A recent Church Times headline read
Interfaith relations have been dealt a huge blow.
In the article the Bishop of Southwark is quoted:
A spokesperson said: “The Bishop of Southwark takes very seriously his responsibility to uphold the teaching of the Church and to work within its framework of legislation and guidance.”
On Tuesday, the spokesperson said: “Whilst it is very important to build good interfaith relations, it is clear that an act of worship from a non-Christian faith tradition is not permitted within a consecrated Church of England building.”
Further clarification was provided on Wednesday: “Canon B1 sets out what services can be used in the Church of England: these are the Book of Common Prayer or those authorised or commended through the appropriate processes. This does not include services from another faith tradition.”
The Rt Rev Christopher Chessun has surely set back interfaith relations back a long way. OK, let’s run with the letter of the CofE rules, however outdated they may be, and accept that Canon Goddard was wrong why go so public with the admonition? Surely the matter could have been dealt with over a cup of tea, in private and very well away from the prying eyes of the media, even the religious media. Words on these lines would have sufficed: “We can’t turn the clock back. What’s happened as happened, There is nothing to be gained by crying over spilt milk, but don’t do it again, my son.”
I am mindful of a column written by a Canon Eric Woods, whose views are probably diametrically opposed to those of Canon Goddard. He wrote of the “Islamification” of our country. I for one made a formal complaint, correctly through the Diocesan offices. The Rt Rev Nicholas Roderick Holtam, Bishop of Salisbury, also refused to make a pot of tea, take Canon Woods to one side and suggest temperance in sensitive times when the country’s established church needs find ways of building bridges.
In their respective ways these two Bishops may have affirmed the Church of England’s inherent “institutional Islamophobia” – that is its fear of Islam arising from ignorance.
I struggle with Bishop Chessun’s ruling in particular. What constitutes a different faith? I have a Methodist background. My home is bounded both by an ailing CofE parish church and an ailing Methodist church. The parish church is very “low church” and for as long as I can remember both churches have held regular joint services. Does the letter of canonical law allow ministers from a non-conformist faith to lead prayers on Anglican premises? Are or have exceptions been made? If they have, is there a case for doing likewise to embrace Islam?
But in reality where do you draw the line? I know of one cathedral where Muslims are made to feel very welcome but they should be excluded if their thoughts and prayers turn to “another God”. How would one identify Muslims who wear western dress?
Sadly, it does not stop there. One of the Queen’s chaplains has attacked Islam in recent days and not only attacked it but very defended his stance after criticism. A robust but figurative rap on the knuckles would have been in order here.
If these were the actions of a small minority of rogue Anglican vicars it would be easy to brush the incidents to one side but the individuals either hold high office within the Church of England and the “establishment” or are very highly respected for their past work. You cannot get much higher than the rank of bishop. Where are the most senior bishops?
The Rt Revs Chessun and Holtam may well not have thought through the impact of their interventions, or have been badly advised by their administrative support. That’s sad. We have pretty a Islamophobic media – again I use the term phobia in its literal sense of fear (typically from ignorance) – that delight in having pops at Islam whenever they can.
When will the established Church not realise that it has to take one of the lead roles in improving our understanding of Islam.
It could start by teaching Anglicans that Muslims revere Jesus and his mother Mary. They teach the immaculate conception. Arguably they teach that Jesus is the son of God because we are all children of the One Creator, the One God and that we are all brothers and sisters of One Global Family – even if we squabble rather a lot.