Taking Offence

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.

About frpip

Priest, Dad, A long way away. You can call me Father Father Father.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Taking Offence

  1. [J] I know nothing of the events referred to, but find your argument interesting and helpful. A few years ago I was away from home, working in Glasgow for varying lengths of time, and for once having to spend a weekend there. I was feeling down, or more to the point, on a downward-spiral, and I had a need for being loved, for being reassured. I came across a church with a service about to start, and as I could see inside and it looked somewhat familiar with what I have been used to in the past, I joined the congregation, and came away better for it. In fact, I found it a very welcoming, lively, loving and outward looking church. As I walked away I looked at the sign outside: St Mary’s Cathedral, with that emblem I so love to see on my travels – that of the Episcopal Church. Thanks to this post of yours, I’m more likely to go out of my way to attend a service there again, especially if it is as inclusive as you describe.

  2. Pamela says:

    Bishop Michael N-A … well I remember being intwrviewed for a job in his diocese and all they worried about on the 8 man interview panel was radical Muslims and how chaplains can help combat this. End of the interview they say.. oh we forgot to ask rather delicate question.. are you divorced ? The bishop does not employ divorced clergy.. he has never changed… sad..

  3. iolaire1 says:

    I find verbally-abusive, hate-filled, & intolerant people “offensive”.
    I don’t however stoop to their damaged & wounded level. I pray for them, sincerely, because I feel so sad & sorry for them, that they so misunderstand the teachings of Jesus.
    It is right, very right, & necessary that we try to open doors to our Muslim neighbours, our Hindu neighbours, our agnostic & atheist neighbours, our human neighbours.

  4. Sheila Weir says:

    The fact that you can’t understand why this reading of the Quran was a huge error is deeply depressing. Friendship, discussion, reaching out to people of other faiths or none is a good thing and can be done over a meal, a coffee, a walk. Sharing the ‘pulpit’ with people who do not believe that Jesus Christ is “the way, the truth and the life … and the only way to God” is not a good thing. Allowing them to read out in a supposedly worship service blasphemous words against the Triune God is even more depressing. Because I am part of the wider Christian community in Scotland I am deeply ashamed of our unfaithfulness to God on this occasion.
    I note there is plenty of regret being talked about the offence caused (furore?!) but no humble repentance at allowing these untruthful words to be read out into the minds of a congregation who deserve so much more. We come to honour God as we come into His presence. We long for our lives to be in alignment with His Word (the Bible) and His will for our lives. We ask Him to “create in us pure hearts and renew steadfast spirits within us”. We want to be a people who obey Him when He says “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners”. I pray for the awakening of the Church; for the cleansing and purging of God’s people; for the healing of the land and for a move of God in our villages, towns and cities that will change every life with a manifestation of God’s glory.

    • frpip says:

      Sheila, in a way your post exemplifies why good dialogue has to take place, not just between other faiths but within Christianity. You have told me that you find my attitude depressing, that you think what St Mary’s did is “not a good thing”, and again, depressing. You want the cathedral to seek repentnece for this action, you say the congregation deserve more than this. And yet I am still at a loss after reading your post as to what you think the sin is, other than allowing the words of a different faith to be read in church. You have not responded to the explanation as to why those words were read, just repeated your disappointment. With respect, that isn’t dialogue, it is preaching. The cathedral wasn’t condoning the beliefs of the Quran, it was not encouraging people to believe them, it was simply showing that another faith found something in Christ and in Mary to be honoured, in the same way as the Wise Men, those Zoroastrian Shamen or Magi, recognised Christ as a Messiah, they had spiritual insights about him, and then they went back to being Zoroastrians. I woudl have thought that it was a great analogy, and as such within the liturgy was a good way of bringing that story into the present day, and making us ask the questions that surely the Jewish converts to Christianity woudl have had when they first read of the Magi.
      I would genuinely welcome understanding.But perhaps instead of praying for me to repent of my sin, you could first explain just what the sin was? And please respond to what I’ve said above, rather than just repeating what you have said in this post. I want dialogue, but that involves listening and responding on both sides

      • It has been claimed that the events in Glasgow have been misreported although I have not seen anyone point out in what ways the facts have been misrepresented. As far as I know it was a Festive Eucharist for the Epiphany using authorised liturgy but with a recital from the Qur’an in the place where one would expect the Epistle, i.e. immediately before the Gradual and the Gospel reading. Maybe your defence of the reading is based on a different understanding of what happened?

        Your response to Sheila Weir makes it sound as if she rejects any reading of words of a different faith in church. But there is an obvious difference between, one the one hand, a preacher citing words from the Qur’an and putting them in context, explaining, affirming and maybe rejecting aspects of it, as the case may be, and, on the other hand, a Muslim cantor reciting the Qur’an as a Scripture reading, i.e. following Islamic conventions for reciting the Qur’an and doing so in a place in the liturgy in which one expects a Scripture reading. It is the latter which has caused consternation.

        The service came to the attention of the wider public when the cantor, Madinah Javed, published a video of her recital on Facebook. Some have hinted at sinister reasons why this event is criticised, while previous readings of the Qur’an have not been. The simple reason seems to be that this event came to wider attention, others had not.

