Keeping the faith

It has been a rather extraodinary week here at St Mary’s.

Last Friday evening we had our Epiphany Eucharist, which was very much what we do – a full on Choral Mass:  Haydn’s little organ mass, a sermon on theophany from my colleague the Vice Provost and all the usual works. The thurible was flying, the Nicene Creed was recited and the hymns were belted out. So far so normal. If there was any controversy on the evening it was over the tune that I’d picked for Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning, which may have taken some people by surprise.

One of the features of local life in Glasgow in recent years is growing friendship amongst people of different faiths. The Vice Provost and I have been invited to a number of religious celebrations of other faith communities. We’ve been getting to know different Muslim groups locally and learning about their differences and been invited to splendid Eid banquets. We’ve eaten fabulously at the new Sikh gurwara along with Nicola Sturgeon the First Minister and enjoyed visiting the local Hindu temple. One of the increasing things in the interfaith arena is that festivals give great opportunities for people to learn new things about those who differ from them. They are usually fun and often have food and people are genuinely interested in sharing their faith at such events.

So it was that a number of years ago we invited one of our Muslim friends to read from the Qur’an at our Nine Lessons and Carols service at Christmas – it was a passage about the Virgin birth and people were fascinated at a time when we celebrate the coming of Christ to hear from the tradition of our neighours who also honour Christ but who do not accept the Christian doctrines and who follow the Muslim faith.

So succesful was this was it was done again a couple of years ago – in a packed church at a service with the bishop – this time the passage being chanted by a Shia leader. The consequences were the same – dialogue and great interest and an enormous amount of good will.

And so last week as we were reflecting on the arrival of the mysterious Magi at Bethlehem we again asked local Muslim friends if they would like to be present. Again there was a recitation and again there was a huge amount of interest amongst those present. The gospel was proclaimed, the preacher preached and the Eucharist was celebrated. Our Muslim friends were interested in what we do and had a number of questions afterwards. There was particular interest amongst the musicians as to the way arabic recitation works and one or two technical conversations about similarities between psalm pointing and Qur’anic recitation.

It was regarded locally as a good event – the kind of thing that St Mary’s does well. We’re pretty strong on midweek festivals and I always feel a joy at being able to get over a hundred people out for a midweek choral mass.

Having a recitation from the Qur’an in a Christian cathedral in worship is not a new thing. I’m aware of a time in the early 1990s when St Giles’s Cathedral in Edinburgh (ie Church of Scotland) hosted an event at which there was Islamic prayer within the cathedral. In 1991 at St Mungo’s Cathedral there was a service at which there was a recitation from the Qur’an which involved local church leaders including Archbishop Tom Winning and the then Moderator of the Church of Scotland.

Recitations from the Qur’an in Christians worship are unusual but not unknown. I’m aware of one in Liverpool Cathedral and at other events within the Church of England at civic services and within the context of number of university chaplaincies. No-one pretends that Muslims and Christians believe the same things. We know that Muslims don’t believe in the divinity of Christ – that’s a known and accepted fact. It isn’t surprising.

But how many Christians know that Muslims believe in the Virgin birth and how many have heard that from the Qur’anic tradition?

And that kind of thing is worth knowing.

So it has indeed come as something of a surprise to find accounts of last week’s service appearing online and stirring up the most most incredible pot of hatred I’ve ever encountered. (And I’m a veteran of the sex wars amongst Anglicans).

We’ve received Islamophobic and other hate filled messages so graphic and some of them so obscene that we eventually called the police, whom I have to say have been excellent at supporting us.

There are theological puzzles to wrestle with of course.

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?

Clearly those things are factors as they feature in some of the abuse.

There have been humorous moments amidst this storm too.

One of the complaints was “It is all very well them allowing Muslims into church but why won’t they marry gay couples?” which clearly came from someone who doesn’t know much about us. Another complained about the event at which Muslims were in church by saying, “It is all very well doing this but Muslims would never come to church you know” rather ignoring that the whole point was that a handful of Muslims had done so.

