Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Pride and prejudice … thoughts on
a banner at a Cambridge church

Name the nations and spot the symbols on this sign on railings outside a church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

Sitting outside a café in Petty Curry in Cambridge, opposite Christ’s College, having a late breakfast earlier this week, I noticed a bright, colourful banner draped along the railings of a neighbouring church.

Posters, banners and bikes are an everyday part of the railings of churches in the centre of Cambridge. They make the railings bright locations for photographs, and they add to the cultural atmosphere and expectations of the heart of the university city.

This particular banner proclaimed: “International Service here this Sunday. You are very welcome – Please join us.”

The word “welcome” was repeated below in bold white lettering in 15 different languages – including Japanese, Korean, two varieties of Chinese, but not Greek – and to one side was a collection of at least 14 national flags, and parts of four or five more flags.

I could identify Portugal, Spain, South Korea, Russia, France, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Germany, China, Turkey, Thailand, Japan, Italy and the Netherlands, and I think the others included Lebanon, Brazil, India and Mexico.

It probably did not matter that there was no Union Jack and no Irish tricolour. It was interesting that none of these foreign flags included one with a cross, such as Greece, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden or Finland.

But then I found myself wondering whether any mosque inviting international visitors would display a colourful banner that included any of those European flags with a cross. Such a move would not only be risqué for any mosque, and perhaps border on the blasphemous.

A priest in the Diocese of Southwark who opened us his church for Muslim prayers some months drew a storm of protest and eventually apologised after being told that this was not permitted in a consecrated building.

The Vicar of Saint John’s, Waterloo, Canon Giles Goddard, apologised for “the offence caused and any infringement of Church of England’s framework and guidelines.” The prayers were held on 6 March as part of the Inclusive Mosque Initiative, in the run-up to International Women’s Day.

Later in March there were some protests when Friday prayers were said by Muslims at Washington National Cathedral of the Episcopal Church.

Why then does an Anglican church in the centre of Cambridge decorate itself with flags that present the core values and teachings of Islam?

I imagine churches in the tradition of Saint Andrew the Great would be very quick to condemn an Anglican church that invited a Muslim to preach, or allowed its space to be used for Muslim prayer. Has no-one at Saint Andrew’s considered the meaning of the crescent and star symbolise in Islam.

If not, it shows a lack of ability to understand the core values and teachings of Islam or to engage in Inter-Faith listening and understanding. On the other hand, if someone there does understand this meaning, then it seems woefully insensitive to use these flags in this banner.

Historians suggest the origin of the combination of the crescent and star in symbols used by Turkic people may go back many centuries to a time when the crescent represented the moon god (Ay Ata), and the star represented the sun goddess (Gun Ana).

But later the crescent moon and star became an internationally-recognised symbol of Islam. This symbol is seen on the flags of several Muslim countries, and is part of the official emblem for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, replacing the cross in Muslim countries, so that the Red Cross operates as the Red Crescent in .countries with a Muslim tradition.

It is said the city of Byzantium (Constantinople) adopted the crescent moon as its symbol after a battle in which the Romans defeated the Goths on the first day of a lunar month.

The first Muslim community did not have a symbol of its own, and the early Islamic armies and caravans flew simple solid-coloured flags, generally black, green, or white to identify themselves.

The symbol of the crescent moon and star did not become identified with the Muslim world until the Ottoman Empire. When the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453 they turned it into Istanbul, and they adopted the city’s existing flag and symbol.

Legend says Sultan Osman had a dream in which the crescent moon stretched from one end of the earth to the other. Taking this as a good omen, he chose to keep the crescent and make it the symbol of his dynasty. Some also say the five points on the star represent the five pillars of Islam.

For centuries, the Ottoman Sultans were also revered as the Islamic caliphs, and the symbols of their empire became the symbols of faith of Islam as a whole.

Not all Muslims accept this symbol. But what is truly shocking is that a church could be insensitive enough, brash enough or ignorant enough to use the flag of Saudi Arabia on its banners, decorations or publicity material.

