Jan 27th 2017
IS IT appropriate to read from the Koran
during worship in a Christian church? This month, people close to America’s new
head of state, and spiritual advisers to Britain’s long-standing one, have been
forced to consider that question.
It started on January 6th at an Episcopal
cathedral in Glasgow when a Muslim student was invited to read from her faith’s
sacred text, and duly chanted verses from the Sura or chapter devoted to Mary,
the mother of Jesus. The chapter has certain similarities with the Christian
narrative and also some striking differences: it asserts that Jesus cannot be
the son of God because the idea of God having progeny makes no sense.
Critics argued that the reading was
supremely inappropriate at an important service marking the feast of Epiphany,
which celebrates the appearance of the son of God to the world. Not all critics
were polite. The cathedral’s provost, Kelvin Holdsworth, reported receiving a
torrent of abusive emails, accusing him of betraying the faith; police said
they were investigating a possible hate crime.
The Scottish Episcopalians’ senior prelate
cautiously defended Mr Holdsworth’s freedom of action. But the bishop added
that the church was “deeply distressed” both by the offence caused and by the
abuse which the provost, who is also a leading gay-rights activist, received in
The Koran reading was denounced by Michael
Nazir Ali, a retired, Pakistani-born bishop of the Church of England, and
prompted, at least indirectly, the resignation of one of Queen Elizabeth’s
personal chaplains, Gavin Ashenden. He said he wanted to be freer to speak out
against such blurring of the boundaries between faiths. Soon after stepping down he declared that the
Church of England (historically the mother church of all Anglican churches,
including the Scottish one) was “dying” demographically and financially.
To an American religious conservative, all
that might sound a tale of limey soft-mindedness. But on the very day after
Donald Trump’s inauguration (ushered in by five Christian clerics and a rabbi)
he found himself attending an inter-faith prayer service at Washington National
Cathedral, a bastion of the American Episcopal Church which like its Scottish
counterpart is small, socially prestigious, liberal and ecumenical. An Islamic
reading was on the programme, and it was initially expected to consist of the
Muslim call to prayer.
Before this event, controversy was more
intra-Muslim than intra-Christian. The Sudanese-American imam who was invited
to read, Mohamed Magid, had to defend himself from co-religionists who said he
should not be welcoming a president who wants to stop Muslims entering the
In the end the affair was handled with
slightly more delicacy than the Scottish service. The imam chose two of the
most emollient verses from the Koran. These passages assert that human
diversity and mutual esteem between nations, communities and genders are part
of God’s plan. His reading ascribed to God the words: “We have created you male
and female and made you nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one
As Quranic statements go, that one is not
especially challenging to Christianity; indeed it somewhat resembles the words
of Saint Paul that God “has made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on
all the earth and hath determined the bounds…of their habitation.”
Even Mr Trump and his advisers could argue,
if pressed, that the fraternity between nations and communities which these
verses enjoin does not exclude respect for one another’s integrity, including
territorial integrity. Perhaps even fences are allowed.
But Mr Ashenden, the ex-royal chaplain,
predicts that arguments over the Koran’s use during sacred state occasions in
the Western world are likely to grow louder. He says pressure is already
building up for the inclusion of a Koran reading in the enthronement of the
next British monarch, who will inherit the rank of “defender of the faith” and
has said he wants to interpret the title broadly.
In the right context, there are certainly
interesting discussions to be had about ways in which the sacred texts of Islam
and Christianity converge and diverge. The Koran honours Jesus more than many
liberal Christians do, while clearly parting company with classical Christian
doctrine over the nature of Christ. All that can be productively teased out in
a seminar or even an inter-faith discussion in a community hall.
But experience suggests that mixing and
matching readings during a religious service will generate more heat than
light. And to almost any Muslim, the idea of a Christian reading during an act
of worship in a mosque would seem almost incomprehensible: an absurd
watering-down of Islam’s integrity.