Friday, June 22, 2007
The Strange Business of the Muslim Episcopalian
I have over the last few days been attempting to get my mind around the assertion of the Rev. Ann Holmes Redding that she is both a Christian and a Muslim. I have done my research by going back to the "source" documents to make sure that I have fully grasped what this is all about. Then this morning, my day off, as I have been going about my chores I have been turning it around in my mind.
The furor surrounding Ann Holmes Redding has a number of fascinating dimensions, not least the appropriateness of her status as a priest in the Episcopal Church. During the last few years it seems that some of us have been regularly lectured about obedience to the doctrine and discipline of the Episcopal Church, and there have for some been dire consequences for stepping outside it. Now Dr. Redding has provided an interesting test case about whether all the talk about the doctrine and discipline of the church of these years is really serious, or if deep down it is about something else.
While the Episcopal Church has turned itself into a maximalist when it comes to obedience to the discipline and canons of the church as interpreted by the leadership, it has steadily become increasingly minimalist regarding doctrinal affirmation. Yet however many fundamental Anglican formularies are shaved away, the Nicene Creed is one fundamental doctrinal statement that the overwhelming majority say they accept.
If Ann Holmes Redding is now free to continue her idiosyncratic course without action being taken, then the creeds are up for grabs and any pretence of being a catholic and reformed church is being deliberately abandoned. That her bishop, Vincent Warner, does not seem to understand the theological implications of the statements Ms. Redding has made is a sad and ominous sign.
But there is more going on than this. I must begin by saying that I respect Ms. Redding's willingness to approach the Islamic faith with reverence and respect. While the aggression of popular Islam around the world has caused gred grief, I have learned from the likes of Bishop Kenneth Cragg that I will never fully be able to understand this religious confession if I do not treat it respectfully. I confess that as much as I attempt to do so, I find this extremely difficult.
Yet it seems Ann Holmes Redding has only managed to make this dual commitment to Christianity and Islam by stepping aside from a biblical and historical understanding of the nature of the trinitarian God and the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, toward a theology and Christology that has robbed from our Lord and Savior his must essential distinctives.
To be a Muslim is to accept Christianity as a way station preparing for the fullest revelation that is the Islamic obedience, and Jesus as a prophet making straight the way for Mohammed. The great rift between Islam and Christianity is radically different understandings of the nature and person of Christ.
As the Seattle Times summarizes Ms. Redding's belief system it is clear she has wandered far, far from anything that vaguely resembles the historic Christian faith. "She believes the Trinity is an idea about God and cannot be taken literally. She does not believe Jesus and God are the same, but rather that God is more than Jesus. She believes Jesus is the son of God insofar as all humans are the children of God, and that Jesus is divine, just as all humans are divine — because God dwells in all humans. What makes Jesus unique, she believes, is that out of all humans, he most embodied being filled with God and identifying completely with God's will."
Perhaps her "progressive" Christian faith has led her in this direction, but her jump to Islam while attempting to continue holding onto her Christian standing would suggest that when it comes down to it the Christian doctrinal tradition is of little importance to her.
But there is more here. If she has in the past questioned what she might have considered to be the unfounded biblicism of those of us who are orthodox Christian believers, how is she going to handle the Islamic belief about the inspiration of the Quran as dictated directly by the angel Gabriel to Mohammed? That same Quran denies the reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, something that she says she believes in. It would seem that these two paths to most thinking people are incompatible.
It would be wonderful to think that this priest had discovered an appropriate way to breach one of the most agonizing religious gulfs in human history, and that neither Christians nor Muslims would have to compromise their beliefs to become brothers and sisters in faith together. However, it would seem that what it seems she has actually done is to deliberately let go of the most substantial distinctives of her Christian heritage in favor of an understanding of God that cannot appropriately figure within Christianity.
The more I have thought about Islam over the years the more I have come to appreciate the assertion of one of my seminary professors that Islam is actually a Christian heresy, and in its formative period borrowed much from the Christian church. Some have even suggested the the Nestorian church of the east, with its less-than-thorough grasp of the nature of the Trinity readily prepared for Islam to sweep the faith away through much of what is today the Islamic world. If I did not know the saving mercy of redemption that is available through Jesus Christ, there is much in the stark ethic of Islam that I might find attractive. However, it seems to me that with the best will in the world it is hard to consider these two religions as compatible bedfellows.
I would suggest that Dr. Redding has for a long time probably affirmed a somewhat relativistic understanding of the Christian faith that has now met and is being steadily subsumed by the appeal of Islam, and her embrace of it. Which way she goes will be interesting to see, but while she is making up her mind it is entirely inappropriate for her to be considered a priest in good standing in the Episcopal Church, however theologically suspect this denomination is.