Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Controversy over Epiphany Quran Reading at St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral

Entry for 24 Jan 2017:

TRIGGER WARNING: If you are disturbed by controversy and an open-minded view of religious diversity, please read no further.

St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, my church in Glasgow, has been engulfed in controversy over a reading from the Quran given by a young Islamic woman named Madinah Javed, at the ecumenical Epiphany service on Friday evening, 6 Jan.  Apparently, her proud father posted a video on YouTube of her singing part of the Sura of Maryam, which was reposted by various parties. 

1. Summary of how the controversy unfolded

If like me you are interested in such things and missed what happened, what follows is a summary:

Her 9-minute performance, which is gorgeous, can be found at: http://freewestmedia.com/2017/01/10/quran-reading-in-st-marys-cathedral-in-glasgow/

In response, on 9 Jan, the retired bishop of Rochester (England), Michael Nazir-Ali, posted a statement advising that:
“The authorities of the Scottish Episcopal Church should immediately repudiate this ill-advised invitation and exercise appropriate discipline for those involved.” (http://michaelnazirali.com/articles/app/archive/01-2017/title/in-response-to-the-qur-an-recitation-in-st-mary-s-cathedral-glasgow)

Bishop Nazir-Ali’s posting was then picked up by Christianity Today:

And from there, it ended up on the arch-conservative Breitbart News website (previously run by white nationalist Steve Bannon, now chief strategist to Donald Trump), which has since made it a cause celebre: http://www.breitbart.com/london/2017/01/11/koran-verse-denying-divinity-christ-sung-aloud-scottish-cathedral-service/

The result is that the church’s Facebook page and email accounts have been inundated with thousands of postings, most of them critical, many of them nasty, and few ominously threatening enough to traumatise the staff and to alarm the police.  The church is now being regularly patrolled by the police, who are investigating the threats.

To make matters worse, the Primus (=head bishop) of the Scottish Episcopal Church, David Chillingworth, posted a rather confusing blog entry on 14 Jan, which has been taken as by many as critical of the Quran reading and St Mary’s Provost, Kelvin Holdsworth: “the Scottish Episcopal Church is deeply distressed at the widespread offence which has been caused” (http://www.bishopdavid.net/2017/01/the-koran-reading-in-st-marys-cathedral-glasgow-pisky-anglican/ ).  This posting was also followed by a storm of further abuse.
2. The Verses In Question

When we returned to Glasgow and arrived at church on the 15th, we were startled by the Kelvin’s sermon about the effect these attacks have: http://thurible.net/2017/01/15/sermon-epiphanies-midst-storm/
So St Mary’s finds itself at the centre of a controversy over an act of reaching out in friendship to our Muslim brothers and sisters.  How do we understand what has happened here?   I feel particularly touched by this, because I have had a number of Muslim students in and have felt very concerned about the level of cultural disapprobation they have had to deal with.  For example, after 9/11 in the USA, they were doubly traumatised: first, by the terrorists, and, second, by their fellow citizens and even at times by their government. 

Therefore, I began by learning what the Quran actually says about Mary and about Jesus in the passage that was read, Sura 19, verses 16 – 36, and elsewhere (https://quran.com/19 ).

The two verses that have been mentioned as offensive in some news sources are at the end of this selection:
35: It is not [befitting] for Allah to take a son; exalted is He! When He decrees an affair, He only says to it, "Be," and it is. 
36: [Jesus said], "And indeed, Allah is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him. That is a straight path."

Conservative Christians such as Bishop Nazir-Ali have read these verses as denying the divinity of Christ.  However, I don’t think that this is the only possible reading, and it appears than Islamic scholars over the centuries have debated their interpretation. It should also be noted that Christian theologians have argued for 2000 years over the nature of the relationship between Jesus and God; there is a whole field of theology called Christology, after all! 

I’m obviously neither a theologian nor a scholar of Islam, but Bishop Nazir-Ali does point out rather confusingly in passing that what the Quran is denying here actually the need for God to adopt Jesus as his son.  Thus, it seems to me that verse 35 could be read simply as objecting to the whole father-son metaphor: First, God can’t be the biological father of Jesus, because then Mary wouldn’t have been virgin; second, it also doesn’t make sense to think of Jesus as God’s adopted son, because according to Islamic thought, God simply brought Jesus into being in Mary’s womb.  And this doctrine sounds to be like an affirmation that Jesus was of divine origin, being directly created by God.

As for verse 36, isn’t it just a paraphrase of the first part of Jesus’ summary of the Law in Matthew 22:37?:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
Christians don’t read Jesus as saying here that people should worship God instead of him, so why do we have to read the Quran in this way?

Thus, it seems to me that the controversy over this reading has been whipped up on the basis of a particularly slanted view of the text, as if one were looking for any possible offense.
3. Explaining the Controversy

How then do we explain the controversy that has arisen on such a fragile basis?  Here’s what I think:

From the biographical information about Bishop Nazir-Ali (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Nazir-Ali ), he appears to be a conservative Anglican who has directly experienced persecution and has previously tangled with the Islamic community in the UK (as well as being publicly opposed to the ordination of actively gay clergy).  It is also clear that he took offense not so much at the content of the reading as the fact that it was read as part of an Epiphany service.  

However, this implies that just the reading of the Quran as part of any Christian service is somehow sacrilegious, which in retrospect appears to be the general position of most of the critics. It is as if the sacred texts of other religions are somehow contaminating or unclean, and would pollute or corrupt Christian worship.  I for one feel that an ecumenical Epiphany service of readings and prayer is more robust than that! 

As for the others who have whipped up this controversy, I think that their interest has little to with St Mary's and a lot to do with trying to induce fear and self-righteous anger in their audience.

4. A Personal View

I think that my real sadness at this outcome stems from the fact that I had hoped that somehow we were past this sort of thing.  Alas, it appears that we are not.

From where I stand, I see all sacred texts as transcribed by inspired but fallible human beings doing their best to hear the still, small Voice of God. God is in there somewhere, but incommensurate with our ability to understand or fully express, so what we get is metaphor and story.  Jesus and his followers found the metaphor of Father and Son to be particularly cogent and useful in their particular context.  However, others at the time found the metaphor to be sacrilegious and crucified Jesus for it.  Later, the Prophet and his followers found it to be confusing and not very useful, and so they found other metaphors.  Instead of the Three Names of the Trinity, they produced lists of Allah’s 99 Names.  Interestingly, the 97th of these is Al-Warith, The Heir, or The Inheritor of All.

Personally, I want all sacred texts and traditions to be treated with respect when they point toward universal truths and recommend love and understanding of others, as Jesus commanded in the second part of the Summary of the Law: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  This means that they should be carefully and thoughtfully read and discussed in Church, Synagogue, or Mosque, or wherever people gather to contemplate the Ultimate.

At the same time, I want to find the grace in my heart to gently but compassionately pass over them when these same sacred texts and their adherents fall into divisiveness and mean-spirited denigration of other paths toward God. Sometimes when we listen for and think we hear God, what we actually hear is our own hurt and anger speaking. This is applies to my own spiritual tradition as much as it does anybody else’s.  If I am honest with myself, I have to admit that I too have my share of judgment and anger with those who hurt me and those I love with their sharp words and actions.  As we used to say in the 1960’s, “God isn't finished with me yet.”