Thursday, 19 March 2015

Churches Hosting Non-Christian Religious Services

The previous post suggested that radical Christian hospitality does not mean being willing to host just any event in church. But a Muslim prayer service is not a brothel or a loan shark booth. It is a religious service. So among those who accept that the church must exercise discretion about the sort of events it hosts, the next question is which criteria should be considered when deliberating whether an invitation is extended to a non-Christian group to hold a religious service in a church.

This is a question of our theology of religions. Those who consider all religious expressions to be more or less legitimate and helpful ways of feeling our way towards the divine presumably will see little ground for differentiating between them – let a thousand flowers bloom and why not also in church, as we certainly do not have a monopoly on truth about God?

Those who consider religions a mixed bag with some fresh or not so fresh expressions doing more harm than good may well want to limit hospitality to the more beneficial and healthy forms of religion. I suspect that Canon Giles Goddard was rather more willing to host a prayer service by “Inclusive Mosque” than a more mainstream or radical expressions of Islam. Surely love of our neighbour includes a desire to protect them from harmful ideologies.

Some, mindful of the warnings against idolatry in the Bible, may for this reason distinguish between the religions, ruling out a Hindu service but allowing for a Jewish one, for example. This need not imply an affirmation that all that is Jewish is good or all that belongs to Hinduism is bad (which would be a ridiculous claim) but it would affirm that idolatry dishonours God and harms people and if that is true we would not want to promote idolatry.

But what is true of idolatry may be true of false religion more generally. If it is possible to worship the one true God in a dishonourable and harmful manner, then we would want to guard against this and do nothing to encourage others to persist in harmful and dishonourable ways.

The question is at first theoretical. In other words, is it conceivable that there are false religions and false ways of worshipping the one true God? Someone who adheres to the Christian faith as received by the Church of England (among others) can hardly deny that there are indeed harmful ways of being religious.
But if that is so, giving the green light to a Muslim prayer service in a church needs to be built on more than a desire to be hospitable and a conviction that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. We must also be reasonably confident that (a particular version of) Islam is not a religion that encourages people to go in the wrong direction.

Here is why some will distinguish between Judaism and Islam. Islam, as understood by non-Muslims, is post-Christian. (Muslims consider Islam eternal and Christianity a corruption of the original.) The Quran was written in opposition to the Christian faith, or maybe more precisely in opposition to a misunderstanding of the Christian faith. Thus, speaking in very broad terms, while most forms of Judaism are non-Trinitarian, Islam is anti-Trinitarian.

(Judaism and Christianity are siblings from a common root that have developed side by side, sometimes in conscious differentiation from each other but Judaism is nevertheless not as explicitly anti-Trinitarian as Islam and Unitarianism or so it seems to me. I am not aware of any Islamic school of thought that has tried to come to grips with the fact that the traditional Islamic understanding of what “Trinity” means within mainstream Christian faith is fundamentally wrong.)

Many Christians will find it relatively easy to join in with many Jewish prayers, especially of course where the Psalms are used, maybe considering these prayers to be deficient (not brought in the name of Jesus Christ) but not offensive. This makes it easier to conceive of hosting a Jewish prayer meeting.

It is rather more difficult for Christians to join in Muslim prayers, even or maybe especially if they know Arabic. There is no Islamic praying in which it is not affirmed that Muhammad is Allah’s prophet and the prayers may well include (in Arabic) “Say: He is Allah, the One! Allah is He on Whom all depend. He begets not, nor is He begotten. And there is none like unto Him.”

Now Christians can of course affirm that God “begets not” in the sense that “God did not, does not and never will have sex with Mary or any other woman” and we can also affirm that God is not “begotten” in the sense that God was not born as a result of a sexual union. (Well, those of us who affirm the virgin birth anyway. Those who affirm the divinity of Christ but deny the vrigin birth may have an issue here.)

But it would still be an odd prayer in which case the question arises whether prayers should be invited in church of the sort which we who have responsibility for what goes on in a church cannot wholeheartedly pray ourselves. It is a question that maybe only arises for those of us who are in the habit of only using prayers which we can or at least want to be able to pray. So it is maybe not just a matter of our theology of religions but a question of our own theology and practice as well.