Tag Archives: Epiphany

The Quran, the Cathedral, and the wrong story

I get sucked into other people’s narratives. Not their lives, but into the compelling stories they tell of ‘the way the world is.’ At worst, into their stories about my own life. As a young person my loving parents persuaded  me out of pursuing a career in the performing arts, because I might end up cleaning for a living as I waited for jobs. And, right enough, I can’t sing or dance. It totally escaped them that I might well have had a career in straight acting, or in directing, or any of the other roles around performance. They wanted me to have the right career.

Then I got persuaded out of a career as an academic, because of all the manifold failings of academia. But actually, a mixture of management, teaching and research is something I could perfectly well have done. I would have loved it.

As it happens, my dyslexia means that most of the more normal jobs open to people are impossible to me. As it happens, my persuadability wrecked my chance of a decent job, and I ended up cleaning for living without even getting a shot at things which might have been more fulfilling, and that was a far worse waste fate than my kind helpers imagined.  It is not the fault of the persuaders, but my own weakness. It does, however, have the desirable side-effect that I see too plainly how others grab the wrong narrative.

The current misguided narrative concerns a very beautiful reading from the Quran in my church, St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow, at Epiphany. Now, St Mary’s is a place of the uttermost theological conservatism. It is a place where both the two major creeds are honoured, where the laity, as well as the clergy, observe the beautiful custom of bowing for the name of Jesus, and for the section of the Nicene creed, which describes the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.

The chances that anybody in St Mary’s would pick up the mistaken idea people in the church hierarchy there do not believe that Jesus was very God from very God is a risk so small as to be vanishing.

But St Mary’s is a church in a city where worrying racist attacks on Asian religious buildings have happened in the last two years. There is a serious risk, in that city, that the Muslim community could come to believe the Christian community are not supporting them, and that the Christian community might not realise that they have a lot in common with the Muslim community.

To put it bluntly, prejudice between two ancient and honourable faiths is one of the biggest challenges we face today.  That is not a small risk. It is a huge one.

The current hysteria in certain circles over the reading is a classic case of an entirely mistaken narrative. Nobody at St Mary’s stands the smallest danger of not knowing the orthodox Christian doctrines. We will continue to celebrate the Eucharist in all its fullness week by week, at mid week, for saints’ days and for weddings. We will continue to observe Ash Wednesday, and Lent and the Triduum. There will be an Easter vigil and a parish Easter Eucharist. Evensong will be sung, and there will be daily morning prayer. The Old Testament and the Epistle and the Gospel with be read, and Psalms will be variously read and sung. Prayers will be devout, and hymns and anthems glorious. We, her congregation, know that. Glasgow also knows St Mary’s worships one God in three Persons, and does that daily.

The real danger was not that I might not have the perfect career. The real danger was that I might not have a career at all.

The real danger is lack of love and respect and kinship between two great faiths.

Moving to centre stage

Readers of this blog might enjoy my guest post on Thinking Anglicans.

When Jesus was born there was peace. Any recorded disturbance was no more than a half-forgotten slur on his mother, which surprisingly did not result in an ‘honour killing’ but, against the odds, a marriage. Even today, nobody is much threatened by Christmas. Not so much because it is unthreatening, but because its message can be missed so easily, as it is on so many cute Christmas cards, and in so many charming nativity plays.

Epiphany marks the move of that child from the shadows onto the centre stage. His glory begins to be manifest. On Sunday or Monday (depending on the congregation) we will all celebrate that glory. In some countries, for instance Mexico, Epiphany is still the main day of rejoicing and present giving. It makes sense. We are celebrating the moment when people first start to take notice of the child, the moment when somebody who matters in the eyes of the world senses his glory and begins to feel after who he is. It is no coincidence that at that very moment, when we first celebrate the glory of Christ openly, the trouble starts. Because at all times and in all places Christ is a threat to the established order.

The values of Epiphany are the values of the Magnificat, and, come to that, the values most consistently stressed in the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament: justice for the poor, joy for the sorrowing, and repentance for the rich.

Some aspects of this challenge to the established order are easier for our world to swallow than others. It is politically expedient at the moment in our country to blame the ills of society on the poor, the sick, and the stranger. These are the very categories of person in whom, according to St Matthew, we meet Christ in all his glory. Those with the courage to point out that the blame does not lie where it is apportioned are (now as then) vilified. Christians singing hymns, or practising personal pieties, are welcome to their private devotions. Christians speaking openly about the growing numbers unable to feed themselves in one of the richest countries in the world? Not so much. It is inconvenient to direct attention to the truth that, so far from being work-shy loungers, many of the poor are in jobs, often the jobs others would not wish to undertake.

Many leap with delight on the idea of sending the rich empty away, and small blame to them. Only, this has never been a popular message to those in power — and in our age that includes the media. They may admire Pope Francis hugging those with disabilities, but they only admire the rest of his message if they can imagine it directed to countries far away.

The Epiphany gospel is drawn from Matthew, and a part of it is the idea of strangers coming to worship the Christ. Matthew will take up that idea later, where the suggestion is that when we invite in the stranger, we invite Christ himself, and all that is good with him. Today it seems strangers are only welcome when they are neither Romanian nor Bulgarian — oh, and as long as they are not also sick, because then we will only help if they can pay.

The work of Epiphany is to bring the private moments of Christmas into the public area. It is our work. The song which Mary sings to Elizabeth must now be sung out loud for all the world to hear, even when it tries to stop its ears. If the glory of Christ is to be seen and his values are to shine out, each of us must sing that song, and loudly, too.