A Quran reading from the pulpit in a Scottish cathedral has sparked outrage and anger. Passages from the Quran explicitly refuting the divinity of Jesus were read in Arabic from the lectern during the Epiphany service,which celebrates the arrival of the three kings in Bethlehem to bear witness to the birth of Jesus.
While a comparative reading of Quranic and biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus is a laudable and interesting event for a church to do for discussion purposes, to have the Quranic passages read out as part of the service is another matter entirely — especially when the verses in question explicitly reject the divinity of Jesus at a religious ceremony during the festival that Christians believe marks the revelation of Jesus’ divinity to the world.
“Christians should know what their fellow citizens believe and this can include reading the Quran for themselves, whether in the original or in translation,” the Right Reverend Michael Nazir Ali, the former bishop of Rochester told the BBC about the reading. “This is not, however, the same thing as having it read in church in the context of public worship. The authorities of the Scottish Episcopal Church should immediately repudiate this ill-advised invitation and exercise appropriate discipline for those involved."
The provost who organized the event, the Very Rev. Kelvin Holdsworth, said the church received so many threatening messages that they were forced to call the police. He also hit back at the criticism, saying the church had been involved in a number of different interfaith events in the past and that Quran readings have been conducted at the church in the past without incident.
Holdsworth also said that he was a believing Christian and that the Nicene Creed, the Christian declaration of faith, had been recited at the beginning of the service as normal.
It was unclear which verses were read on previous occasions and in what context.
"Our aim and the aim of all involved was to bring God's people together and learn from one another – something that did, beneath the waves of the storm, happen and continues to happen,” Holdwsworth said in the first sermon at his church following the incident.
"Nobody at that service that night could be in any doubt that we proclaimed the divinity of Christ and preached the Gospel of God's love.
"All of this raises questions about how we live in a globally-connected world, but I cannot believe that moderate churches in the West should follow a policy of appeasement towards those who are Islamophobic and particularly not towards the recently invigorated far-right media."
Clearly the anti-Muslim abuse sent to the church following the event is unacceptable, no matter how high passions were aroused by the event. No religious leader should ever feel so personally threatened by something that happened in their place of worship, however blasphemous or heretical others may find it, that they are forced to call the police for their own safety.
Yet, how could any self-respecting religious leader allow a reading from a rival scripture from his or her own pulpit that directly contradicts the founding principles of his or her own faith on one of the holiest days in the religious year?
The head of the Scottish Episcopal Church issued a conciliatory statement aimed at calming tensions in which he expressed distress at the offense caused by the reading.
“The decisions which have led to the situation in St. Mary’s Cathedral are a matter for the provost and the Cathedral community but the Scottish Episcopal Church is deeply distressed at the widespread offense which has been caused,” Primus David Chillingworth, bishop of St Andrews, Dunkeld and Dunblane, wrote in his blog. “We also deeply regret the widespread abuse which has been received by the Cathedral community.”
“In response to what has happened at the Cathedral, the Scottish Episcopal Church will bring together all those who are involved in the development of interfaith relations. Our intention will be as a church to explore how, particularly in the area of worship, this work can be carried forward in ways which will command respect. Our desire is that this should be a worthy expression of the reconciliation to which all Christians are called.”
It is important that in an increasingly globalized world we all make an effort to understand the faiths and cultures of others and work on ourselves to remove any bigotry from within our own perspectives.
None of this means a person should be asked to give up his or her own faith and culture to understand that of another.
In inviting a Quranic reading that directly contravenes Christian beliefs into his cathedral, the Very Rev. Kelvin Holdsworth is pushing people too far in the name of multiculturalism. This kind of action is not going to produce good harmony, but rancor, mistrust and — as we saw in this case — anti-Muslim backlash.
It is doubtful that Holdsworth would ever go into a mosque and preach from the pulpit that Mohammed was not the messenger of Allah. He should extend the same courtesy to his own parishioners.