Two cathedrals hit the news in January for interfaith engagement which went wrong. Colin Edwards provides a guest comment on the issue and invites input on some critical questions.
The first incident took place in a Glasgow Cathedral worship service where a reading from the Qur’an (Sura Miriam) included a fairly docetic picture of Jesus (i.e. the baby Jesus speaks out in defence of his mother). An English translation of the passage was available; however the reader went past the agreed section to include verses that specifically deny the Sonship and divinity of Jesus. Whoops. Cue a lot of concerned and upset feedback (and rightly so, in my opinion).
The second interfaith incident was at Gloucester Cathedral where, as part of a multi-faith exhibition, an example of the Muslim call to prayer was given. This was posted on Facebook without much context prompting another outcry that hit the national news. I think this was a different issue from the first. Peter Ould puts it well in this Christian Today article:
‘Gloucester Cathedral was engaging in a multi-faith education day. This included an example of the Islamic call to prayer, but crucially that was not undertaken during a service and there was no sense of obligation to listen to it – it happened while the participants moved around the cathedral engaging with other forms of spirituality as part of an academic engagement with those cultures. Dean Stephen Lake got it absolutely right’. (1)
Interfaith engagement can be fraught with difficult issues and the potential for upset. In the face of this it was interesting that both Cathedrals used the issue of hospitality to defend their actions. Stephen Lake, Dean of Gloucester commented: “Being a place of hospitality is important to us, especially in our local multi-cultural context. This art exhibition and its opening meeting is an important expression of the need to come together with people different from ourselves.” (italics added).
As well as interfaith events, the notion of hospitality is increasingly part of the discussion about Christian mission. Do interfaith events fall under the rubric of Christian mission? What is the place of hospitality in such mission? Indeed, what is hospitality? Is it unquestioning welcome? What is the role of welcome and hospitality by Christians when ideas, ideologies and theologies that are contrary to Christ and his teaching are also involved? Conversely, is a lack of welcome justified on the grounds of these differences? If mission is joining God in his work, how do we show his “welcome home”, as seen in the absurd hospitality of the prodigal’s father?
Today’s blog has no answers but starts to pose the questions. Indeed, the genius of doing theology well is to first of all find the right questions in order to arrive at fruitful answers. The theme for this year’s MA summer intensive at Redcliffe College is “Hospitality and Mission” and this is something we want to start exploring in depth. Questions and comments are very welcome. In the next few weeks we hope to begin the process of finding some answers.
About the Author: Dr Colin Edwards is vice Principal of Redcliffe Christian College, Gloucester. He and his wife were Interserve workers for 17 years in Bangladesh. Colin can be contacted on the issues raised on email@example.com