        Is it really so difficult to see why some Christians object to the use of the Qur’an as God’s Word in church even regardless of which passage is cited? In addition, the passage cited expresses heterodox beliefs about Jesus not only in the ayat which were not printed on the service sheet but also in those that were. (And because it has also been suggested that only hate-mongerers or people with a degree in Arabic could possibly have any interest in pointing out the difference between what was chanted in Arabic and what was printed in English on the service sheet, let me point out that the video was published, while the order of service was not, and so Arabic was all that was available at first.)

        I hope this helps.

      • frpip says:

        It does help, thank you.
        Just to clarify, I said, somewhat tongue in cheek that in order to find sinister reasons in the difference between what was printed and what was chanted required a “conspiritorial mind”. I did not accuse anyone of being hate-mongers. You might have found that comment elsewhere, but I’m glad to say you didn’t find it in my blog post. I would never label fellow Christians in such a way.
        You also suggest that there are claims things have been misreported. Again, I’m not sure where that has been done, but I probably know only as much as you do in terms of what happened. My understanding is as yours is concerning when the passage from the Qur’an was recited. However the freedom of liturgy we have in the Scottish Episcopal church is considerably larger than churches in the C of E, and it is not uncommon to either omit the Old Testament, or Epistle, or on occasion to substitute them with other readings.
        I do take your point concerning the place in the liturgy however. When I first heard about it I misread that it was during an Epiphany carol service (eg akin to a nine lessons, when the previous readings had been) and it does put it in a different context. Were I seeking to do something similar I think I would want to put something clear in the service sheet, and would probably take the opportunity of making the direct comparison between Islam and the Magi in a sermon. I’m not sure whether that happened or not. Liturgically I can see how much sense it makes to have the “magi-like” passage before the Gospel, as though it is an insight into the mind of the Magi of our day.
        I can of course see why people are upset – it’sa very new idea, and the headline of it sounds odd, and the very word “blasphemous” is a powerful one. The question for me would have been whether it caused any confusion, upset or watering down of the Christian message to those who experienced it. As far as I am aware it did not. I suspect the power of the reciting lay in a foreign tongue and a foreign singing style being present as a way of highlighting the alien-ness of the Magi who were outsiders. Liturgically it makes a lot of sense. The wider message has been lost in the heat of the story.
        But I absolutely take the point – some may have felt justifiably that it wasn’t appropriate. Some may feel they don’t like it, others may feel that they woudln’t have done it or wouldn’t want it in their church. All of those I think are fair comment. But to accuse someone of apostacy, blasphemy and to call for the sacking or defrocking moves away from theological argument between fellow Christians into something really quite dark, to my mind.
        The point of my blog post, as well as to ask for some clarity on what the issue is, was to suggest that this is not the way that Christians should speak to one another. Perhaps that is because those who have denounced the Cathedral do not regard Kelvin as a fellow Christian because of his views on Same-sex marriage. I certainly know that everything he does is closely monitored.
        Sometimes people feel their identity is stronger when they have something to speak against. I see that in many instances – the Daily Mail defines it’s readership by who they object to; many tribal, cultural and sectarian identities are largely defined against a common enemy. I don’t think that’s the Christian way and I think outrage is not a good emotional response to a fellow Christian. Again, Matthew 18 tells us we should speak at first personally, then with others, then with the whole council before treating them as Gentiles (which to my mind suggests engaging once again in the project of evangelism). It feels as though the Gentile phase of this conflict has come first.

  5. Thank you for your clarification. I have not seen the graphic, obscene and hate filled messages to which the Provost refers and to which you allude. I can therefore distance myself from them only in principle rather than by pointing to specific instances. But judging by his blog comment and recent sermon Kelvin Holdsworth sees no room for legitimate criticism of his liturgical leadership on this occasion and apparently lumps together those he calls Islamophobes with everyone who raises serious questions about this event.

    You have helped me to put this in context by pointing out that there is a considerably larger freedom of liturgy in the Scottish Episcopal Church than in the C of E. It is not unknown here in England for the Old Testament or Epistle reading to be omitted but I have not heard of either of them being substituted with other readings. I find it troubling that this is apparently allowed within the SEC, as it suggests lack of a clear, liturgical distinction between what is and what is not Scripture. In the C of E there is a liturgical response with Scripture readings (“This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.”) which one would obviously not use in other contexts, e.g., after a Shakespeare sonnet read at a marriage service. The lack of such a response in the SEC liturgy makes it easier to slot in a non-Scriptural reading although ironically in this case a colophon along those lines was supplied (صدق الله العظيم God Almighty has spoken the truth).

    I am not sure that you or I can tell whether the recitation of the Qur’an “caused any confusion, upset or watering down of the Christian message to those who experienced it” first hand. As noted above, the SEC’s liturgical freedom seems to invite confusion about the difference between what is and is not Scripture. It seems very likely that some upset was averted by not paying too close attention to what was actually being recited or by failing to appreciate its meaning. Ignorance is bliss in this case. Better to enjoy the foreign sounds of a beautiful rendition than trying to establish in what ways exactly Jesus is alleged to be honoured here.

