Recently it was announced that the first mosque is about to be built on the Western Isles – a bastion of conservative evangelical Calvinism, dominated by the Free Church of Scotland (colloquially and somewhat pejoratively known as 'the Wee Frees'). The press sniffed blood – surely this would outrage the Free Church and create civil war? The old headlines 'Wee Free Outrage' were dusted down and in some cases used by the tabloids, broadsheets and broadcast media. And with some justification, because a small breakaway group from the Free Church known as the Free Church Continuing had issued a press statement condemning the proposal.
Perhaps it is expecting too much to expect the secular press to keep up with the various smaller Christian denominations. But The Guardian, demonstrating a degree of journalistic integrity, actually did some investigation and produced a more balanced report that included the news that the Free Church supported the right of the Muslims on the island to build their own mosque. Rev James MacIver, minister of the largest church in Stornoway, the main town of the island, is quoted as saying: 'Muslims have always been regarded by the local community as people who've contributed to the local economy and integrated well. I don't remember any animosity towards them. Outsiders may have got the impression that the Christian community here have resisted the mosque, but that's not the case...I have no right to come between someone's conscience and their god...I come at this from the point of view of liberty of conscience, freedom of religion. I don't personally see Islam as the way to salvation, but they have a civil right to a place of worship. I have no right to come between someone's conscience and their god.'
Let me declare a personal interest here. I am a minister of the Free Church. I married a woman from Stornoway and know the people involved well. I, like my colleagues, am committed to the Bible as the infallible word of God and I agree with the theology summed up in our subordinate standard of the Westminster Confession of Faith. So what is going on when the Free Church does not oppose the building of a mosque in what was our heartland? Have we gone soft? Given into political correctness? Are we really opposed and just engaged in a game of political spin? Allow me to explain.
The Free Church would prefer that there was no need for a mosque to be built in Stornoway, because we would love everyone, including Muslims, to come to a saving knowledge of Christ. But we also believe that there is no coercion in real Christianity and that people have the right to reject, or to worship as they see fit. It is for God to judge, not the State. We defend the freedom to preach the gospel as we also defend the freedom of others. The Christian message is pleading and persuasion, not force and coercion. In a world where religious and secular groups alike are seeking to use the power of the state to impose their beliefs, we must not go the way of the world.
The FC has a catholic, Christian, traditional Scottish Reformed view of religious liberty. This is what is at stake for us here. We don't agree with Islam and maintain that Jesus Christ is the only way. But equally we don't believe that our beliefs can be imposed upon other people by denying them the religious liberty that we demand for ourselves.
This is not a new position. When one of the early Free Church leaders, Dr Thomas Guthrie, appeared to give evidence before a select committee of the House of Commons in 1847, about the Free Church being granted sites to build churches, he was asked if he would grant a site to any group other than Christians. He said, 'I would grant a site to any man who desired to worship God according to his conscience'. The committee then asked, 'To a Jew, or a Muslim, or even an idolater?' He said, 'Yes, I have no right to stand between a man and his conscience.'
This was the position of the Free Church in the 19th century and it still is in the 21st. We live in a world where we are told if we disagree with someone, we are disrespecting them, hurting them or taking them out of their safe space. Apparently people need to be protected from having their views, cultures or lifestyles challenged (unless they are biblical Christians). In many of our secular institutions, having a different view about the fundamental beliefs of the secular elites is considered to be grounds sufficient for banning or excluding from public space. Our society also seems to struggle with the concept that it is possible to have civil disagreement and to support the religious liberties of others. Maybe our society could learn from the church something about what real tolerance, equality and diversity is?
Maybe the wider church also has something to learn from this small biblical Presbyterian denomination as well? In the church there are some who seem to think that campaigning against Islam, and giving implicit, if not explicit, support to far right groups, who wish to ban Islam, is somehow the Christian thing to do. It is not. Indeed, it is the very opposite and shows a blasphemous lack of faith in the power of the gospel and the Holy Spirit.
If we really wish to see the spread of Islam limited, if we are really concerned about the glory of God and the spread of the gospel, then we need to move away from the fear of Islam (the real Islamophobia) which seeks to prevent Muslims coming to our shores or having freedom of worship when they do. When Thomas Guthrie was asked if supporting the building of mosques would be a deterrence to conversion amongst Muslims, Guthrie answered that he thought refusing permission to build a mosque would be a means of preventing conversion, rather than hindering it.
One Muslim was interviewed on the BBC and stated that since coming to the Island of Lewis in the 1950s he had never experienced one incident of racism or Islamophobia. Rather than be surprised that this should happen in the most evangelical church-going area of the UK, we should surely expect that to be the case. In the UK I suspect that the less Christian an area, the more likely you are to get fear of Muslims. It's the secularists who seem to be afraid of everything that does not fit their paradigm.
This is illustrated by another story from the Western Isles. Recently there has been a fuss on Lewis about the island's tradition of keeping Sunday special. The failed attempt to change this has been driven by a small group called the Western Isles Secular Society (who were nominated by the National Secular Society for their award of Secularist of the Year). While the militant secularists couldn't contemplate a culture where their views were not the law, the Muslims have been supportive and accepting of local custom.
The whole story is another reminder that the world is not as black and white as our soundbite culture portrays it. Thank the Lord that we live in a diverse and multi-coloured culture in which we still have freedom to preach the gospel to all.