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.
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:
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.
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”: