FaithWorld

Provocative Harper’s essay on Anglican split over gays

Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola (with Bishop Martyn Minns), 5 May 2007/Jonathan ErnstThe June issue of “Harper’s Magazine” has a provocative essay by Garret Keizer called “Turning Away From Jesus: Gay rights and the war for the Episcopal Church.”

The split in the global Anglican Communion over the consecration of the openly gay U.S. Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson and the broader issue of the church’s take on sexual orientation and other social issues in general has been extensively reported on.

These fault lines are partly but far from exclusively geographical, dividing more traditional churches in the developing world — especially Africa — from those in the developed world. It threatens to undermine Anglican provinces like the Episcopal Church in the United States by creating competing authorities within them, one for a more liberal majority and another for a conservative minority.

Dissecting the jargon of the conflict, Keizer sees parallels between the corporate world and the shifting currents of globalization. “What is ‘provincial realignment,’ at bottom, if not the ecclesiastical version of a corporate merger? What is ‘alternative oversight,’ if not church talk for a hostile takeover?,” he writes, seeing these comparisons in the methods rather than the motives of those involved.

He also chimes in on a theme that has been raised in different ways elsewhere by others in dicussions of America’s Religious Right: “How does a Christian population implicated in militarism, usury, sweatshop labor and environmental rape find a way to sleep at night? Apparently, by making a very big deal out of not sleeping with Gene Robinson.”

Lambeth Conference: News or Not?

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, 22 Feb 2008/Darren StaplesIt has been spoken of as a setting for schism. But could the Lambeth Conference — the worldwide Anglican Communion‘s once-a-decade global meeting beginning July 16 in England — be a bust when it comes to headline-making news?

That’s the way leaders of the U.S. Episcopal Church see it. There will be no grand pronouncements made or resolutions voted on, they say. The traditional Western parliamentary idea that produces winners and losers on debated issues has been scrapped for face-to-face meetings. Some of them have been baptized ”Indaba groups,” which Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has described as a Zulu term denoting “a meeting for purposeful discussion among equals.”

The Rev. Ian Douglas, a professor of World Christianity at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts who helped plan the meeting, recently told reporters at a briefing:

Bush soon a Catholic? Fantasy, speculation, wishful praying?

U.S. President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair often saw eye to eye politically. Are they about to see eye to eye religiously?

Pope Benedict XVI chats with U.S. President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush in the Oval Office at the White House in WashingtonBlair, a life-long Anglican, converted to Catholicism in December after he left office in June. The Italian weekly magazine Panorama is reporting in its latest edition that Bush, a Methodist, may follow his political soul-mate and also convert to Catholicism after he leaves office next year.

To be honest, the odds of this happening appear as good as those of the proverbial snowball in hell. In fact, the Panorama article starts with two sentences saying this “might” happen and the rest of the article is background.

U.S. Episcopal Church urges action on climate change

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, 14 March 2007/SIPHIWE SIBEKOThe Episcopal Church has been riven by the issue of ordaining gay clergy and the broader issue of gay rights. Now Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has taken a stand on an issue which is probably not as divisive, at least in Episcopal and Anglican circles: climate change.

In a letter to the U.S. Senate on Monday, Schori urged the body to “take up climate change legislation at the earliest possible moment.”

“Climate change is a threat not only to God’s creation but to all of humanity,” Schori said, noting that her concerns were formed by both her faith and her training as a scientist. She has a background in oceanography, making her perhaps better qualified than most spiritual leaders to comment on the issue.

Sharia comments debate details of Williams’s idea

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, 11 Feb. 2008/Luke MacGregorComments on Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’s speech about sharia are starting to explore some of the ideas in more detail. Opinions are still mostly against the idea, but there are some defenders and there are more balanced arguments than the first wave of reactions. Here are some of the latest items we found interesting:

First of all, documentation — Ruth Gledhill came up with Williams’s Q&A after the speech, including the full text and the video. Note he insists he is talking about “supplementary jurisdiction” and not “parallel systems.”

muslimmatters.org argues in Shariah ‘Courts’ and Freedom of Contract that the issue is simply one of arbitration, something already allowed under the law: “The fact that the parties are choosing to settle their commercial or social disagreements by reference to the Qu’ran is therefore of no more consequence to society than if they decided to settle the same dispute by tossing a coin, asking a neighbour to decide, or any of the other myriad of ways in which human beings settle disagreements peacefully.”

