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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