diversity to the detriment of themselves, the global Christian community, and the world in which they are called to be salt and light. An indiscriminate openness is neither wise nor virtuous. Jwan Zhumbes — the Bishop of Bukuru, Nigeria, and a man whose people have been slaughtered by the Boko Haram — recently made this chilling observation to me:
I fear the West has become so open that soon you shall have the devil himself in your own homes.