Trying to figure out what Rowan Williams is saying

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, 23 Oct. 2006/Claro CortesArchbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has set off a storm in Britain by saying that some aspects of sharia Islamic law would have to be integrated into the legal system there. There has been almost unanimous criticism of his proposals, including from some Muslim politicians. I’ve read through both his BBC interview and Temple Festival speech to see if there is another message that is being drowned out by the headlines and hullabaloo. There are signs of one, but there are so many questionable assumptions and assertions about Islam and sharia in there that these issues naturally dominate.

The archbishop’s statement about some aspects of sharia being”unavoidable” is so clear that it is hard to argue in his defence that it was taken out of context or hardened up by headline-hungry hacks. This is not like Pope Benedict’s ill-fated Regensburg speech in 2006, where the pontiff quoted a Byzantine emperor slamming Islam and later said he didn’t mean to say he agreed with it. Williams talked about accommodating some aspects of sharia law and spoke in detail about this.

His main complaint seems to be summed up in this passage late in the speech: “One of the most frequently noted problems in the law in this area is the reluctance of a dominant rights-based philosophy to acknowledge the liberty of conscientious opting-out from collaboration in procedures or practices that are in tension with the demands of particular religious groups.” His example for this is the case of Catholic adoption agencies in Britain that have been told they must stop refusing to provide children to gay couples or risk being shut down. The law should allow opt-outs for cases of conscience, he argues, something that is already allowed for doctors who refuse to perform abortions. He also notes that Orthodox Jews have their own courts for some religious issues. So his argument seems to be that opt-outs are needed and Muslims need to have theirs.

Rowan Williams says some sharia in Britain unavoidable

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams 16 April 2007//Mike CasseseArchbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the world’s Anglicans, has said the introduction of some aspects of sharia, Islamic law in Britain, was unavoidable. Other religions enjoyed tolerance of their laws in Britain, he told the BBC, and he called for a “constructive accommodation” with Muslim practice in areas such as marital disputes.

Williams stressed that “nobody in their right mind would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that’s sometimes been associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states; the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well.

There are ways of looking at marital dispute, for example, which provide an alternative to the divorce courts as we understand them. In some cultural and religious settings they would seem more appropriate.” He also said that the argument that “there’s one law for everybody … I think that’s a bit of a danger“.

What we still don’t know about Blair’s conversion

Tony BlairDoes the public have the right to know the reasons why Tony Blair converted to Roman Catholicism just before Christmas? I mean the real reasons — what does the Catholic Church give him in terms of spirituality, theology or tradition that the Church of England did not? The initial news stories and follow-up articles over the holidays repeated the known circumstantial evidence, such as the fact his wife and children are Catholic and he has attended Catholic mass for years. Many took a political angle, noting that he waited until he had left office. Some accused him of hypocrisy for doing so despite supporting policies the Vatican opposes. But they didn’t give the real reasons.

The articles didn’t report Blair’s innermost convictions because he hasn’t revealed them. And he may never do so. There is so much public use and misuse of faith in politics that he may have decided he did not want his beliefs torn apart by his critics or the media, so he waited until they could no longer argue the prime minister’s faith was a matter of public interest. Journalists regret this, because we always want to know more, but fair-minded people can respect it.

I mention this because the latest edition of the U.S. Jesuit magazine America has the most informative article on Blair’s conversion that I’ve seen. In “From Thames to Tiber,” Austen Ivereigh, a former adviser to London Cardinal Cormac Murphy- O’Connor, tells us that “Blair’s background is in liberal Anglo-Catholicism; his favorite theologians are Leonardo Boff and Hans Küng, not Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Urs Von Balthasar. He America magazinebelongs to an ecclesial tradition in which the gate is wide, and bridges more important than borders.” He says Blair was attracted by “the Church’s vast international reach, its commitment to the poor, its capacity for mobilisation against injustice and its courage to stand firm on unpopular issues.” That goes a lot further in locating his faith.

