The Koran in Church

I have been meaning to write something about the reading of Surah 19 in a Scottish Cathedral on 17th January. This led to the resignation of one of the Queen’s 33 Honorary chaplains, Gavin Ashenden, who wanted to conduct his own campaign against the Cathedral and against the priest who had arranged the event. For Gavin Ashenden, what happened was blasphemous.

A number of issues have been raised- that the priest who made the arrangements, the Cathedral Provost, Kelvin Holdsworth, is gay, that the Koran was read by a woman and a Shi’ite and so on. All largely irrelevant, and actually when all is considered, things to be grateful about rather than to condemn. So the real focus is the text of Surah 19, which the sensationalist press and the rev Ashenden, claimed “denies the divinity of Christ”. It does not. Here is a photograph of Madinah Javed reciting the Surah. At the bottiomof the blog is a video recorded in the Cathedral of her recitation. It is, in itself, rather beautiful.

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This is what Rev Ashenden wrote to “The Times”:

“Quite apart from the wide distress (some would say blasphemy) caused by denigrating Jesus in Christian worship, apologies may be due to the Christians suffering dreadful persecution at the hands of Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere.

“To have the core of a faith for which they have suffered deeply treated so casually by senior Western clergy such as the Provost of Glasgow is unlikely to have a positive outcome.

“There are other and considerably better ways to build “bridges of understanding”.”

There is nothing new in reading the Koran in a Scottish Cathedral. It has been done before, in front of the Moderator of the Church of scotland, in front of Archbishop Winning. And the passage chosen had been read before in Churches in Scotland on a number of occasions. It celebrates the belief in Islam in the Virgin birth, and is also just one instance when Mary is celebrated in the Koran. Mary, after all, is mentioned far more in the Koran than in the Christian Bible and Mary is the only woman to be mentioned by name in the Koran.

In his blog, the Chaplain writes about “Kelvin Holdsworth’s lack of awareness, and his carelessness” which may well be cause for alarm and he also highlights the issue that caused him distress. Towards the end of the Surah are three verses which question the idea that God should have a son, the Christian claim, specifically 19.91 and 19.92:screen-shot-2017-01-26-at-09-50-36

In the reports circulating on Twitter, the chaplain insists that the Surah specifically denies the Divinity of Christ, which frankly is not the case. It is a passage that may be taken to defend such a denial, but the text itself does not do that. It deals with the lives of Zakariyya. Maryam, Jesus, Yahya (John), Abraham, Ishmael, and Enoch (Idris). It reproduces the Christian message of “glad tidings”, so it is a good companion piece to the New Testament, though it also adds “warnings”. There are warnings about who might intercede to God and as this passage traditionally was to have been recited to a neighbouring Christian King, Negus, it is likely that the passage implicitly challenges the orthodox belief in the intercession of the Theotokos, but it is implicit, not explicit and many anglicans absolutely reject this belief anyway. The only explicit statement that might worry a Christian congregation is the statement above that God should not be thought to have a son.

Reciting the Surah traditionally confers great blessings.

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The variety of belief accepted in the Anglican communion today is remarkable. Indeed, it is only recently in 1984, that the Archbishop of York, Dr David Jenkins, denied the Virgin birth. This is a passage from the Koran that, in contrast, celebrates both parthenogenesis and the role of Mary in the Christian narrative!

I applaud the Provost, therefore, in promoting interfaith, and particularly during the service of Epiphany. This is the time when the magi visited Jesus- when people of different faiths and backgrounds came to the home of the infant child and brought him gifts. In the Orthodox tradition, it is also a celebration of the Baptism of Christ.

Following the Chaplain’s intervention (he was not at the service, and maybe the term “bullying” would be more appropriate), the Archbishop of Glasgow has apologised for any distress caused. I really cannot see that there was any reason at all to apologise. We need to promote ties with Islam, welcome strangers, rejoice in mutual kindness and celebrate what we hold in common if we are to challenge extremism.