Those who came heard a confident Christian community proclaim their faith in Christ in no uncertain terms. We say the Nicene Creed at St Mary’s and we believe it. Indeed, I sometimes have to tell people that I say it without my fingers crossed. Our proclamation of the divinity of Christ is at the centre of every Eucharist that takes place every Sunday. And so is the greeting of peace which we offer to one another. Peace be with you. Shalom. Salaam.

One of our Muslim friends who was present last week wrote online:

It was an educational experience to have been present at St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Glasgow, in a service for the Epiphany… The service expounded on Christian tenets and the story of the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem; proving to be a rewarding and insightful exploration of Christian belief.

Elsewhere the same Muslim friends said recently:

Our warm wishes extend to all who are celebrating Christmas. At this time where the birth of Jesus the Son of Mary is remembered, revered and loved by both Christians and Muslims, [we] came together with Christian congregations in Edinburgh and Glasgow in respect and to strengthen relations and understanding between our faiths. We pray to Allah the Almighty for peace across the world, the lights of wisdom and guidance, global compassion, and hope for those bereft of hope. Our thanks extend to the Most Reverend Leo Cushley, Archbishop and Metropolitan of St Andrews & Edinburgh, the Rt Rev. Dr John Armes, Bishop of Edinburgh, (St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh) the Rev. Calum MacLeod, Minster of St Giles’ Cathedral, the Rev. Neil Galbraith, Minister of Cathcart Old Parish Church, and the Rev. Tembu Rongong, Rector of St James’ and St Philip’s Churches.

And there are happy pics of Muslim folk in church at Christmas alongside their Christian neighbours.

This is becoming normal for us and it matters.

Frankly, we think it is a good thing that Muslims are coming to church and hearing us proclaim the Gospel of Christ.

Here in Glasgow we have our history of religious conflict. When Muslims new to the city are asked, “Aye, but are you a protestant Muslim or a catholic Muslim?” it is both funny and not so funny.

But I rejoice in the fact that at least sometimes our interfaith encounters are real and life changing.

The truth is, people confident in their faith can often learn most from one another. We are confident in our Christian faith and enjoy sharing it.

The most perceptive comment this week came from someone who knows me well. “This is just absurd – St Mary’s doesn’t do syncretism it does hospitality”.

That’s it in a nutshell. We don’t do syncretism, we do hospitality.

Syncretism means the amalgamation of different religions or cultures. We simply are not in that business when we do our interfaith work. We hold fast to Christian orthodoxy and we welcome those who come in peace.

For the record, no-one amongst the several Church of England folk and the single Scottish Episopal priest who originally wrote about this online and triggered the deluge of abuse that we have received bothered to contact us to check the context of what happened.

Also, for the record, a significant amount that you can read about this issue online is inaccurate or simply untrue.

And finally also for the record, Police Scotland have responded to this in a way that I can only describe as superb. They assure me that intolerance and prejudice will not be tolerated in Scotland. To put it simply, I thank God for them and their work.

And to have the last word about the service itself, the tune we used for Brightest and Best was the correct one. No arguments.

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Comments

  1. Rosemary Hannah says:

    Oh dear, still not convinced by the Brightest and Best tune.

    The rest of the sorry storm in a teacup- decidedly not the brightest and best we humans can manage.

  2. FrPip says:

    I’m very surprised at the outrage. Surely people with a Christian faith aren’t intimidated by somoene not agreeing with them? If that is what the church is – a place where people have to agree with each other – then it is not the church of the Apostles.
    But, the BIG question – which tune did you use?

    • I used the correct tune.

      • FrPip says:

        You see, there may indeed be issues where somethign I don’t agree with should not be chanted in church…

        I’m hoping your correct interpretation of the use of tunes does not pertend to the inappropriate use of Bach.

        More importantly, anyone putting down “From the Eastern Mountains” to any tune other than King’s Western should not be in charge of a hymn book.

        • King’s Western is indeed the correct tune for From the Eastern Mountains.

