FaithWorld

GUESTVIEW: Obama inauguration: An interfaith invocation to answer the critics

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. The author is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York. He is writing a book about Interfaith and Civil Society.

By Matthew Weiner

The choice of Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation, and the drama surrounding it, was President-elect Barack Obama’s latest carefully planned move to prove that he is not a far out liberal, but instead mainstream. Obama is good at the art of compromise, but also at improvisation. The liberal outcry that followed, and his addition of the openly gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson to join the party, continues to demonstrate his skill as political tai chi master. (Photo: Obama and Warren at Saddleback Church,17 Aug 2008/Mark Avery)

But Obama would be more in keeping with his own sense of diversity if he had the first ever interfaith invocation. Instead of a single speaker from a single religion, why not have many from a diversity of faiths and political positions? Instead of a liberal Christian or an evangelical Christian, he could have a conservative Christian, a liberal Jew, and a Muslim, a Buddhist  and a Hindu (or any such combination).

Interfaith as it has developed over the last century is often misunderstood. It does not mean many religious groups merging into a kind of single religion or religious Esperanto. Nor does it mean different religions holding hands in a kumbaya moment. Instead, good interfaith takes place when different religious traditions offer their own unique perspectives, one after another, in a shared public space. It allows people to remain who they are, amidst others who do the same.

Interfaith events hold the basic symbolic value of bringing everyone together, and this upcoming situation clearly calls for such a strategy. In fact it does so in Obama fashion far more than his current choice of a single conservative voice, no matter what his pragmatic arguments are.

Exercised over yoga in Malaysia

Of all the things to get exercised about, yoga would seem to be an unlikely candidate for controversy. But such has been the case in Malaysia this week.

Malaysia’s prime minister declared on Wednesday that Muslims can after all practice the Indian exercise regime, so long as they avoid the meditation and chantings that reflect Hindu philosophy. This came after Malaysia’s National Fatwa Council told Muslims to roll up their exercise mats and stop contorting their limbs because yoga could destroy the faith of Muslims.

It has been a tough month for the fatwa council chairman, Abdul Shukor Husin, who in late October issued an edict against young women wearing trousers, saying that was a slippery path to
lesbianism. Gay sex is outlawed in Malaysia.

Pope wants real interfaith dialogue, not just talk

Pope Benedict in Lourdes, France, 14 Sept 2008/Regis Duvignau Is Pope Benedict getting impatient to make some progress in dialogue with Muslims? He told French bishops in Lourdes today that the Church wants to pursue interreligious dialogue, but it must be real dialogue about serious theological issues and not just polite talk that leads nowhere.

“Good will is not enough,” he told them at a meeting during his pilgrimage to the famous shrine. “One must follow closely the various initiatives that are undertaken, so as to discern which ones favour reciprocal knowledge and respect, as well as the promotion of dialogue, and so as to avoid those which lead to impasses.”

These comments may help put an end to a long-standing doubt about how committed Benedict is to dialogue with Muslims. The doubt started soon after his election when he sidelined the Vatican’s top Islam expert, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, and folded his Council for Interreligious Dialogue into the larger Council for Culture. His Regensburg lecture in 2006 seriously set back relations with Muslims by suggesting Islam was violent and irrational. As part of the patching-up work, he restored the interreligious council as an independent Vatican department. But he handed it over not to an Islam or dialogue expert but to a former diplomat, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who publicly said that theological discussion was impossible with Muslims (much to some Muslims’ surprise) and that the world was “obsessed” with Islam.

No big change at Lourdes, despite eased miracle rules

A pilgrim prays at Lourdes, 5 Nov 2006/Regis DuvignauBishop Jacques Perrier of Lourdes caused a stir two years ago when he announced the Roman Catholic Church wanted to create new categories for recognising sudden healings at the famous shrine because so few of them claimed there actually qualified under current rules as certified miracles. Sceptics promptly dubbed the new categories “miracle lite” and even Catholics wondered what was going on.

