The SEC has found itself, somewhat inexplicably to my mind, the centre of attention recently, because a section of the Quran was read out (chanted I think) at a service marking the feast of the Epiphany.
The Provost, and the Cathedral in general have been subject to the spectrum of disapproval from commentors as a result, from the “disgusted” to the slightly less honest “Sad and disappointed” to the full “we’ll burn you down you heretic” threats of physical violence.
I’m somewhat mystified about the reasons for the anger about this. Not by those who issue threats of violence of course – they are by no means mysterious. I’m confused as to why rational folk like Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali and Ian Paul, on what I believe is Peter Ould’s website (I might be worng, apologies if so) might see this as something which, according to one, requires “appropriate discipline”.
I believe appropriate discipline has indeed already been exercised – which is none.
Is the issue that churches should not share the views of those with whom they disagree? Should we not, for example, read from the God Delusion or from Josephus the Jewish historian, or from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, as I myself have done both in sermons or other contexts? Should the church protect itself from other belief systems?
Whenever I have done this, I have always done so trusting that my congregation are intelligent enough to be able to work out that I am not promoting or espousing those beliefs. Most of the time those things have been read because they provide an interesting context for our own beliefs. We do not exist in a vacuum, either historically, theologically or culturally. Many Christians find it fascinating and hopeful that Mary is mentioned as a great Prophetess in the Quran, and provides a point of dialogue.
The Cathedral in Glasgow had invited a Muslim to read a part of the Quran in the spirit of hospitality and dialogue. Hospitality and dialogue are two of the things the world needs more than anything else at the moment. It was a public sign that dialogue was possible between faiths – and even though there is an impassible gulf between those faiths in terms of belief, the fact that dialogue takes place makes us better and wiser humans as a result.
Anyone making the claims that the Provost is promoting syncretism understands neither the Provost or the church of which he is a part. There are a small number of conservative Christians who believe that anyone who promotes same sex marriage, as Kelvin does, must be “watering down their beliefs”. Anyone who has met Kelvin knows that his beliefs are 100% proof, full-strength Christianity. Just because he and I may come to different conclusions about some issues than the conservatives says nothing whatsoever about the strength of faith, or of the measure of passion we hold about our beliefs.
One blog post suggested that there was some sort of skulduggery going on, in that the translation of the section of the Quran given in the service sheet did not include the “offensive” part a couple of verses later, which was chanted out. To be offended by this requires not simply a conspiritorial mind, but also a degree in Arabic.
But the issue which has got me thinking about this most has been the statement issued by ++David Chillingworth, our Primus. I would hate to be in the Primus’ place on most issues, and this is no exception. But at the risk of straining gnats, I would take one small issue on the Primus’ expression of being “deeply distressed at the widespread offence which has been caused”. The issue I have is the nature of “offence”. To my mind, offence is not caused, it is taken.
My son who is ten, often talks about something being “offensive” You hear it a lot in school. Children are offended, things are offensive, things cause offence.
Being offended is a modern curse. It feels authentic, being offended enables us to feel righteous anger. It bolsters our beliefs and normally provides us with a passionate group of fellow believers. But offence is simply anger with a prettier face. Offence is not an adjective describing a noun, it is an emotion felt by one person.
What St Mary’s in Glasgow did, by asking Muslims to take part in a service of Christian worship, may have triggered emotions, causing them to feel angry, but it did not cause the feeling of offence. That belongs to the people themselves; to their understanding of the world, to the nature of their faith, to their character and their temper. None of that is governed by who reads what in a Glasgow church.
I am sorry that people were offended. But I take no responsibility for their offence, and I dont think St Mary’s Cathedral Glasgow should either. This is the third time the Cathedral invited a Muslim to read from the Quran and people weren’t offended the first two times. I am sorry that people are more keen to publicly criticise, and less keen to do as Jesus asked in Matthew 18 more – engaging in dialogue and conversaiton with those with whom they disagree. I am sorry that people find reserves of anger inside themselves which comes out as being deeply offended. I’m sorry that people intellectualise around that inner anger, showing themselves to be clever, but not perhaps wise. There are many things about this that I’m sorry for.
But that a bright young Muslim woman sang a part of her holy book in a place full of Christians, and found hospitality and dialogue in a church, despite the fact I disagree with its contents – that I’m perfectly content with.