Friday, March 20, 2009

Muslim Episcopal Priest?

In the light of recent developments in this case, I think it's worth re-posting the piece I first wrote posted in June 2007, along with the subsequent updates appended at the end of my original posting.

The blogosphere is buzzing with the story of the Rev. Dr. Ann Holmes Redding, an Episcopal priest in Washington State who, in 2006, made the profession of faith that there is only one God and Muhammad is his prophet. She claims to be both a Christian and a Muslim.

When asked how she reconciles the differences between Christianity and Islam, here's what Redding said in an article from The Seattle Times:

"People within one religion can't even agree on all the details," she said. "So why would I spend time to try to reconcile all of Christian belief with all of Islam? At the most basic level, I understand the two religions to be compatible. That's all I need."

(See also Redding's interview in the Diocese of Olympia's newsletter. Also, go to this site and you can follow a link to read one of her sermons.)

For the record, I do not think it is possible to be both a Christian and a Muslim. The similarities and points of overlap notwithstanding, each of these faith traditions make rival and incompatible truth claims about God and Jesus.

In short, I think the Rev. Redding's understanding is just flat wrong.

Before getting to where she goes wrong, I want to first elaborate on some of the points of overlap between Christianity and Islam.

Christians and Muslims share with our Jewish brothers and sisters a veneration of a common ancestor in Abraham. And there is ample Qur'anic testimony that is favorable towards Christianity.

Consider that the Qur'an honors Christians (and Jews) with the special status of "People of the Book" (ahl al-kitab). In earlier times under the Islamic caliphate, such a status gave protection to Jews and Christians within Islamic society, insuring that both religious groups could practice their faith unhindered [cf. Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, Volume I: The Classical Age of Islam (University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 199]. This is at least partly due to the view that prophets delivered the authentic message of God and scriptures to Jews and Christians.

A typical statement in this regard may be found in sura 2, 62: "Surely the believers and the Jews, Nazareans and the Sabians, whoever believes in God and the Last Day, and whosoever does right, shall have his reward with his Lord and will neither have fear nor regret" [Al-Qur'an, translated by Ahmed Ali (Princeton University Press, 1984)].

"Nazareans" refers to Christians, and it indicates that Christians believe in the same God as Muslims and that they "will be rewarded on the Last Day" [Geoffrey Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur'an (Barnes & Noble, 1965), p. 153].

Elsewhere, the Qur'an affirms a close kinship between Islam and Christianity. A revealing sura is to be found in 5, 82: " ... the closest in love to the faithful are the people who say: 'We are the followers of Christ'." And here's sura 29, 46: " ... say to them [the 'People of the Book'], 'We believe what has been sent down to you. Our God and your God is one, and to Him we submit'."

Not only does the Qur'an affirm that Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe in the same God, but it also holds that these three religions exist as part of the will of God. With the constraint that only the one true God is worshiped, the Qur'an affirms religious diversity:

To each of you We have given a law and a way and a pattern of life.

If God had pleased He could surely have made you one people (professing one faith).

But he wished to try and test you by that which He gave you.

So try to excel in good deeds.

To Him will you all return in the end, when He will tell you of what you were at variance (5, 48).

This is a very positive take on the relationship between the "People of the Book." I think that our differences notwithstanding, the emphasis on "excel[ling] in good deeds" is one which Christians and Muslims (and others) would do well to put into practice.

But when it comes to the dogmatic core of the Christian faith as articulated by the Nicene Creed, Islam and Christianity part ways. Big time.

For example, while it is true that the Qur'an portrays Jesus in a very positive light as one of the special prophets, even going so far as to affirm the virgin birth, his teachings and miracles, and his return to act as judge at the end of time, it is also true that the Qur'an categorically rejects the divinity of Jesus. Instead, Jesus is "only an apostle [or messenger] of God" (4, 171).