    From what I know the Nicene Creed was recited at the service but I wonder to what extent the service communicated an urgency to believe the truths confessed in this Creed. At Epiphany we celebrate the revelation of Christ to all nations and hence traditionally the unity of the body of Christ across cultural divisions and the church’s mission to all are focused upon during the Epiphany season. Does the honour given to the Qur’an at this Eucharist suggest that there is no need for Muslims to abandon Islamic teaching and follow Christ? Does it suggest that we are all members of the people of God whether we belong to the body of Christ or not? If so, surely the Christian message has been “watered down” (if that’s the right expression).

    • frpip says:

      I think this is a case where a raised eyebrow is more appropriate than a chorus of disapproval.
      I don’t think you are correct in interpreting Kelvin’s stance on this issue in terms of those who have legitimate questions and those who have used this as an opportunity for hate speech. I don’t know if you’ve had experience of threats made on line, but it feels as though someone has been in your house and left a note to say they will be back to do you harm. I honestly feel I would be prepared to die for my faith, but the prospect of that being brought close to home is an unsettling one, and I don’t blame anyone for focussing on those comments above others.
      With respect, the SEC’s litrugy does not “invite confusion” about what is and what is not scripture. I would again say – do you honestly believe that anyone would have gone from that service thinking that they ought to believe what the Qur’an says above the Bible? I would ask you to reflect on whether this is a real issue in the context of this liturgy, or whether it is an intellectualisation of a feeling of being unsettled.
      You say “I wonder to what extent the service communicated an urgency to believe the truths confessed in this Creed.” Why do you wonder this?
      The questions you raise here are legitimate to ask someone who was perhaps at the service, but I was not so can’t answer them. I suspect however, that knowing Kelvin as I do, the answers to most of them would be “of course not”.

      • I take your point that Kelvin was reacting to an avalanche of hate mail with which I never had to deal and that it is therefore maybe unreasonable to expect a more differentiated response from him. It is easier for us who are at a greater distance. (By the way, I have not felt emotionally unsettled by the event myself and so am not aware of any need to rationalise my feelings.)

        No, I don’t expect that any Christian “would have gone from that service thinking that they ought to believe what the Qur’an says above the Bible” nor do I expect that any Muslim would have gone away thinking that they must embrace what the Bible says rather than what the Qur’an says.

        The reason I wondered to what extent the service communicated an urgency to believe the truths confessed in this Creed is this: the liturgy contained a reading which denied the truth claims of the Creed and there is little reason to believe that the Islamic counter-claim was rejected in the sermon. The liturgy thus included both the Athanasian Creed and a denial thereof and this rather undermines the claim that the truths expressed in the creed are to be believed by all. I accept that the denial was maybe not as obvious to some members in the congregation as to others and hence my comment about ignorance being bliss. (A Scottish friend of mine commented that many of those who have expressed strong opposition to what happened have been Muslim-background Christians in Glasgow and elsewhere.)

      • frpip says:

        Forgive me, but it seems the two halves of this post are contradicting one another. You say that you don’t think any Christians would have gone away thinking they ought to believe what the Qur’an says and then you say that the result of the reading of the Qur’an would lead people to feel the creed was undermined.
        I can well believe that converts from Islam would have had a strong reaction against this. As far as I’m aware there is only one person who is a member of the Cathedral who is in this situation and he has wholeheartedly supported Kelvin in this.
        I’m not denying people’s dislike of this, neither do I deny their right to object to it – especially if they have a history which might make this action painful. But rather the way in which these things are resolved can and should be through dialogue – such as we have been doing here. Personally, just talking to you about it has given me a far better insight into the issue than I had before. For which my thanks.

  6. Thanks. Just to clarify the comment you found puzzling or contradictory: The Creed is undermined when it is incorporated in a liturgy which suggests that it is possible to honour Christ while denying the truths affirmed in the Creed. It seems to me that Surah 19 was recited because the one who put the service together believed that it honoured Christ. So if people go away thinking, “well, some people honour Christ in this way which is fine, but I will continue to honour him in the Athanasian way,” they have not in fact been strengthened in the orthodox Christian faith but led closer to a pluralism in which affirming the Creed is no longer a matter of life and death.

    • frpip says:

      Well, fair enough if you think that’s possible, but for my own opinion I think that’s a bit of a remote possibility that people woudl go away thinking that. I think congregations can work out what’s what far better than that.

  7. John Vagabond says:

    Ecumenically, there’s nothing at all wrong with allowing Koranic verses to be read out in a Christian Church, as long as one fundamental principle is satisfied. That Muslims and Christians worship the same God. I happen to think that they do not, the ecumenical street is avowedly one-way (try asking an imam if you can read John 14:6 out during one of his meetings), furthermore Islam’s relentless proselytizing is embedded in their practices, with the result that they make gains at the expense of the Christian churches. Faith occasionally needs defending.

Comments are closed.