The bishop patiently explained that Lourdes only had a very simple yes/no approach to recognising a healing as a miracle. He wanted to provide some kind of official Church recognition for a pilgrim’s sudden recovery and the spiritual experience that went with it, even if it did not clear all the hurdles to be declared miraculous. These recoveries certainly felt miraculous to the recovered pilgrims involved and also strengthened their faith, he said. Asking the binary question “was it a miracle or not?” did not do justice to the whole experience these pilgrims had. Lourdes needed new categories of declared, unexpected and confirmed healings to take that into account.

Having spoken to Perrier about this back then, I called him this week to find out what progress had been made with these new categories. None, he said, to my surprise. The idea was so new and different that it would take about 10 years to catch on. Huh?

No votes, no resolutions — a typical Anglican fudge?

Archbidhop of Canterbury Rowan Williams with African clergy at Lambeth Conference, 16 July 2008/Ho NewThe Lambeth Conference, the once-in-a-decade gathering of Anglican bishops from around the globe, has come up with what it hopes will be the perfect solution for avoiding any mud-slinging.

No news could be said to be good news for the beleaguered church right now and the organisers of the Anglican summit in the English cathedral city of Canterbury may well have the Zulus to thank for that.

Anglicanism has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons as conservatives and liberals lock horns in an increasingly bitter war of words over the ordination of gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions. Up to a quarter of the bishops have stayed away from Lambeth in protest, a move that has shaken the Anglican Communion but, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Willliams says, will not lead to a schism.

“I’ll be at Lambeth telling my story…” — Gene Robinson

Bishop Gene Robinson, 7 March 2004/Brian SnyderBishop Gene Robinson hasn’t been invited to the Anglican Communion’s Lambeth Conference, which opens next week, but he’s sure to be in the news all the same. The openly gay Episcopal bishop, whose consecration in 2003 sparked a near-schism by traditionalist Anglicans from the Global South, plans to preach in churches, attend receptions and appear at a film premiere in Britain before, during and after Lambeth (details below). He also plans to blog at a site called Canterbury Tales from the Fringe. Extensive coverage seems guaranteed.

The absence of the Communion’s most critical conservatives should heighten Robinson’s media presence. Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola, who led the rival GAFCON conference in Jerusalem last month, is boycotting the ten-yearly Lambeth Conference, as are four other traditionalist primates. So it seems unlikely that reporters there will hear headline-grabbing sound bites like accusations of apostasy against Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (as Akinola made at GAFCON) or charges that gay hit men might be ready to whack their critics (as Uganda’s Archbishop Henry Orombi said in a recent sermon).

Mike Conlon has blogged here about the effort to lower the Lambeth Conference’s profile, which could indirectly raise Robinson’s. The 1998 session was dominated by a divisive debate about homosexuality and voting on a resolution “rejecting homosexual practice as Lambeth 1998, 17 july 1998/Kieran Dohertyincompatible with Scripture.” That makes headlines. This time around, the organisers seem to have taken the wind out of the critics’ sails by drawing up an agenda with no voting rounds on it. “Everything they’ve suggested says there won’t be any voting of any kind at any point,” said Jim Naughton, spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

Clock ticking as Vatican calls Catholic rebels’ bluff

While most attention on the Godbeat is focused this week on a possible but not probable Anglican schism, the Vatican has started the clock ticking on a real Catholic schism it wants to settle once and for all. And it wants an answer by Saturday (not much Anglican-style muddling through there!). A slow and patient strategy by Pope Benedict to deal with the traditionalist rebels in the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) has now reached the endgame phase.

Andrea TornielliAndrea Tornielli (left), the well-informed vaticanista of the Milan daily Il Giornale, has produced two scoops in recent days about an ultimatum the Vatican has presented to the “Lefebvrists”. He first reported in Il Giornale on Monday that the pontifical commission “Ecclesia Dei” had told SSPX leader Bishop Bernard Fellay that the Swiss-based rebel group should accept by June 28 the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the validity of the new Mass (“Novus Ordo”) that replaced the old Latin Mass if it wanted to return to the full communion with Rome that was broken in 1988. Tornielli reported today on his blog Sacri Palazzi the actual conditions as written to Fellay (see Fr. Z’s English translation). If the SSPX accepts them, it can become a “prelature” within the Catholic Church, much like Opus Dei is now. If not, they lost their best chance at rejoining Rome and having any influence on the Vatican.