Furthermore, here is what the Qur'an says about Jesus' death:

So [the 'people of the Book] were punished for ... saying, 'We killed the Christ, Jesus, son of Mary, who was an apostle of God;' but they neither killed nor crucified him, though it so appeared to them. Those who disagree in the matter are only lost in doubt. They have no knowledge about it other than conjecture, for surely they did not kill him (4, 155 & 157).

Orthodox Islam not only rejects the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, but also his death by crucifixion.

If the Qur'an is the norm, then the Christology of the Gospel of John (and the New Testament in general), the Ecumenical Councils, the early Church Fathers, and the Eucharistic Prayers in The Book of Common Prayer constitute "the one unforgivable sin in Islam," that of associating (shirk) something with the one true God [Frederick Mathewson Denny, An Introduction to Islam (Macmillan, 1985), p. 93].

In addition, if the Qur'an is correct, then the symbol of the cross we so prominently display in our churches and wear around our necks is an empty signifier. For the belief that Jesus was crucified (a rather prominent theme in the New Testament) is false. At best, Jesus only appeared to die on a cross. It follows that when Christians recite the Nicene Creed's words that Jesus "was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried," they are propagating a lie about one of God's special messengers.

When Redding notes that "what Islam does is take Jesus out of the way of her relationship with God, 'but it doesn’t drop Jesus'," she is correct. But only from an Islamic perspective. From a Christian perspective, the very idea of taking Jesus out of the way of one's relationship with God, and then denying his crucifixion and resurrection, is apostasy.

Then there's what the Qur'an says about the Christian doctrine of the Trinity:

Disbelievers are they surely who say: 'God is the third of the trinity;' but there is no God other than God the one. And if they do not desist from saying what they say, then indeed those among them who persist in disbelief will suffer painful punishment (sura 5, 73).

This is a strong condemnation of belief in God as Trinity as a blasphemy worthy of punishment. For just as with believing in Jesus' divinity, maintaining that God is one Being in three 'persons' is another instance of unforgivable sin.

So when the Qur'an affirms that Muslims and Christians believe in the same God, that's true - but only from an Islamic perspective.

In short, the radical monotheism of orthodox Islam rejects the dogmatic core of Christianity as blasphemy.

I think that the Rev. Redding would do well to take some time off to discern which faith - Islam or Christianity - she believes she is called to adopt and practice. This is all the more pressing in light of the "Oath of Conformity" in the ordination rite, in which those to be ordained as Episcopal clergy stand before God, the bishop, and the gathered assembly and say these words:

"... I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation [and not the Qur'an]; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church [and not Islam]" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 526).

But taking time for discernment may be unlikely given what The Seattle Times says:

Redding's bishop, the Rt. Rev. Vincent Warner, says he accepts Redding as an Episcopal priest and a Muslim, and that he finds the interfaith possibilities exciting.

We live in strange and sad times when it is "exciting" for a priest to make a profession of faith that repudiates the dogmatic core of Christianity - while still functioning as a priest!

UPDATE - July 6, 2007:

Bishop Geralyn Wolf of Rhode Island has inhibited the Rev. Dr. Redding from functioning as a priest (Redding is still canonically resident in Rhode Island, although she has not served there in 20 years). A communication from Bishop Wolf says: "I issued a Pastoral Direction giving her the opportunity to reflect on the doctrines of the Christian faith, her vocation as a priest, and what I see as the conflicts inherent in professing both Christianity and Islam. During the next year she is not to exercise any of the responsibilities and privileges of an Episcopal priest or deacon."

You can read about it at TitusOneNine, The Anglican Centrist and The Seattle Times.

UPDATE - September 12, 2007:

Listen to this story on Ann Holmes Redding on NPR's "Day to Day" here.

UPDATE - October 10, 2008:

This is in today's Seattle Times:

In a letter mailed last week to national and local church leaders, Bishop Geralyn Wolf of Rhode Island, who has disciplinary authority over the Seattle priest, said a church committee had determined that Redding "abandoned the Communion of the Episcopal Church by formal admission into a religious body not in communion with the Episcopal Church."

