I was intrigued by this story reported at the Archbishop Cranmer blog. The story is ostensibly about an imam being invited to preach the 10:30am Eucharist sermon at The University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford.
I purposefully say ‘intrigued’ because I am not particularly surprised. I am astonished by His Grace’s astonishment, to be honest. As a communicant of the established church, I know he has more of a vested interest in its affairs than me. But both of us, for probably slightly different reasons (at least differently ordered in priority) would like to see it adhere more faithfully to Biblical and theological verity.
But the last 150 years or so have marked nothing if not a growing tendency, one that increased with troubling speed during the 70s, toward a greater liberalism within its ranks. So much so, that one hardly bats and eyelid now when reading of an imam being invited to preach in a Eucharist worship service in one of its churches. One can’t help but roll one’s eyes and think and long for the days when that might have been their worst problem.
Like Cranmer, I have no problem with the idea of a Muslim leader coming into a church and telling us all about what they think. In fact, not only do I have no problem with it, I have actively encouraged it in my own church. Each month we invite an imam to come and tell us about what Muslims believe on a given topic. Naturally, we tell them all about what we think too. It has proven to be a very helpful time sharing respective beliefs, understanding one another better and allowing room for all kinds of questions that simply wouldn’t ever get a hearing. You can see some examples here, here, here and here and you can search this blog for videos and other such insights into these events. Needless to say, it has been a great gospel opportunity for us.
The difference, of course, relates to the purpose of our meeting. When we meet with our Muslim friends, it is for the expressed purpose of sharing our faith with them and learning about theirs. Though we may read the Bible and our Muslim friends may read their Qur’an, and we may pray and they might pray too, there is most definitely no joint act of worship. Nobody in the room is pretending that we are reading God’s Word from the same book nor that we are praying to the same God. We are notably different yet we are glad to learn from and about each other. We all know essentially why we are there.
When we hold our weekly service of worship, something else is going on. The people are being directed to the one, triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The scriptures we are reading are specifically laying claim to be God’s unique revelation. The sermon is pointing us to the Christ who is God, the eternal Son and second person of the Godhead. The communion we take together is affirming Jesus as the one who went to the cross, died for our sin and rose again for our justification and is the very thing that unites us together as his people in him.
Our pulpit is not a place open to anybody to share their ideas amid a sea of other competing ideologies. Our pulpit is a place to proclaim the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness into his marvellous light. In the middle of a service of worship to the one triune God – that seeks to worship Christ as forever that same God – it would be highly inappropriate to have somebody read from a book proclaiming the excellencies of another god – indeed, a false god – and denigrating the second-person of the trinity as a mere creature, a prophet who is evidently less than God.
Whilst I do not so much understand Cranmer’s surprise, the slide of his denomination toward such things is not exactly a recent (and thus surprising) phenomena. But I do understand his manifest discomfort at the whole thing. Because, if nothing else, context matters.
There is an appropriateness to certain things in certain contexts that would be highly inappropriate in another. There is, for example, nothing inherently wrong with dancing on a dance floor in a dance hall (though I shall look forward to my fundie friends insisting otherwise!) But we can all agree there is something a bit wrong with dancing on grave in a graveyard. It’s not that the act of dancing itself is a problem, it is the context in which it takes place that makes it an issue.
In the same way, there is absolutely nothing wrong with listening to an imam tell you about Islam. There is no problem with him opening up the Qur’an and explaining what it says and why he finds it convincing. I would even go so far as to say there is nothing wrong with inviting him into your church building to do it, after all, if you’re going to do it, you’ve got to do it somewhere (unless you think your building is sanctified, in which case, read this and this).
But there is something of a problem if, amid a service of worship to the one true God, centred on the glory of Jesus Christ who is himself God – who attained for us our righteousness at the cross and our justification in his resurrection – we invite someone to preach who manifestly does not believe that to be true. Indeed, it gets worse because we would be asking him to proclaim his belief that such is not true. Doesn’t that make a mockery of what we want to proclaim? Doesn’t Paul says something about joining together in such things, particularly in respect to communion (cf. 1Co 10:14-22; 2Co 6:14-18)? Doesn’t that cause problems for us being the very essence of a church (cf. Acts 2:41-47; 1Co 11:17-32)?
I’m not worried about Muslims coming to church. That’s surely a good thing. I’m not even worried about Muslims speaking in your church. It can be helpful to hear what they believe and gives you opportunity to share what you believe with them in the right context. But Muslims preaching in your church, at a service of worship? Maybe not, eh.