Multi-Faith Worship: St John’s, Waterloo

In the run-up to International Women’ Day, the Inclusive Mosque Initiative organized an inclusive jummah salah on 6 March 2015, led by Dr Amina Wadud and hosted by St John’s Church, Waterloo, in the diocese of Southwark. Set against the background of the so-called Southwark Declaration[1] it is unsurprising that the event drew criticism from within the diocese and elsewhere, examples of which are included in the Thinking Anglicans post Muslim prayer in church building generates controversy and the guest post by Peter Ould on Psephizo Can Muslims worship Allah in an Anglican church? Not all comments were critical and  Kelvin Holdsworth, Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow, was supportive in his post Welcoming Muslims into church.

The event and the associated criticism triggered three formal responses: one from Canon Giles Goddard apologizing “for the offence caused and any infringement of Church of England’s framework and guidelines”; a statement from a diocesan spokesperson asserting that “it is quite clear that Islamic prayer should not take place in a consecrated building”; and further confirmation by the Bishop of Southwark that “it is clear that an act of worship from a non-Christian faith tradition is not permitted within a consecrated Church of England building.”

The bishop’s statement acknowledges the importance of building good interfaith relations, and Canon Goddard indicated that he is seeking ways of building a better understanding between faiths. It is useful, therefore, to examine what constraints currently exist within ecclesiastical law in relation to multi-faith worship, and to clarify:

  • the ecclesiastical law imposing the constraints; and
  • the type of multi-faith activity to which it applies

The inclusive jummah salah

The notice on the St John’s website indicated that the event was: a non-Christian service; at the invitation of the Inclusive Mosque Initiative; and led by Dr Amina Wadud who delivered the sermon. It has also been suggested that all Christian imagery and iconography was covered. The event was timetabled as follows:

1.00pm Jummah adhaan (call to prayer)

1.15pm Jummah khutbah (sermon)

1.45pm Jummah prayer followed by dua (supplication) and dhikr (remembrance)

2.15pm Close by Reverend Giles Goddard, Vicar of St John’s Church

The Diocese of Southwark’s Guidelines on civic services / events involving people of different faiths [these are not now available on line, but CofE advice is available here] are “designed specifically to address the Church of England’s role in the Diocese of Southwark in relation to civic services and events involving people of different faiths”. These note that other guidelines on the wider questions of ‘Multi-Faith Worship’ were issued by the House of Bishops in 1993, following the 1992 Board of Mission report on the subject; this report contains an extended discussion of the theological and practical issues involved. Of the five forms of multi-faith involvement addressed by the Guidance[2], the most relevant section appears to be:

“D Services or events held in Church of England churches

26. Any services or events held in a Church of England church are subject to canon law. Services must satisfy the requirements that they ‘in words and order are reverent and seemly and are neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England’ [B5]. Other events held in churches should be ‘such as befit the House of God, are consonant with sound doctrine, and make for the edifying of the people’ [F16]. In case of doubt, direction should be sought from the area or diocesan bishop.

27. Consecrated Church of England buildings are set apart for ever for worship according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England. Civic services including active participatory roles for representatives of other faiths should be so planned as to ensure that the integrity of the whole service as an act of Christian worship is clearly preserved.

28. If representatives of other faiths are invited to read during the service from the scriptures of their faiths, it is of the utmost importance that the texts to be used should be agreed beforehand with the parish priest. Good quality English translations should always be made available.

29. No reading or other contribution from any participant should include any element hostile or contrary to the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it.

30. It is not appropriate for somebody of another faith at a civic service in a Church of England church to lead the congregation in prayer.

31. It is not generally appropriate for a representative of another faith to preach at a civic service in a Church of England church, though a person of another faith might be invited to offer reflections from a community perspective.”

It has been pointed out by some commentators that much (but not all) of this section concerns the conduct of civic services and is therefore not relevant to the event at St John’s. Against this view, however, it can be argued that restrictions applicable to civic services would be applicable a fortiori to events such as the one in question. Regardless of the interpretation of this quasi-legislative measure, it is clear that Canon B5 Of the discretion of ministers in conduct of public prayer is applicable. Section D of the guidance also cites Canon F16 Of plays, concerts, and exhibitions of films and pictures in churches, and whilst the inclusive jummah salah falls outwith the subject matter of this Canon, its requirements concerning the selection of words, music and pictures, and any general directions issued by the bishop or other Ordinary are pertinent.

Comment

In relation to the event at St John’s, Waterloo, the concerns of the bishop centred on Islamic prayer taking place in a consecrated building; this is addressed in paragraph 26 of the diocesan guidance, for which Canon B5 concerns the actions of ministers in relation to public prayer and what forms of prayer may, or may not be used. The statement in paragraph 26, “consecrated Church of England buildings are set apart for ever for worship according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England”, relates to the opening prayers for the Dedication and Consecration of a Church in the Book of Common Prayer. In his post Consecration and Control Philip Jones explores the implications of the act of consecration on secular and ecclesiastical property and the relevance of the High Court judgement Sutton v Bowden (1913) 1 Chancery 518.

Whilst the current legislative framework precludes activities such as that at St John’s, some of the resulting comment has been supportive of the initiative, citing the example of St John’s Episcopal Church, Aberdeen, which had the enthusiastic endorsement of the Bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney. However, in addition to the Southwark diocesan guidance which is underpinned by Canons B5 (and F16), there is other legislation which limits multi-faith worship and the use of church buildings (and former church buildings) by non-Christian faith groups. In relation to canon law, the CofE guidance paper “Multi-Faith Worship” produced in 2008 also notes the general requirements of Canons B1 and B2, and concludes, somewhat unsatisfactorily,

“It is probably therefore safer not to describe multi-faith gatherings as services, and therefore for them not to replace any statutory service.”

In side-stepping the issue, this reflects the uncertainty expressed in the preface to this document, which commences:

“A series of inconclusive debates in the General Synod over the last twenty-five years about the appropriateness or otherwise of sharing church buildings with those of other faiths, or releasing them to such groups when the local Anglican community no longer has need of them, reveals that there is as yet no consensus about whether worship offered by the faithful of another religion in a Christian church building constitutes an affront to the Christian faith or demonstrates a hospitality based upon our understanding of humankind as created in God’s image and loved by him. In this situation the question of whether Christians can or should properly worship alongside or in the company of members of other religions has likewise found no common answer.”

The current polarization of opinion suggests that the formal position of the Church has not advanced much further. Should it do so, however,  there are a number of legislative measures that will need to reconsidered.


[1] Endorsed by a number of the stipendiary clergy and PCCs in the diocese, the Southwark Declaration “affirms the doctrinal principles of the Church of England and calls upon the bishop to ensure that the clergy he has appointed to high office conform to these teachings”.

[2] (a) civic services or event; (b) multi-faith civic events in secular venues; (c) Christian worship involving people of other faiths; (d) services or events held in Church of England churches; (e) invitations to services or events held in Church of England; (f) other Church of England services involving people of different faiths.

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  1. Pingback: Religion and law round-up – 29th March | Law & Religion UK

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