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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Why does God allow suffering?

Why does God allow suffering?

Here’s my answer in the form of a sermon.

To be strictly honest, I’m not sure that it is particularly my answer. I think it may be the only answer.

And I’m moved to have seen that this has been shared by people since I preached it and has been avidly watched in New Zealand. It has also, apparently been used by a religious studies teacher today to engage with Higher Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies students in a school in Glasgow.


This is a church which helps people to articulate questions.

Not just little questions but big questions.

I hope that we can help people to answer questions too, but in a way I’m more concerned that we keep building this place as a place where good questions can be asked and articulated.

Good questions. Big questions. Questions that matter.

That was a part of the diocesan pilgrimage days that we have had over the last couple of weeks welcoming friends from around the diocese. A key part of the day was gathering the questions. Indeed, one of the things that I’ve learned from working with Cedric is how important it is to devise processes for gathering questions and allowing people to give voice to what matters to them.

We’re now running God Factor 12 or 13 or something like that. I’ve started to lose count.

But one question keeps coming up – I think it has come up in most if not all the God Factor session at one time or another.

And it is some variation on one of the questions that is behind the gospel reading for today.

Why does God allow suffering?

Why does God allow bad things to happen?

Why do disasters happen and what is God’s part in it?

Why does God let people suffer? Make people suffer? Allow suffering at all?

And in the gospel reading this morning we have an attempt to answer that question.

I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s only one real answer to that question and that Christians keep on asking the question because they don’t like the answer but it is the only one that exists.

In this morning’s gospel reading we get the same and only answer that I can give to the question. But then we get a wee story tagged on the end.

And maybe the story is interesting.

Firstly, Jesus is asked about the Galileans who have been killed by Pilate. Were they worse than other Galileans?

No he says, but then says, “Repent, or you will die as they did”.

Then he remembers 18 people killed in a disaster when the tower of Siloam fell on them. Were they worse than all the others in Jerusalem?

Why do disasters happen to some people?

Why does God allow suffering?

No, he says, but then repeats, “Repent, or you will die as they did”.

So, does repentance stop you getting killed then Jesus?

The question lingers on the lips of people through the centuries. If you put things right will God will that stop bad things happening to you.

The trouble is, he’s already answered that. No, he has said clearly – the ones killed by the tower were no worse than the ones who were not killed. Repentance doesn’t stop bad things happening to you.

So why does he tell them to repent?

Well, I think it is because repentance isn’t a way to stop death, it is a way to bring life.

And that’s maybe why we read this difficult gospel in Lent rather than at some other time of the year.

Repentance, metanoia, turning around – it is good for us to turn ourselves around. Good for us to change. Good for us to put things right. It is life enhancing to take stock – to stop, to work out where we are going wrong and to turn towards what it good; to turn towards God.

Will it make bad things stop happening – well it might make us stop doing bad things, but no, it won’t make suffering come to an end

The Buddha said life is suffering. Jesus says take up your cross and follow me.

Part of having a mature grown up faith is accepting that this is just the way life is – being alive means knowing suffering and also knowing that it doesn’t seem to come fairly or equally. There’s a randomness to life that we can’t fathom and it won’t make sense even if we project it onto God and talk as though God afflicts us.

God never afflicts us. God loves us.

Bad things happen but not from God.

God still loves us.

Terrible things happen unfairly to some rather than others.

And God goes on loving us even as we rage about how unfair life is.

But Jesus isn’t finished there. He tells us this perplexing story about a man with a fig tree that won’t produce figs.

“Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”

His gardener replies – ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

What on earth do we make of that. We never find out whether the tree ends up cut down or not? We never find out whether it bears fruit or dies? We never find out who the gardener or the man are supposed to be.

People say Jesus was good at storytelling but this time there’s no plot – no development, no conclusion.

Just the image of a tree that isn’t growing and a gardener who believes in second chances.

And the smelly reality of what they used to fertilize their trees with in those days.

Our translation describes it as manure but there are other rather earthy words that could be used.

You want my learned interpretation of this passage?

You want to know what I think Jesus might have been trying to convey in telling this story – a fragment, surely only a fragment of which survives in our gospel today.

It is a free translation and a flight of the imagination to be sure, but I think he’s saying this.

You grow best when the manure is piling up around you.

God loves you there just as much as anywhere.

You grow nearer to God when you just can’t seem to shake off the dung.

God loves you whether you smell of heaven or the “earth” from which you were made.

And, yes, oh yes, you grow most when you are in the shit.

God loves you anyway.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.