Back to the blog — first impressions after a break

Returning to news reporting after two weeks off feels like you’ve been away for two weeks. Returning to blogging after a holiday break feels like you’ve been away for an eternity. So much going on! My colleague Ed Stoddard in Dallas was minding the shop, but he was unexpectedly sent off to report the news from the campaign trail. That gave FaithWorld a very American accent, which was a timely twist given the role of religion in the Iowa vote. It’s back to the view from Paris now — here are some inital comments on recent events concerning religion around the world:

Bhutto’s upcoming bookBenazir Bhutto — The assassinated Pakistani leader will speak from beyond the grave next month when her book Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West is published. HarperCollins has announced it has brought forward to Feb. 12 the release of the book that Bhutto worked on before returning to Pakistan in October. In a statement, it called the book “a bold, uncompromising vision of hope for the future of not only Pakistan but the Islamic world. Bhutto presents a powerful argument for a reconciliation of Islam with democratic principles, in the face of opposition from Islamic extremists and Western skeptics.”

It will be interesting to see what she has to say about the role of Islam in Pakistani politics, especially after all the praise for her as a modern, secularist Muslim leader in comments after her assassination. Bhutto’s party is politically secularist and she pledged to fight against Islamist militants now challenging the Islamabad government. But let’s not forget that the Taliban emerged during her second stint as prime minister in 1993-1996 and were a key element in Pakistani policy towards Afghanistan at the time. She worked with an Islamist politician close to the Taliban then and now. It was also on her watch that, as historian William Dalrymple put it, Kashmir was turned into “a jihadist playground.” Whether she supported all this, couldn’t oppose the military people behind it or both (that’s my hunch) is something historians will debate long into the future. But it is clear that her record is more complex than some of the eulogies would have it.

Not your usual Christmas card — Muslim leaders greet Christians

Memon Mosque in Karachi, Pakistan, 9 Oct 2007Christmas greetings of peace on Earth and good will to all — what could be more common during this holiday season? It’s heard so much that it’s practically a cliché. But this familiar tune takes on a new tone when the greetings come from leading Muslim scholars, clerics and intellectuals. The same group of 138 Muslims that invited Christians to a theological dialogue last October has just sent its Christmas greetings to the Christian world (see the text and our news story). What struck me the most about it is that it was even sent at all.

As a decentralised religion with no single leader or leadership group to speak for it, Islam (1.3 billion faithful around the world) has always been “structurally disadvantaged” in comparison to Christianity. The world’s largest religion (2 billion) has one highly centralised church, Roman Catholicism (1.1 billion), led by a highly visible pope. Other large Christian families like the Orthodox (220 million), Anglicans (77 million) and the many different Protestant denominations all have clearly defined leaders who can speak for the faithful. The absence of such figures in Islam has allowed a wide variety of pretenders to claim to speak in the name of Muslims. To put it in terms of the current season, they couldn’t all send a Christmas card to Pope Benedict or Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew or Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams because they had no forum for getting together to do so. Individual sheikhs, muftis, imams or mosque rectors might send their greetings to a friendly local bishop, vicar, preacher or priest they knew personally, but there wasn’t exactly heavy traffic.

Muslim judges at a conference on Sharia law in Amman, 3 Sept. 2007The group of 138 that issued the appeal called A Common Word is changing that. Representing Sunnis, Shi’ites, Sufis and other schools of Islam, they can claim more than anyone else to speak for large numbers of Muslims. Sure, we can’t say how many they represent. Of course, they are a mixed group. Naturally, they don’t all agree on everything. And yes, there may be disputes within the group, maybe defections and additions as it develops. But they are from a broad spectrum of Islam and have organised themselves enough to first send a response to Pope Benedict’s Regensburg lecture (back when they were only 38), then propose a dialogue with the Christian world (which the major churches have accepted) and now send these Christmas greetings. Non-Muslim cynics might scoff that signing a Christmas greeting is not all that difficult. But anyone who knows anything about Islam can see this is a significant new step.