Why The Cathedral Quran Reading Deserved Its Rebuke

As Anglican rebukes go, it was a storm force four gale kind of one. The Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church (the Scottish equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury) wrote on Saturday that: "The decisions which have led to the situation in St Mary's Cathedral are a matter for the Provost and the Cathedral community but the Scottish Episcopal Church is deeply distressed at the widespread offence which has been caused."

Trust me – in Anglican circles where the major synodical debates tend to be over which kind of quiche to serve afterwards, that's a pretty stinging rebuke.

A passage from the Koran was read at an Epiphany service at St Mary's Cathedral, GlasgowFinlay McWalter/Wiki

A previous vicar here in Canterbury wrote a book in which one chapter was called 'The Cult of Nice' which pretty well summed up the conflict-averse Anglican Church, both north and south of Hadrian's Wall. Bishop David Chillingworth's naming and shaming of Kelvin Holdsworth, the Provost of St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral in Glasgow, was about as harsh as it gets.

What brought us to this point? It all began just over a week ago when on January 6 St Mary's Cathedral held a service to mark the day. The Feast of the Epiphany is the celebration of the arrival of the Magi, the wise men (oh, the irony) but it is much more than that. The Magi are Gentiles, non-Jews, and their acknowledgement that Jesus was the Son of God represents an 'Epiphany', a revelation to the whole world of who Jesus is. This isn't just a Jewish prophet, not just a special little baby – this child is the Saviour of the World, God Incarnate, the one who is to be worshipped (Gold), the only good High Priest (Frankincense) and the sacrifice for our sins (Myrrh).

Into this heady mix Kelvin Holdsworth brought the spice of a reading from the Quran. A Muslim law student stood up and recited verses from Surah 19 – Mary. They told the birth narrative of Jesus from an Islamic perspective, as the miracle super-baby who can speak even though he's a few days old. Well, controversial stuff and it led to some online criticism, including from the former Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali who knows a thing or two about inter-faith dialogue.

And that might have been it, except that I decided to get some people with slightly more fluent classical Arabic than I have to have a careful listen to what was being recited using the handy video of the whole thing that had been put online. And you know what? When you listen to it you hear that as well as the section of Surah 19 printed out in the service sheet, Madinah Javed then goes onto recite the next three verses which explicitly deny the Sonship of Jesus and proclaim that he is not to be worshipped. The Magi would have been confused.

So I wrote about it on Ian Paul's blog. And then the BBC wrote about it. And then all hell broke loose. The only seeming centre of peace in all this was the tight-lipped Provost of Glasgow Cathedral who when questioned refused to answer. To be fair to him, apparently he was being subsumed by a tidal-wave of abuse, though I suspect when one filters through the correspondence, the blog comments and the Facebook posts, only a tiny portion were actually anything near a hate crime. Most of us simply wanted to know the answer to one simple theological and liturgical question – "Is it appropriate for a passage from the Quran that explicitly denies the divinity of Jesus to be read out in an Anglican church on the Feast Day that explicitly recognises that crucial fact?" And it was the one question Holdsworth was unwilling to answer, so unwilling that he closed off comments on his blog and, after inviting bloggers to inquire, shut up the lines of communication when this point was raised.

Which is interesting given that in his first apologia for the events he said: "No one amongst the several Church of England folk and the single Scottish Episopal priest who originally wrote about this online and triggered the deluge of abuse that we have received bothered to contact us to check the context of what happened," which gives you the impression that Kelvin was more than happy to sit down and speak to us or other press hacks if we'd bothered to ask. Tell that to the legion of journalists, including one from Christian Today, who did ask the Provost for an interview and got told where to go.

Perhaps we're all just bigots? "Is it because this is in a cathedral run by a gay man? Is it because the recitation was given by a young woman?" Yes, that's why those of us who write serious news and analysis pieces went overboard on these two issues, making an absolute meal of the sexuality of the Provost and the sex of the cantor. Except we didn't. In fact we explicitly took the emphasis away from the sex of the cantor (and indeed tried to avoid any criticism of her per se) and certainly didn't even mention whether Holdsworth was gay, straight or somewhere in the rainbow inbetween. The key issue was always the appropriateness of a blatant denial of Jesus' divinity in a service geared around affirming it.

Even after the rebuke from the Primus of Scotland, the Provost still wasn't accepting he'd done anything wrong. Yesterday he preached: "Our aim and the aim of all involved was to bring God's people together and learn from one another – something that did, beneath the waves of the storm, happen, and continues to happen."

This was the explanation of why he allowed a denial of Jesus' divinity to be proclaimed in his Cathedral. It's all about inter-faith learning and unity. Well here's the thing, there are plenty of ways to do that in a cathedral without abusing Christian worship. As Kelvin was setting pen to paper and as Scotland was digesting the Primus' rebuke of him (a rebuke that the Provost basically ignored), 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, unlike the Provost of Glasgow. If you want to educate people as to what Islam thinks about the Virgin Birth, don't do it a context which is meant to be about what the Bible says in contrast.

And so we come to the final apologia for Kelvin Holdsworth's mistake, again from his sermon yesterday: "Nobody at that service that night could be in any doubt that we proclaimed the divinity of Christ and preached the Gospel of God's love."

Well yes, you possibly did recite the Nicene Creed at some point after its key verses were repudiated, but saying that makes the heresy before it OK is like saying that if you deliver a devastating uppercut to a stranger walking down the street, handing him a plaster afterwards makes it OK.

This story hasn't gone away despite the best efforts of the Provost to say nothing, to say he'll say something and then say nothing, to ignore his boss, to ignore the sensible, cogent, important theological questions that even the head of the Episcopal Church of Scotland accepts are perfectly valid.

In ministry, or indeed any position of responsibility, the sooner you learn the lesson that it's better when you're caught red-handed to admit a mistake and ask for forgiveness than to try and defend an indefensible corner, the better. The longer the Provost goes on blaming everyone but himself, the deeper the hole that he is digging is going to get. When last Thursday the esteemed Queen's Chaplain (and a man who knows a thing or two about Islam) Canon Gavin Ashenden called on Holdsworth to resign I thought he was asking a bit too much of the beleaguered Provost. Now four days later, with Holdsworth to all intents and purposes spitting in the face of the Primus by refusing to accept the offence he has caused (as Chillingworth clearly states), and instead the Provost accusing the accusers, one wonders how much longer this farce can go on.

Rev Peter Ould is a Church of England priest based in Canterbury. He blogs at www.peter-ould.net.