The latest excitement in the world of Anglican cathedrals has brought together gin and elephants. I’m fond of all three, but this time there is a problem to be solved.
The gin is a bit of a red herring. Blackburn cathedral, needing a bit more cash to keep the lights on, launched its own brand of gin last week. The days of teetotalism being behind us, no one minded much. The papers showed rather fetching photos of a dean brandishing their new own-brand, and all seemed happy and well.
But the dean was soon to need the gin because he was about to get a headache. It was armistice tide. A music society thought it would be a great idea to have a performance of Karl Jenkins’ moving work ‘The Armed Man’ –a mass for peace’.
It’s colourful and a bit controversial. Colourful because it is a successful example of ‘crossover’ music, a hybrid ofrock and classical. It’s crossover in other ways. It stretches from ancient Sanskrit to 1st world war poets;from Dryden to Kipling via Swift and Horace.
But it’s controversial too. It’s been banned from some cathedrals before, (in New Zealand for example) because it involves an Imam reciting a call to prayer in the second movement. Jenkins was furious when that happened and fulminated that this was the kind of bigotry that led to war.
And that’s where the elephant comes in. This is not as you might have expected an elephant in the room story. But this is the one with blindfolded men and wandering hands. It’s probably one of the most iconic stories that drives much of modern education theory.
Unseeing, different people grab hold of different parts of the poor long suffering elephant, each declaring what they have found; one a trunk, one a leg, one a tail etc. You get the picture. They all think they have something different, but when you take off the blindfold, it turned out to be an elephant. The moral being that one needed to put all their experiences together to discover the whole of the reality, which surprised them.
There are many things in life which the relativistic elephant story helps us with, but some it doesn’t. And solving the problem of how Islam and Christianity relate together is one of those.
The problem comes in two forms. Jesus said he was the Son of God and after dying for our sins would be resurrected, and Mohammed said that God told him six hundred years later that Jesus wasn’t and didn’t.
For most people in the West this is a religious spat that may not concern them much. But where it touches us all is in the contradictory ethics that the two ways of life promote and practice. It’s the ethics that drive what we have come to call ‘terrorism’ or the lack of it.
So far from being two different parts of one elephant, the Gods that Jesus and Mohammed represent are two very different principles or spirits.
Jesus, when confronted with adultery, forgives and redirects; Mohammed requires stoning to death. Jesus when confronted with a thief (on the cross) forgives and accepts; the koran prescribes amputation. The Gospels, when teaching about violence insists on soaking it up with love and turning the other cheek; the Koran meets violence with more violence.
All ideas have consequences, and ethical ones have more consequences than most. The difference between these two Gods or principles is the reason why there are no Christian or Jewish suicide bombers while the Islamic ‘terrorism’ continues undiminished.
The ‘Religion of Peace’ website, which claims to be non partisan but simply a place of observation and record, documents 123 Islamic attacks in 21 countries, in which 546 people were killed and 588 injured during the last 30 days.
Was Karl Jenkins right to erupt on finding a cathedral that declined to host the Islamic call to prayer he had built into what he called a ‘mass for peace’?
For many Christians, hosting the voice of Mohammedand his call to prayer– when he declared Jesus to be a fraud– in a cathedral dedicated to his honour, was not only a contradiction, but something of an insult.
When Muslims believe Mohammed has been insulted, as for example with the journalists who worked for Charlie Hebdo, they invoked the violence directed in the Koran and assassinated them. Anglicans upset about what they see as an insult to Jesus and a contradiction of categories have mildly complained.
Carl Jenkins may be an inspiring composer and an adventurous lyricist, but I don’t think he’s right about claiming that these mild complaints represent the kind of bigotry that leads to war.
I think the New Zealand Dean had it right when he confronted the elephant in the room and observed that the spirit that informed these two approaches to life were contradictory and incompatible.
When it comes to appointing deans to run cathedrals, it may be better to look for people more expert in one kind of Spirit than the other.