          • Calum W says:

            We sang it to Cuddesdon here which was unusual but nice.

            From a distance, I’m slightly bewildered by the response to this particular moment, when it seems likes it’s publicly part of your very being at St M’s. I can’t imagine how much more painful it is in person, but I take heart in all this that we can still agree and disagree on the best hymn tunes.

          • Iain Templeton says:

            King’s Weston, not Western!

      • I am delighted that you used Willan’s matchless Stella Orientis! My current parish is the only one I have ever been to that does not.

  3. Sarah Lawton says:

    Which tune did you use for Brightest and Best to provoke such controversy? In any case, thank you for your inclination to hospitality and for your clarity now.

    • Thanks for your comments Sarah. I used a tune simply called Brightest and Best which comes from the Salvation Army which is the organisation I grew up in.

      We won’t always use that tune but it did give me a little joy to hear it used again.

      (Not this one, as it happens though this is also a great tune for the same words that is used by the Salvation Army –

      – I can hum along the baritone part)

  4. Lesley says:

    I rarely comment but often read your blog. What a week! People never fail to surprise/disappoint me, those who have responded with hate. I have no words for those except a very slow saddened shake of the head. However you yourself, you have my admiration.

    • Thanks Lesley. One of the nice things about this week has been receiving comments from people that I rarely hear from and in some cases knew better a long time ago offering support.

      Great to hear from you and thanks for making the exception and posting this time.

      • Helen Dean says:

        I am another who follows but rarely/never (?) comments. I am particularly heartened by the words of hospitality, holding fast to what we believe and welcoming those who come in peace. Open hearts and spiritual integrity are not incompatible but essential companions.

  5. Kelvin, thanks for taking the time to offer your perspective on this. But I hope you will extend your hospitality to someone who wants to ask some reasonable questions about this.

    First, it is good that you have made the time here—but odd that you said to me that you did not have time to actually address the substantive issues, and that neither has anyone in the diocese had time to do so. This seems odd when there are some important issues at stake.

    Second, you refer to ‘several Church of England folk and the single Scottish Episopal priest’ and I presume you include me in this. It is not true that we failed to check the facts; Peter Ould who wrote the guest piece was very careful to do the homework. And in correspondence I invited you to inform me of any factual errors, which I would immediately correct. You offered none.

    Thirdly, I think it is appalling that anyone should respond with abuse; I don’t condone that in any way, and the post I hosted was factual and respectful. You now appear to be apportioning blame for abuse to those of us who reported and asked questions, which seems to me to be disingenuous. You appear to have removed the YouTube video of the recording, so others cannot themselves check the facts, and you refused to answer when you were asked about the misleading translation which did not match the recitation, and in doing so hid the key verses which were problematic. You refused to comment when asked about precisely this by the BBC.

    Lastly, you claim that your approach is not ‘syncretistic’, but SEC’s own statement argues that: ‘Increasingly, some see religious identity not just in terms of belonging to one denomination or faith tradition: rather, it is discovered through the process of engagement with different faiths, ‘picking and mixing’ in ways that have not previously been seen.’ Including this problematic reading from the Qur’an appears to many to be just such a ‘pick and mix’ approach—whose Greek term is ‘syncretism’.

    Many feel that this incident raises questions that need answering, not just within SEC but within the Anglican Communion. Simply avoiding them, as you do here, will not make them go away. I look forward to a follow-up post which engages as respectfully and clearly as my original post has done. You comment below: ‘I change my mind sometimes – especially when persuaded of something by someone in debate. Try me and see.’ I am taking you at your word.

    • Briefly
      I can only repeat that no-one contacted me before publishing what they did to establish what actually happened during the whole of the service, neither you nor Peter Ould nor Bishop Nazir Ali.

      As is the way with blogging, I address the things I’m interested in as and when I want to respond to them.

      I have not removed any video from youtube. Neither I nor St Mary’s has posted any youtube videos in over a year and nor have I removed any youtube videos nor asked for them to be removed. I am puzzled as to why you should make such a claim.

