An Episcopal Muslim?

The Rev. Ann Holmes Redding, an Episcopal priest at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, declared in June that she was “both Muslim and Christian.” While indicating her intention to continue as a priest, Rev. Redding declared that for more than a year she has been a Muslim, initially drawn to the power of Muslim prayers.

Reactions to her announcement varied widely, as one might imagine. Some (including the Bishop of Seattle, the Rt. Rev. Vincent Warner) were excited by the interfaith possibilities that could be opened up by her dual identity. Others were less enthusiastic, or even critical, arguing that the fundamental incompatibility in the two traditions means that one cannot possibly be both Muslim and Christian.

In a way, I agree with both sides (how very convenient for me!). On the one hand, Rev. Redding has certainly raised significant issues for discussion about the nature of interfaith relations, and the relationships that she has built up with people within both communities may well bring about closer relationships. Her religious practice in its very nature challenges those who consider Islam and Christianity totally opposed to each other. In that way, she opens the possibility of conversation and respect. But I’m not sure it will lead to better mutual understanding.

Many people are enthusiastic about interfaith dialogue because they believe that it demonstrates how much we have in common with each other. Many others are opposed to it for exactly the same reason. They fear that dialogue leads to an indiscriminate blending of traditions- the “perennial philosophy” or “universal spirit” that minimizes very real differences.

While I see a lot of common ground in the two traditions, it does seem to me that it’s not really possible to be “both.” There are different worldviews, expectations, sacred texts and rituals that are, at least in part, mutually exclusive.
There is a tension between the right of an individual to define themselves religiously (which is essential in interfaith dialogue) and the religious community’s right to define their (shared) tradition. I do not doubt that Rev. Redding’s religious experience has integrity and meaning. The deeper issue is what “Christian” and “Muslim” mean, and who has the right to define them.

Who gets to define the tradition? In the case of the Episcopal Church, it is the Bishop who has oversight of the priest. Although the Bishop of Seattle does not seem to have a problem with Rev. Redding’s dual identity, the Bishop of Rhode Island, where Redding was ordained and to whom she is still answerable, does. The Rt. Rev. Geralyn Wolf has suspended Redding from acting as a priest for the coming year, calling on her to reflect on the doctrines of the Christian Church, her own call to priesthood, and the inherent contradiction between Christianity and Islam.

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