The Provost is no stranger to controversy. Here he is discussing gay marriage on “Songs of Praise”:

Iconography in Palestine

There was an article in The Telegraph a few days’ ago about Ian Knowles who runs the two-year old icon-teaching centre in the West Bank. His work is on the israeli wall that divides the land and also in cathedrals and churches around the globe. The West bank centre began in a Coptic Church, is now housed in the Bethlehem university near the Church of the Nativity and is funded almost completely by private donations.

As I understand it, the Bethlehem school was an outreach programme from the British Association of Iconographers, for the most part a Catholic-inspired organisation centred around the benedictine Abbey of Our Lady of Peace in Bedfordshire.

Some years ago, I was taught how to gild and my gilder’s cushion is to hand even as I am typing in my office this evening! Gold is an essential part of the iconographer’s trade, but I am afraid that I have taken the Icon form cautiously into the digital realm: I explained many years ago to Metropolitan Kallistos that I had a plan to animate icons in some way and he was rightly suspicious. He did not completely dismiss my plans but -“I do not think I could pray to a cartoon”, he memorably said. I have not given up this idea, however, though I am aware of the time it takes to realise the detail of an Icon in a new medium, quite apart from the technical issues of trying to move in an inverted perspective. For now, I see my work as an academic exercise and I am currently writing a short course which I believe I will deliver at the Moscow State University sometime later this year. I will use animation simply to define the differences in posture and the significance of the arrangement of characters in traditional iconography. I will also, I hope be able to demonstrate on screen exactly what inverse perspective means and what it does to objects like tables and chairs. While Icons are religious artifacts, they are also an art form telling very specific stories with layered meanings. I see the Icon as the perfect combination of art and religion, so perfect indeed that even with the advances of the Renaissance, and the influence of Western art on both Greek and Russian culture in the 19th Century, the revival of the traditional icon by Photios Kontoglou in the 1950s continues to be a powerful force across the Orthodox world and beyond. It is now not uncommon today, for example, to see Icons in both Catholic and Anglican churches.

On 22nd January according to the Greek Calendar, and on 26th January (transferred from 24th) in the Catholic Church, is the feast of St Timothy, my patron saint.

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http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/01/07/british-painter-revives-christian-ancient-art-form-iconography/

comments on the council

 

A few days’ ago, I wrote about the Council on Crete that has been boycotted by the Russian Church. Of course it is possible to become mystical and misty-eyed about all this or to see it as a political scheme to grab power from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. My instinct is that this is a power grab, but it is worth checking what has happened since the boycott.

On the one hand, the Patriach of Moscow has sent the council a very encouraging letter, albeit adopting a slightly Papal tone, but on the other, there have been radio and tv discussions that have left little doubt that Moscow regards the council as misjudged and feels that only it has a monopoly of truth. Disturbing indeed.

Newspapers have made a great point of charting the history of the planning from 1961 and that current relations between the participating and non-participating Churches remain intact. But there are criticisms that the full range of 120  different topics initially to be discussed at the council had recently been truncated by Constantinople, that decisions about financing and organisation were imposed on “lesser churches” by Bartholemew’s team in January 2016. Meanwhile, there are apparently draft documents in Moscow on all the 120 topics, drawn up since a conference on Rhodes in 2009 and Fr Nikolai Balashov, deputy chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, is on record complaining that

“The truth is that only the Russian Church did her “homework”and the process stalled. That same year a delegation of the Church of Constantinople led by the remarkable hierarch, Metropolitan Meliton of Chalcedon, came to Moscow and suggested to His Holiness Patriarch Pimen to change the order of preparation. The Russian Church was distressed and disappointed, but agreed to hold the Council on a thin agenda and presented a shortened list of topics. The answer was “too many”, and there were ten topics left on the agenda. Yet, some topics, which the Moscow Patriarchate considered important, were later removed, and only six remained on the agenda. The rules of preparation were changed several times, but we, though reluctantly, always gave our consent for the sake of the Council. No one can accuse the Russian Church in the lack of good will.”

I think that, at a time when there are so many other problems between Russia and the rest of the world, this is precisely what the Moscow Patriachate can be accused of – a lack of goodwill. The time to raise these issues, if they were genuine and if Moscow intended any positive outcome, was in January, or February. I think it is impossible not to draw the conclusion that Kirill has played this for power and maximum publicity. And the interviews and press briefings suggest he is playing to a home audience.