The Saudi flag is a green flag featuring in bold white an Arabic inscription and the Sword of Islam. The inscription is no exotic decorative art but the core Islamic creed, known as the shahada. It is written especially in the Thuluth calligraphic script, which is favoured by the Wahhabi or Salafist schools of Islam because of its associations with sacred texts.

The shahada or Islamic declaration of faith states in Arabic: “There is no god but the God (Allah), Muhammad is the messenger of God.” To make this declaration before witnesses is the public declaration that makes one a Muslim. To publicly display it is an open declaration of loyalty to Islam.

The green of the flag represents Islam and the sword stands for the Sword of Islam, the House of Saud, the founding dynasty of the country, or the military strength and prowess of Saudi Arabia.

The flag must be made with identical obverse and reverse sides to ensure the shahada reads correctly on either side, and so that the sword points in the same direction as the script. This is a flag not be displayed casually or thoughtlessly.

Because Muslims revere the text of the shahada as sacred text, there are strict restrictions on the use of the flag: for example, it must not be used on T-shirts or souvenirs or other items, and in 2002 Saudi Arabia protested against its planned inclusion with other flags on a football designed for FIFA. Saudi officials pointed out that no Muslim could accept kicking the creed and sacred text with the foot.

Even in times of mourning, the flag is never lowered to half-mast because lowering it would be regarded as blasphemy.

A version of the flag, in which the colour green is replaced with black but retaining the inscription of the shahada is used in Syria and Iraq by the self-styled Islamic States (ISIS or ISIL).

The Vicar of Saint Andrew the Great, the Revd Alasdair Paine, describes himself as the “Senior Minister.” He is a former member of the staff of Eton College, where he was once the Head of the Geography Department.

In the absence of a Greek flag in that multinational collection of flags, and the absence of Greek in the words of welcome on the banner, I was then taken aback to read his comments on the present Greek crisis on the church’s website.

His comments begin with a Biblical quotation: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18, NIV).

He begins by saying: “Church ministers can make fools of themselves by pronouncing on subjects they know little about – complex economic matters being one. So I am slightly hesitant to comment on the Greek debt crisis, whose causes are certainly intricate and long-running.”

But he then goes on to do precisely that. He immediately pronounces on the Greek debt crisis, writing: “… with the Bible in my hand it’s not difficult to see that a key problem in the present crisis has not been economic at all. It’s been human pride. This, above all, is what has made the negotiations incredibly difficult, and has pushed Greece towards national disaster.”

He blames the present Greek crisis on “a combination of circumstances including poor government and sheer profligacy.”

He goes on to chide the Greek government for being “downright rude,” and trumpeting its resentment. He accuses the government and people of not having “the humility to admit failure and give assurances one will do things differently in future.” He warns Greeks to face the “bitter truth” and offers instead what he sees as Biblical truth: “The borrower is servant to the lender” (Proverbs 22: 7).

Having passed judgment on a nation that he thinks ought to be servile in the present crisis, he then blames all this on pride, adding: “It is surely this attitude, more than anything, that has brought the negotiations to the edge of the cliff.”

He concludes: “This crisis has reminded us just what a powerful driver of human behaviour pride is. It is the great obstacle in the human heart to coming to know the rescue we all most deeply need: the forgiveness of our sins. For the good news of Christ is also profoundly humbling: it tells us we need a saviour. It takes a work of the Spirit of God to remove from us the pride which, if unchecked, can lead to disaster.”

I was taken aback. There was no indication of compassion for pensioners who could not access their pensions, the vast numbers of young people who are unemployed and left without hope, the hospitals that have run out of even basic medicines, the businesses that have been forced to close, and the ordinary people who have been humiliated into begging on the streets.

I thought, of course, of what Christ had said to the widows and orphans marginalised in his day (Mark 12: 41-44), how he told the young who were being pushed away to come to him (Matthew 19: 14; Luke 18: 16), how he treated the sick who were denied medical attention (Mark 1: 24, &c), how he responded to the money changers in the Temple who squeezed the poor (Matthew 21: 12, John 2: 15), and how he feed those who came to him on the side of the mountain hungry and thirsty (Matthew 14:13-21; Matthew 15: 32-16: 10; Mark 6:31-44; Mark 8:1-9; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:5-15).