      I can confirm that I am not someone who sees my own religious identity in any pick and mix way. Indeed those involved with me in ecumenical encounters often know that to their frustration.

      • Simon Butler says:

        Kelvin, a very sensitive piece. Only this morning I chanced upon an article by Peter Ould about an incident at my former church. His “fact-checking” then was as partial and ill-informed then as now. At our Advent carol service we had a recitation of a piece by that well-known Ancient Greek “syncretist” Horace. I really cannot see the difference between that unremarkable choice of non-canonical literature and yours. Except, of course, that no-one today is an Ancient Greek-ophobe.

  6. Paul Strudwick says:

    One year at an Anglican Church in British Columbia, for Lent we invited each week representatives from different faiths to talk about their beliefs and practices, and to answer questions. The Sikhs came and wrapped my head in a turban, the Moslems came and prayed, and so on. It was informative and enlightening. It helped to dispel a little of the shadow of fear that attaches to those different from us that lurks instinctively deep within human nature. It is, in my believe, one of the shadows that Christ came to lighten. The internet has made possible many good things, but its dark side is that it has enabled spite, hatred and bigotry to be expressed without the consequences of face-to-face communication. I know that you’re not easily intimidated, so it is a bit of a shock to realise just how nasty the trolls must have been. Sending prayers for your ministry and your resolute, persistent faith.

  7. We too – like many other ordinary Anglican parish churches, I imagine – have invited our Muslim neighbours to attend church, and been invited by them to attend the Mosque. We have read the scriptures of both faiths together and had many discussions about our respective doctrines. Thankfully without attracting anything like the negative attention which I have been sorry to see coming your way online over the last few days. I have always found sharing worship with friends of another faith to be a very enriching experience which has, if anything, helped me to become more clear and confident in my own Christian faith.

    I find it astonishing that there are those who feel “threatened” merely by the idea of hearing someone else’s sacred texts read out loud. To be honest, such fear does not seem to me to be the hallmark of a confident and mature faith, but rather to reveal something of the insecurity of the complainant.

    I long for the day when everyone of every faith will be sufficiently confident in their own beliefs to be interested in, rather than fearful of, the beliefs of others (and the lion shall lie down with the lamb!).

    Your experience this week reminds me of the joyful moment when a Palm Sunday procession was interrupted by a few Muslim teenagers shouting “Salaam alaikum” to which all responded – much to their surprise – “and also with you”!

  8. Liebster Immanuel: what else? http://www.ccel.org/cceh/0010/001031a.pdf

  9. John-Julian. OJN says:

    Those who first tread the rocky path over the mountains will have a difficult time, for the path is rough and irregular. The next ones who walk that way will find it a little easier—and the next still smoother—until eventually the path over the mountain will be no more than an easy and restful stroll—thanks entirely to that first courageous and daring band!

  10. Happy Jack says:

    Hi Kelvin,

    Can you please explain why the printed order of service stops at verse 33, and yet the actual recital included verses 34-6 of Sura 19 which include denial that the Creator God has a son? How did this discrepancy arise between the printed order of service and what actually happened?

    Many thanks.

    • Thanks for your question. I can’t explain that as I don’t know the answer and it might not be possible for me to get an answer to that question. However, I don’t think anyone was being malicious or trying to get one over the Christians.

      Indeed, I have found all involved in this service to have been gracious and kind to one another throughout all this.

      The text that was printed in the service sheet is what we expected to be read- Sura Maryam 19 verses 16-33. I don’t have Arabic and given how difficult it was for me to acquire appalling Hebrew, I am unlikely ever to attempt to learn.

      I won’t be publishing any further questions or responses in connection with this as I’ve said above all that I know and am likely to know.

      • If I may Father K, I also covered this section of the Quran in an Episcopal Cafe story. I also chose to stop the reading at verse 33. However, it is my understanding that for Muslims, the full reading is usually verses 16 – 36, which is the complete version of the Quranic Nativity. Your guest, in all likelyhood, read what she is accustomed to reading as the full story, innocently not realizing that whomever chose the portion to be printed had cut it off early. I can’t see any ill intent there, but then again, I don’t go looking for the worst about an event or a person as a matter of course.