But we can expect little more from a man who floats around the city in a motorcade to rival that of the President. I have found myself waiting his passing on a few occasions, adding to the traffic chaos. I suppose we can only thank God that he is not posting photos of himself bare-chested on horseback.

Meanwhile, Hilarion has given an interview suggesting that a “proper council” can be convened fairly soon. “I believe we all should learn a lesson from what has happened so that in the future it would be possible to convene such a Holy and Great Council in which all the Local Churches without exception will participate and which will become what it should be – a witness to our unity.”

Here is the letter:

kirill2Your Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew,

Your Holinesses and Beatitudes,

The Most Reverend Fellow-Archpastors,

The Honorable Representatives of Local Orthodox Churches:

 

I cordially greet you on behalf of the Russian Orthodox Church and on behalf of the Orthodox faithful in Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, Moldova and other countries, who comprise the vast flock of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Brothers, we all are the one Body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 12:27). We have received the priceless gift of unity from the Lord and our Saviour Jesus Christ Himself. To preserve this gift is one of our principal tasks; it is a direct commandment of our Saviour’ (Jn. 17:21).

Let us not be confused by the fact that the opinions of Sister-Churches about the convocation of the Holy and Great Council have been divided. According to St. Paul, there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized (1 Cor. 11:19). In the days of preparations for the Council, such differences have become fully revealed, but we must not allow them to weaken the God-commanded unity, to grow into an inter-church conflict, to bring division and trouble into our ranks. We remain one Orthodox family and together we all bear responsibility for the fate of Holy Orthodoxy.

It is my profound conviction that the Churches, both those who have decided to go to Crete and those who have refrained from it, made their decisions in good conscience, and for this reason we must respect the position of each of them.

The Russian Orthodox Church has always proceeded from the conviction that the voice of any Local Church, be it large or small, old or new, should not be neglected. The absence of the Church of Antioch’s consent to convene the Council means that we have not reached pan-Orthodox consensus. We cannot ignore the voices of the Georgian, Serbian and Bulgarian Churches either, who have spoken for a postponement of the Council to a later date.

I trust that if there is a good will, the meeting in Crete can become an important step towards overcoming the present differences. It can make its own contribution to the preparation of that Holy and Great Council which will unite all the Local Autocephalous Churches without exception and become a visible reflection of the unity of the Holy Orthodox Church of Christ, for which our predecessors, who blissfully passed away, prayed and which they expected.

We assure you that our prayers will be with you in the days of the work ahead of you.

 

With great love in Christ,

+ KIRILL

 PATRIARCH OF MOSCOW AND ALL RUSSIA

Theology of the Icon

The Icon is a major feature in the Orthodox Church. Unlike religious images and statues in Catholicism, however, the Greek Icon has a position in liturgy and doctrine that is cemented by the 7th Ecumenical Council in 787 and which goes beyond the purely decorative and helpful. In this way, however, any Icon, has a position in the liturgy that is paralleled by the Catholic crucifix (with the depiction of the body of Christ) – a Liturgy without Icons is no liturgy just as a Mass  (as stated in the Roman Missal, no 308) celebrated without a Crucifix is regarded as illicit. Of course, both Catholics and Orthodox would wax lyrical about the efficacy of the sacrament with or without the attendant iconography, and both, I hope, would warn against applying the canons too strictly.

The Icon has a bizarre history and seems to defy the ruling in the 10 commandments, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God” (Ex. 20:4-5), but this ruling say the Fathers of the Church is overturned by the fact that The New Testament celebrates God made man and the Invisible Godhead is manifest in the true Icon of his Son, Christ – “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father”.