Certainly there was no citation of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12). More tellingly there was no mention of the constant condemnation throughout the Bible, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament of usury, especially excessive usury, and of those who live in luxury at the expense of the victims of economic circumstances (Matthew 23: 14).

Verses that came to mind include:

“If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them” Exodus 22: 25, NRSV).

And:

1 Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
who write oppressive statutes,
2 to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
and that you may make the orphans your prey!
3 What will you do on the day of punishment,
in the calamity that will come from far away?
To whom will you flee for help,
and where will you leave your wealth,
4 so as not to crouch among the prisoners
or fall among the slain? (Isaiah 10: 1-4).

It is somewhere between mistaken and offensive to misuse or misrepresent other people’s symbols of religion. But surely it is even more offensive to use religion to defend the oppression of a whole people. In a week where most of my working energy went into discussing the connections between the mission of the Church and social justice, I was reminded once again how Scripture teaches us what true religion is:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6: 8).

An inspiring week discussing
the next stages in mission

Walking through the fields near High Leigh in this morning’s sunshine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

The annual conference of the Anglican mission agency Us came to end today with the Rev Dr Monodeep Daniel of the Delhi Brotherhood presiding at the Closing Eucharist in High Leigh. Deaconess Dr Rachele Evie Vernon, Us Global Relations Theological Adviser, was the preacher, and drawing of the stories of Judith and Saint Mary Magdalene, she spoke with caring passion of the way women wage war and peace for the values we have been talking about all this week.

Today we are celebrating the feast of Saint Mary Magdalene, the first witness of the Resurrection, and this afternoon Rachel Treweek is being consecrated Bishop of Gloucester in Canterbury Cathedral.

It is good to take part in an Anglican mission conference that has been a worshipping and praying conference too, with regular worship in the Eucharist, in the daily offices, and with Bible studies.

For the past three or four days, we have been looking at “The Transforming Gospel,” facing tough questions about how the Gospel is Good News for women and sharing experiences of inter-religious living around the world.

There have been powerful contributions from thoughtful and inspiring women, including Canon Delene Mark from South Africa, Ms Sheba Sultan from the Church of Pakistan, Ms Anjun Anwar, a Muslim on the staff of Blackburn Cathedral, the Revd Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes of Durham, and Canon Andi Hofbauer of Wakefield Cathedral.

There have been disturbing reports of people trafficking and gender-based violence, and encouraging stories too of the empowerment of women, the work of the Delhi Brotherhood, and work on the threats of climate change ahead of the Paris conference next December.

This morning we had very full discussions as we explored new ways to communicate Us (the new name for USPG, the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel), and asked ourselves what excites us about our work, and how we can promote Us and the work of the society.

I woke this morning to another bright, sunny day in the Hertfordshire countryside, and between breakfast and the final day of conference there was time for a walk in the fields close to the High Leigh Conference Centre, on the edges of Hoddesdon.

The Council of Us met last night, with reports, accounts and the election of new trustees. I was one of the three new trustees elected, along with Ms Jean Price and Mr Martin Canning.

Our discussions this week are inspiring and important for carrying the work of Us through to the next generation. These have been deep and searching discussions.

I am catching the last flight back to Dublin from Stansted later tonight. But I hope to find some time in Cambridge this afternoon, including time to browse in the bookshops, to drop into Sidney Sussex College, and perhaps another walk by the river.

Collect:

Almighty God,
whose Son restored Mary Magdalene
to health of mind and body
and called her to be a witness to his resurrection:
forgive our sins and heal us by your grace,
that we may serve you in the power of his risen life;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post-Communion Prayer:

God of life and love,
whose risen Son called Mary Magdalene by name
and sent her to tell of his resurrection to his apostles:
in your mercy, help us,
who have been united with him in this Eucharist,
to proclaim the good news
that he is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

High Leigh in the sunshine this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)