  11. Stewart says:

    It was an inspiring recitation. Following the English translation in the service sheet provided added insight to the life of Mary. All the more so as the cathedral is dedicated to St Mary. You are reminded of Mary every time you walk into the building with the Gwyneth Leech mural over the High Altar.

  12. Kelvin is quite right. The very self-righteous defenders of the Bible (including the ones who trolled a brave young Muslim woman, for days, with the most vile language, and those who did not reprimand them) totally ignored the Biblical instructions for raising concerns with a brother in faith (Matthew 18:15; 2 Tim 23). Very practical instruction too! As anyone who has ever lived in community can verify. Could all these obsessive men *please* stop trying to divide our communities in Glasgow. We will not be divided. At the first sign of trouble we rush out to embrace one another. These abusers have much to repent of, even if *just* standing by while others throw stones.

  13. I HATE it when the wrong tune is picked for a hymn … it is simply an abomination before God.
    However, helping people to think about how we share hospitality, welcome and learn from each other is the WAY of God! Blessings on you Kelvin.

  14. Whit J. says:

    Some reasons why this time was different:
    1. The other quaran recitations you mentioned happened at Nine Lessons and Carols, or special ecuminical and interfaith events. While 9L&C was originally a modified Evensong, nowadays it’s usually considered a seasonal community musical recitial with a religious tinge, so having a Muslim from the community recite something from their faith would seem natural enough. Civic and interfaith services will likewise naturally include representatives of every faith in the community. By contrast the Eucharist is the central act of Christian worship and people expect to hear ONLY Christian doctrine proclaimed in the Holy Eucharist. In other words, this was the wrong venue for showing hospitality to Muslim neighbors. You did not intend to practice syncretism, but I think the outcome was syncretic despite your good intentions.
    2. Post Brexit (and post Trump) British Muslims are now seen as alien invaders rather than fellow members of the community.
    3. Because hostility to Muslims is now fashionable, the Express and rest of the gutter press decided that this was a story worth reporting. Since conservative Americans often read the online editions of the British gutter press, the story then went global.
    4. Because you are gay and out, your every action is scrutinized for any possible hint of heresy by GAFCON and Co.

    Of all these reasons, only reason #1 is a legitimate criticism, but I hope you do think about criticism #1 as well as defending yourself from other, illegitimate criticisms.

    • Thank you for your comment Whit J – all the more because it is a thoughtful criticism.

      I’ve plenty to reflect on about the how and the when we do things like that and I do hear loudly and clearly that many people think this was an inappropriate context. Though of course, I’d be bound to say that some are saying that the Eucharist is precisely the place indeed there are some saying that is what it is for.

      I’m not going to get into a back and forth with all the comments on this post and I’m deliberately not letting through things that have already been said but be assured that I’ve heard the criticism and will reflect on it not simply now but over coming months. (I’ve learned a lot about where God is this week that will take a long time to process). I’m grateful for the way you’ve made your point.

    • Rosemary Hannah says:

      I think there is a good deal in what Whit J says, although I am not sure the effect actually was syncretic. I think one does perhaps have to be a regular worshipper at St Mary’s to understand how totally orthodox the worship there is, and how much Jesus is the focus of worship – how utterly unlikely it is that anyone there would make the mistake of thinking he was not revered by the congregation as a whole as very God from very God. It would be impossible for them not to realise that all the clergy there rejoice in this belief. The congregation saw the words of the Qu’ran in an English translation which portrayed that book’s far-from-easy-to-follow account of Islam’s view of the conception of Jesus, in which there was nothing offensive, and heard a very beautiful voice singing in a strange and glorious language. These were clearly indicated to be the beliefs of another faith. We certainly neither saw or heard or understood any insult to the person of Christ. I am sure none was intended, either. Whereas, and this bears repeating, I am totally sure that many of those commenting (not of course by any means all of them, and nobody whose comments are published here) simply wish harm to relationships between the great faiths in Glasgow.