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The first sunday of Lent in the Orthodox calendar celebrates the Triumph of Orthodoxy. St John Damascene demonstrated that the Icon was the celebration of the Theosis, the divinization of humanity and the Icons in the church act as windows through which the heavenly Church is brought into direct contact with the Church on earth. “The icon” says Archimandrite Zenon, “does not represent anything, it rather reveals something.” St John says the Icon particularly represents what Orthodoxy is about: “If one of the heathens comes to you saying: show me your faith… you will take him to church and put him before all kinds of holy images.” The veneration of Icons is simply a greeting made by the worldly Church with the Church in Heaven and in the words of St Basil the Great, “the honour paid to the image passes on to the prototype”. Outside the Church and the liturgy, the Icon, always an image of great beauty and often valuable in its own right, is in danger of losing its theological meaning and of course it could degenerate, simply, into a form of Ecclesiastical comic strip. (much of what I am writing about the care of religious art could equally apply to the Tibetan Thangka Paintings and frankly could be adapted to the care of the Torah scrolls and the Koran)

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For the Catholic church and many Anglicans, Religious art is a Gospel for the illiterate, as defined by Gregory the Great, “Images are used in churches so that the illiterate could at least look at the walls to read what they are unable to read in books.” and Damascene goes along with this understanding, “The image is a memorial, just what words are to a listening ear. What a book is to the literate, an image is to the illiterate. The image speaks to sight as words to hearing; through the mind we enter into union with it” :he is joined by Theodore the Studite and the canons of the 7th Ecumenical council in identifying the Icon as a form of teaching: “What a word communicates through hearing is what art shows silently through an image”.

St John of Damascus goes a bit further and turns the 2nd commandment round, “It is obvious that at that time [before Christ] you could not make an image of the invisible God, but when you see the Formless One become man for your sake, then you will make images of Him in His human form. When you contemplate God becoming man, then you can depict Him clothed in human form. When the invisible One becomes visible to us, you may then draw His likeness…Paint everything with words and colours both in books and on boards”. In other words, the Icon becomes the way to demonstrate the revelation of the New Testament and the Icon represents a person in a transfigured state.

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There are many conventions- only those not venerated, for instance are depicted in profile, the idea of inverted perspective and the light of Mount Tabor, the fact that the Virgin is always pointing to her son, and so on. I have a bit of an issue with one aspect of icongraphy that seems to be gaining ground- there is a tendency to talk about “writing” rather than “painting” an Icon. I think this is a bit precious and as far as I can see, the two words in Greek and Russian, γράφειν and писать, are both ambiguous and can mean both “write” and “paint”, (the russian word is more likely to mean “paint” as a technical term and tends only to be used in the sense of “write” in modern Russian but, if the stress is misplaced, it can also have a slightly more vulgar meaning  redolent of the astonishingly crass Councillor- now thankfully suspended, Dominic Peacock)

dominic Peacock

We should use English in a more direct way. But in a noisy world, the Icon remains a silent testament to a different kind of life. That must be valuable whether we have a belief or not. A celebration of the beautiful.

 

Orthodox Council in Crete

While Britain focuses on the EU referendum, a meeting is taking place (or not) in Kolymbari, Crete that has taken about 1000 years to negotiate and this specific effort dates back to 1901. Far from pursuing Church unity between Rome and Constantinople, it is fairly evident that unity across the Orthodox Church of 14 autocephalous Churches can be fairly fragile itself.

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Yesterday, Theodoros II urged the squabbling Bishops, led by the Bulgarians, to set aside differences and attend the council. The Serbians responded by saying they would attend, but they might not stay. The Russians remain determined to boycott the event.

As I see it the reasons for the boycott are fairly spurious- issues about primacy of honour in the conference itself and in any pronouncements thereafter issued, as well as a general prickliness about orthodox links with other churches, particularly Rome.

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The issues causing problems are really an excuse to promote the power of Moscow and the objections put forward by the smaller Churches like Georgia seem to have been orchestrated to make the point. While the Antiochene Church may well have a valid dispute with Jerusalem over control of parishes in Qatar (they should both be focused on Syria frankly), issues like “Church unity”, and intermarriage had already sparked concerns among the conservatives in Moscow. Kirill was also, I gather, worried about the prominence given to Bartholemew in seating arrangements at the council. This analysis tends to suggest that Moscow is absolutely the villain of the piece but there is a long history of Greece exerting control (most of the hierarchy throughout the middle east is bizarrely Greek, and has been so for many years). Squeals of theological protest from Athos and from what is mostly a group of ultra-conservative converts, have kicked up a fuss. Georgia, meanwhile, which worries that documents dealing with inter-marriage are too progressive and might cement in practice what has  so far been a “don’t tell” policy of tolerance, and Bulgaria’s decisive withdrawal gave an excuse for Moscow to withdraw too. How much their withdrawals were orchestrated by Kirill will remain to be seen.

