She's a dessert topping and a floor wax

crosscrescentLast week I looked at Bill Moyers' puffy interview of The Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, and found it lacking. In the comments section, reader Steven highlighted some of Jefferts Schori's views on working in Muslim communities and added a juicy little tidbit about a priest in Washington state actually converting to Islam -- while believing she remained Christian.

Well, according to another gauzy puff piece, this time in the newspaper (PDF) of the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, there is an Episcopal priest who is also a practicing Muslim (see page 9) worshiping in a Seattle mosque. Moreover, this priest until very recently was the Director of Faith Outreach at the cathedral in Seattle (maybe the position involved more "inreach" than "outreach"). As a modest first step to avoid confusing the Muslim friends we seek to evangelize, may I suggest making an unambiguous statement by defrocking Episcopal priests who convert to Islam?

I read the article and it was, indeed, a completely uncritical look at a priest converting to Islam. I was going to highlight the piece this week and complain that no mainstream reporters had picked up on the dramatic story when a regular reader passed on a pretty good article about the issue in The Seattle Times.

Reporter Janet Tu employed a few journalistic devices that made the story read much better. Here's how she began:

Shortly after noon on Fridays, the Rev. Ann Holmes Redding ties on a black headscarf, preparing to pray with her Muslim group on First Hill.

On Sunday mornings, Redding puts on the white collar of an Episcopal priest.

She does both, she says, because she's Christian and Muslim.

Tu did such a simple thing, but it's most appreciated. The first two sentences are written as fact. The third sentence does not say she is both Christian and Muslim but that she says she's both Christian and Muslim. Many reporters would leave out the "she says" for one reason or another but when writing about contentious issues such as this, it's vitally important to source the controversial statement rather than leave it in a story as fact.

Tu does a good job of quoting Christians and Muslims who explain the two religions are exclusive in the sense that one can't be a practicing or faithful member of both. She also does a good job of quoting those who support Redding's syncretism -- most notably the higher-ups in the Episcopal Church.

The story is about one woman and her religious syncretism, but it's also about the public response to the syncretism. Tu manages to let Redding tell her personal story without making it dominate the piece to the exclusion of the larger story. Neither does she shy away from doctrinal issues. Tu explains that Redding has never believed in original sin, has struggled with believing that Jesus was divine and always felt Christianity was a religion of privilege. Later Tu explains some of the doctrinal differences between Islam and Christianity.

Until Redding was laid off for budgetary reasons -- not doctrinal ones -- she was director of faith formation at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral -- the cathedral for the Olympia diocese. It was through her interfaith "outreach" that she was exposed to Islam and ended up converting to it in March 2006. One of the questions that arose while reading the story was whether the Episcopal Church would do anything about a priest who has, well, converted to Islam. Tu finds out the procedure for handling such situations:

Redding's situation is highly unusual. Officials at the national Episcopal Church headquarters said they are not aware of any other instance in which a priest has also been a believer in another faith. They said it's up to the local bishop to decide whether such a priest could continue in that role.

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. Her announcement, first made through a story in her diocese's newspaper, hasn't caused much controversy yet, he said.

I have no doubt that Episcopal Church leaders said they weren't aware of other instances of syncretistic priests, but I seem to recall a few stories in recent years of pagan Episcopal priests. Perhaps it would have been good to directly compare the previous instances and ask about them.

More than anything, though, I think this story needs to be remembered when national journalists are all sex-obsessed with the division in the Episcopal Church. I don't begrudge Tu for not mentioning it in this story, but this accommodation of anti-Christian belief is precisely the stuff that repulses the pew-sitters in the dissident congregations.

It might also be interesting to consider the different treatment of the dissident congregations that aligned with African Anglicans and this priest who embraced a religion other than Christianity.

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