Wolf has affirmed that determination, barring Redding from functioning as a priest for the next six months.

According to church law, unless Redding resigns her priesthood or denies being a Muslim during those six months, the bishop has a duty to defrock — or depose — her, as the process is formally known.

Read it all.

UPDATE - March 18, 2009

According to an article in last Monday's USA Today, Bishop Wolf "has told Redding that her conversion to Islam constitutes an abandonment of the Christian faith and she must recant by March 30 or lose her status as a priest." The piece also notes that March 25 marks the 25th anniversary of Redding's ordination. Read it all.

I also note that a story about Redding's case in last Sunday's edition of The Providence Journal says this about Bishop Wolf:

In Bishop Wolf’s view, the moment that Redding recited the words of the Shahada, the creed that says “there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger,” she gave her allegiance to Islam and abandoned the Christian faith.

“As I understand it, Muslims do not believe in the divinity of Christ. They don’t believe in the death of Christ or that he is the Son of God, which are cornerstones of the Christian faith. Yes, there are people in every religion who try to stretch the basic tenets of a belief, but if you choose to be a priest within the Episcopal Church you are speaking for the church and its teachings. It demands a commitment.”

The article also includes this:

In a departure from traditional Islamic teaching, Redding holds that Jesus was crucified and was resurrected. She argues that the Koran doesn’t explicitly deny that Jesus was crucified but only that the Jews did not crucify him.

However, Imam Abdul Hameed of the Islamic Center of Rhode Island disputes her reading. The Koran, he says, makes clear that Jesus was not crucified or killed, but was “lifted up” to God.

“I think she is a little confused. There is no possibility for one to be both a Muslim and a Christian,” Hameed said. “If she doesn’t believe that [Jesus] is the son of God, she is not Christian. And she can’t be a Muslim if she believes Jesus died on a cross.”

As pastorally difficult as this situation may be for all persons concerned, I applaud Bishop Wolf for upholding the integrity of holy orders and requiring her clergy to be accountable to the vows they've made.

UPDATE - April 1, 2009

The Seattle Times reports today that the Rev. Redding has been defrocked:

The Episcopal Church has defrocked Ann Holmes Redding, the Seattle Episcopal priest who announced in 2007 that she is both Christian and Muslim.

Bishop Geralyn Wolf of Rhode Island, who has disciplinary authority over Redding, informed the priest of her decision in a letter today.

Wolf found Redding to be "a woman of utmost integrity and their conversations over the past two years have been open, honest and respectful," according to a press release from the Diocese of Rhode Island.

"However, Bishop Wolf believes that a priest of the Church cannot be both a Christian and a Muslim."

"I am very sad," Redding had said Tuesday. "I'm sad at the loss of this cherished honor of having served as a priest."

She also said she was sad at what seems to her to be a narrow vision of what the church accepts.

Redding, who had formerly served as director of faith formation at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral on Capitol Hill, announced in June 2007 that for more than a year, she had also been a Muslim — drawn to the faith after an introduction to Muslim prayers moved her profoundly.

It was an announcement that perplexed many, though Redding said she didn't feel a need to reconcile all the differences between the two faiths, believing that at the most basic level they are compatible.

Redding's defrocking — formally called deposition — comes almost 21 months after Bishop Wolf first told the priest to take a year to reflect on her beliefs.

After Redding remained firm in her belief that she was called to both faiths, Bishop Wolf said in fall 2008 that a church committee had determined that the priest "abandoned the Communion of the Episcopal Church by formal admission into a religious body not in communion with the Episcopal Church."

Wolf barred Redding from functioning as a priest for the next six months, and said that unless Redding resigned her priesthood or denied being a Muslim during that time, the bishop would have a duty to defrock her.

Since Redding has neither renounced her orders nor withdrawn from the Muslim faith, Wolf decided to depose her, effective today.

Read it all.

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