Behind this jockeying for power is a nasty undercurrent. If, following rules laid down by the Turkish government which stipulate the Patriarch must be a turkish citizen, Bartholemew is to be one of the last Ecumenical patriarchs of Constantinople (with a flock of barely 3000 believers), the Moscow Patriarch clearly has its eye on the job.

hilarion(Either Bishop Hilarion fails to do his job or is not allowed to do so. I hope the latter is the case because I like him!)

15th June 2016

C O M M U N I Q U E

In brotherly love, while with responsibility and hopes preparing for the participation in the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, which, God willing, is to be held at the Orthodox Academy at Crete around Pentecost, from June 17 to 26, 2016, the Holy Synod of Bishops in its broader composition at its session held at the Serbian Patriarchate in Belgrade, on June 15, 2016, regarding the situation created after the ordinary convocation of the Holy Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church, takes the following decision:

First of all, having in mind the importance and significance of the Council, our Church wants, in a spirit of ecclesial upbuilding, to contribute to this Holy and Great Council fulfilling the criteria and the measure of true Councils in the history of the Orthodox Church, thereby justifying its title.

On the other hand, our Church requests that problems and matters not only of the Serbian Orthodox Church, but also of the other most Holy Churches that cancelled their participation in the Council, be considered at the Council.

With this aim in mind, the Holy and Great Council should last as long as these questions are to be considered, and must not be hostage to previously layed-out and accepted rules. Exclusively with the full consensus can the Council be considered as a Holy and Great Council.

At last, our Church insists that the gathering on the island of Crete be the beginning of the Conciliar process, that the matters in question should be solved during its working process, but in the spirit of the conciliar tradition of the Church of Christ.

In the case that the Churches present at the Council, with the Ecumenical Patriarchate at its head, persist in the position that the absent Churches boycott the work of the Council without any real reason, and in the case that the already present Churches refuse to take into consideration all the matters in question, problems and disagreements, the representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church at the Council will be, regretfully, forced to leave the sessions of the Council and in that way join the Churches that are already absent.

This is by no means a threat or ransom, but a consequent implementation of the position and decisions of the Holy Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church held in May 2016.

In the spirit of our ecclesial and pastoral responsibility, we present these positions hoping in the illuminating action of the All-Holy Spirit.

Archbishop of Pec, Metropolitan of Belgrade – Karlovci
and Serbian Patriarch

President of the Holy Assembly of Bishops
sign.   I R I N E J

coptic.jpgThis all seems a bit unfortunate. Bulgaria is simply following the lead of Patriach Kirill in Moscow, whose background is almost as dodgy as the late Christodoulos of Athens. Neveretheless, I hold out some hope that Bishop Hilarion, who was at Oxford, will hold sway over the Muscovites and they will finally come round to sense. At the moment, he is urging postponement but as another member of the council pointed out, there is not really anyone with the authority to call off what was agreed by “all churches” in January. “It would be autocratic and papal for him (the ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew) to change that. No one, including the Ecumenical Patriarch, has right to override that decision.

“There have been councils in past attended by very few bishops or churches, because of various circumstances,”Chryssavgis said. “This council will be the largest, most representative council in the history of the Orthodox Church.”

“In that respect,”Chryssavgis said, “it truly is a ‘great’ council, greater than any individual synod of one of the sister churches.”

I note that one of the signatories to a letter urging union and specifically “To postpone the Council once again,” they tell participants, “is to fail to live up to the principle of conciliarity on a global level.” is Dr Smilen Markov, Sofia University (Bulgarian Orthodox Church).“It is a great council, a pan-Orthodox council whose decisions are binding for the Orthodox Church,” said Deacon Chryssavgis, theological adviser to Patriarch Bartholomew.

An analysis in Greek (but with english subtitles). I am indebted to Fr Nikolas Young for pointing to this!

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Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia speaks  about the coming Holy and Great Council here,