Bishop defends Church's missionary approach to Islam

|PIC1|The Bishop of Lichfield has stepped into the debate about whether the Church should seek to convert Muslims by defending the church's missionary approach to Islam.

The Rt Revd Jonathan Gledhill, in a pastoral letter in parish magazines throughout Staffordshire, the northern half of Shropshire and most of the Black Country, said the Church had nothing to fear by recognising that Islam too is a missionary faith.

The bishop was responding to the controversy sparked by a Private Member's Motion to the General Synod.

"Both Christianity and Islam are missionary faiths. That means that each understands that the other has a message to convey to the world," he said.

"Muslims do not respect Christians who compromise their faith or water down their belief in the uniqueness of Christ.

"A fundamental plank of a free society is the freedom to argue for one's beliefs and to seek to persuade others.

"Just as important is the freedom to change one's religion ('be converted') and to change it again."

He stressed, however, that the decision to change religion must be taken freely, saying: "Any coercion is to be avoided. Christians do not believe that we can convert anyone. Only God can do that and he does not force himself upon us.

"He commands us to love our neighbours and it is very important for our living together peaceably that the majority Christian community learns how to love its Muslim and other neighbours.

"Part of that will be to learn about the Muslim religion and to show respect for Muslim communities. Part of neighbourliness will be to share our Good News with them."

He also wrote about the "healthy challenges" facing Christians in areas where other faith communities are present, and asks whether our truth about the uniqueness of Christ translates into a unique care for the stranger. He also asks churchgoers to think about how Jesus treated those of other faiths.

Bishop Gledhill added: "Our own diocese has a whole variety of neighbourhoods with very different ethnic mixes. We can break the ice by going and taking official greetings from the church to the mosque or temple at their festivals and receiving their greetings at ours."

Next month, bishops, clergy and laity from the Diocese of Lichfield will join with their partners from Malaysia, South Africa, Canada and Germany, to discuss "Mission and the challenge of Islam". The issue is part of the CrossTalk international mission conference which takes place from the 7 to 9 July at the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire.

The bishop elaborated on his position during a radio interview on Sunday morning. He told BBC Radio Stoke's Lamont Howie: "We're both missionary faiths and that's clear. It's just secular columnists who get embarrassed about the idea of conversion.

"Conversion is about changing your mind. And it wouldn't be real religious dialogue if you didn't expect people to change their minds and be converted."