They have already had considerable influence. Pope Benedict has resurrected the old Latin Mass, one of the main SSPX demands. But that was not actually the heart of the matter. His demand that the SSPX must in return accept Vatican II, including its statements on religious freedom, is the one that sticks in the Lefebvrists’ throats the most. This two-track approach seems to be a strategy to welcome back those traditionalists who really just wanted the Latin Mass, and isolate the harder-line types who rejected Vatican II completely.

Orthodox Anglicans skate around schism at conference

Religion reporters have been tracking the slow disintegration of the Anglican Communion since 2003 with one word itching away at the tips of their typing fingers — schism. We don’t get to write history with a capital “H” that often and the few times we do can be career high points. So the prospect of covering an event where you can draw parallels to the Great Schism of 1054 (east-west back then, north-south now, etc) is tempting. In the meantime, though, even a hint of a schism is enough to land the term in a story. But it has to have the right packaging — adjectives such as “potential” or “looming” or something else — to indicate the big kaboom has not actually happened (or at least not yet). So we can scratch the itch a bit, but not too much.

Covering the current orthodox Anglican conference GAFCON in Jerusalem, the Daily Telegraph has scratched at that itch really hard with a story headlined “Anglican church schism declared over homosexuality.” It took a 94-page guidebook for “a pilgrimage to a Global Anglican future” as proof that Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinole and his allies have finally cut their ties to the Anglican Communion. “Hardline church leaders have formally declared the end of the worldwide Anglican communion, saying they could no longer be associated with liberals who tolerate homosexual clergy,” it wrote.

Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, 28 Oct 2005/Antony NjugunaWell, up to a point, as our news story reports. The guidebook, entitled “The Way, The Truth and The Life”, goes to the rhetorical brink of schism … and stops. “There is no longer any hope … for a unified Communion,” Akinola writes. “All journeys must end some day.” He gives no road map for the future.

Is Benedict planning to take in traditionalist Anglicans?

Church of England Newspaper logoThere is speculation in Rome that Pope Benedict might receive about 400,000 (yes, 400,000) Traditional Anglican Communion members into the Roman Catholic Church this summer, after the official Anglican Communion finishes its ten-yearly Lambeth Conference on August 3. Both the Church of England Newspaper in the U.K. and the National Catholic Register in the U.S. have run stories on this. Both sides are subscribers only, so all links here are to reports about them.

Traditional Anglican CommunionAccording to the Church of England Newspaper, talks between the Vatican and the Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC) focus on the question of whether a group can enter into full communion with Rome as an independent rite, similar to the Eastern rite churches that keep their own traditions and leadership. That sounds like it means they would want to use the Book of Common Prayer, keep their married clergy and retain some autonomy of member churches.

The newspaper quotes the Episcopal Bishop of Fort Worth, Texas, the Rt Rev Jack Iker — now in Rome on study leave — that “it is thought that the Pope is sympathetic to the dilemma of traditionalists in the Anglican way.”

Benedict is a liberal, according to traditionalist bishop

Pope Benedict XVI at his weekly general audience in Saint Peter’s square at the Vatican, 4 June 2008/Dario PignatelliPope Benedict is “an absolutely liberal pope.” The United States is “founded upon Masonic principles of a revolution, of a rebellion against God”.

It is clear that the man who made these comments has lost some connection to reality. If I told you he had been the target of a Vatican charm offensive in recent years, you might think I had lost a link to reality, too. However, it shows how strange the relationship between the Vatican and the schismatic traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X has become that its head, Bishop Bernard Fellay, could utter the words quoted above.

Fellay, whose SSPX movement champions the traditional Latin Mass and wants the Roman Catholic Church to turn the clock back to before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), thought its star was rising after the election of Pope Benedict three years ago. Benedict has gone a long way to accomodate the SSPX’s liturgical demands, bringing back the Tridentine Mass despite the fact very few other Catholics were asking for it. He has agreed to a new Latin Good Friday prayer that restored traditional phrasing even though it was offensive to Jews (and still not enough for the SSPX). Even Benedict, for all his conservative views, refuses to roll back the reforms of Vatican Two wholesale.