Crossroads podcast: A Muslim at an Episcopal altar? Face it, that's a complicated story

Sometimes the issue flares up in a major religious denomination. Take, for example, the 2007 case of an Episcopal priest who declared, "I am both Muslim and Christian." She was eventually defrocked. Coverage of that story led to some interesting discussions here at GetReligion.

Quite some time ago, there was the case of a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor who was disciplined for taking part in a post-Sept. 11 service that involved praying with Oprah Winfrey, as well as leaders from a wide spectrum of religious traditions, including Islam and Hinduism. 

Or maybe we're talking about a professor at a major evangelical Protestant school -- like Wheaton College -- who not only wore a hijab in support of oppressed Muslims, but took to social media to declare that she believes that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. She quoted the pope, when making that point.

These kinds of news reports loomed in the background during this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), which focused on a recent Holy Week Mass in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, during which the clergy renewed their ordination vows.

The bottom line: Stories about interfaith work and worship almost always raise complicated theological issues and, nine times out of 10, there are more than two camps of believers involved in the debates. Hold that thought.

Key details about the new Holy Week story: A Muslim interfaith leader preached during the rite, in the normal point in the liturgy dedicated to the sermon. A passage from the Quran was read, before the Gospel. The preacher stood with the bishop and others at the altar during the consecration prayers and she received the consecrated bread during Holy Communion.

All of this was discussed in my Universal syndicate "On Religion" column this week. Here is a sample of that column, which included material from contacts with Bishop Robert C. Wright, as well as the preacher, Soumaya Khalifah.

"She held out her hand to receive the Host and it is not my practice to refuse people," said Wright, reached by telephone. He noted that "open Communion" is common across his diocese, especially with visitors. Khalifah returned to her seat without receiving the consecrated wine, the bishop said.
"They gave me the bread," said Khalifah, in a separate interview. "I am a Muslim. I am not a Christian. … This service was about what we have in common, the work we can do together."

There was a conservative online report claiming that some clergy boycotted the service. That isn't surprising, since the bishop freely acknowledged that interfaith WORSHIP, as opposed to interfaith WORK of other kinds, remains controversial -- even in today's consistently liberal Episcopal Church.

"If you talked with some of my colleagues in the House of Bishops, this part of the service never would have happened," he said. It is safe to say Khalifah "would not have been invited, she would not have been there in Holy Week and she would not have preached. None of this would have happened."
But this service was not, Wright insisted, an example of "insipid kumbaya" interfaith activism in which leaders on both sides ignore their doctrinal differences and gloss over painful subjects. He noted that, in her sermon, Khalifah mentioned Palm Sunday attacks on Coptic churches in Egypt and called the terrorists "a cancer to our human family" and said they "must be eradicated."

What is going on here? 

Journalists simply have to realize that there is no way to handle this story -- at a level deeper than kumbaya and "Can't we all get along?" -- without cracking a few books and finding out what Christians AND Muslims believe on several crucial doctrinal beliefs. There is, in other words, a reason that many believers on both sides of this interfaith equation believe that what happened in Atlanta the other day is heresy, apostasy, blasphemy or other fighting words to that effect.

On both sides of the interfaith equation? Yes, as I wrote back in 2001, weeks after 9/11:

The bottom line is that it's easier to stand together than to kneel together. ...
It is .... unlikely that Muslim clerics will edit the inscription on the face of Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock, which stresses that Allah is, "One, God, the Everlasting, who has not begotten and has not been begotten. ... Praise to God who has not taken a son." In other words, a cornerstone of Islam is the rejection of the Trinitarian God of Christianity.
True Christianity is a missionary faith. So is Islam.

Obviously, there are some modern Christians who welcome Muslim preachers to their pulpits and, in a few cases, even to their altars. There are also many, many Christians who would never, ever, do that.

Obviously there are some Muslims who welcome these opportunities. But there are many Muslims who would reject even the slightest hint that the radical monotheism of Islam can be discussed in the same breath as the Trinitarian Christian belief in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

The bottom line: This is not a debate with two sides, a story with people in white hats and black hats.

At the very least, there are four essential points of view to seek out and report. That's hard work, especially when -- in my experience -- many religious leaders are not anxious to discuss divisions inside their own sanctuaries.

Thus, "Crossroads" host Todd WIlken asked a logical question about all of this: Is is reasonable to expect mainstream journalists to be able to dig into doctrinal questions of this kind?

My answer? That depends. Should reporters who cover soccer know the rules and fine points of strategy that affect the outcome of matches at the highest levels of competition? Should reporters who cover courts be skilled at researching the cases that are quoted in rulings about complex issues that need to be reported on A1?

Should editors seek out experienced, skilled reporters capable of handling tough stories?


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