  15. Fr Richard Peers says:

    I have spent my whole adult life in dialogue with people of other religious traditions, it has been deeply rewarding. However I feel that what happened at this service was profoundly wrong. When we are truly ourselves we allow other people to be profoundly themselves. The truth of Christianity is not compatible with any other religion. To avoid that incompatibility is to avoid reality. Worship of Jesus is the fountain of our faith the Qu’ran is opposed to that. I love Jesus and therefore cannot conceive of reading the Qu’ran in an act of worship – no problem doing so in other contexts but not in worship. I am profoundly disturbed that you cannot see this Kelvin.

    • There are so many things aren’t there, not just around this issue which we hold dear in faith and which we can’t see from another perspective?

      I can hear and see that people are upset by this and clearly there are many people not upset by it too. And obviously, at least I hope obviously, I love Jesus too.

      The trouble with religious questions and the questions that religious people have I think is that so often that our love for our faith can make it impossible to comprehend others who also claim to love the same faith but who take different views about things. We can hear them claim that love but be intellectually unable to process it because it leads them to different conclusions.

      I’ve found the same thing to be true in the sexuality debates very frequently though I perceive that to be changing sometimes now. Similarly with other identity issues and some political issues. Israel/Palestine conversations for example often seem to be conducted (when they are conducted at all) by people who seem to behave like ships passing in the night.

      I happen to have views about Church Schools which are pretty intransigent and negative. You are one of the few people, no the only person, who ever made me really think there might be a point of view about them other than mine which might have an integrity I could respect. And I’m very grateful for that.

      • Fr Richard Peers says:

        Kelvin, thank you for your reply. I have enormous respect for you. I have no doubt that church schools can be argued against from perfectly respectable positions. Worship of Jesus is simply a different order, it cannot include a reading from the Qu’ran. Worship is one thing, study, dialogue, relationship something else.

      • I am really grateful to Richard for the phrase “When we are truly ourselves we allow other people to be profoundly themselves” which reflects my experience of interfacing with sincere people of other faiths. Is a Christian Eucharist a place this should happen? I can understand some Christians feeling it is not, but as long as everything was clearly labelled as what it was and the integrity of the liturgy was intact, I can also understand some feeling it is.

  16. Monty K. says:

    Brother Kelvin,

    Although I do not agree with allowing the Koran to be read in our Christian churches, I truly appreciated your firm and resolute stand for the deity of Jesus. He is our great God and Savior and I love Him very much. Blessings from Tennessee.

  17. Meg Rosenfeld says:

    Just as a perhaps amusing point of reference, the 1982 hymnal of the Episcopal church in the USA has “Brightest and best of the STARS” (caps mine) “of the morning,” apparently so as to avoid offending any daughters who might be present, and the two tunes included are “Morning Star” by James Proctor Harding (1850-1911) and “Star in the East” from The Southern Harmony (1835). The Harding tune was also in the 1940 Hymnal, wherein the word “sons” was still used.

  18. Jane Smith says:

    I am not clear as to whether the hospitality at St Mary’s anticipates infinite extension of parallel lines between Islam and the Church in Glasgow. Are you planning some opportunities for Glasgow Muslims to understand the Christian faith and prepare for Baptism and the glorious liberty of regeneration by the Holy Spirit? (In whichever order; no axe about that!) As you move around the Glasgow community and meet more Christians of Islamic background, why not invite such to participate in groups for new Muslim enquirers? The testimony of an ex-Muslim can express vibrantly “How I know He lives” (as your SA brethren would sing). You might find not only new hearts from a divine work of grace among your Muslim neighbours but in other neighbours too. Amen. Inshallah!

    • There are a small number of people in St Mary’s who are converts from Islam to Christianity just as there are a small number of people in local mosques who are converts from Christianity to Islam.

      St Mary’s regularly puts on events and courses for people discovering and exploring Christianity. Most living religions do the same thing.