The day before the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops voted to confirm the church’s first openly gay bishop in the late summer of 2003, conservative humor website ScrappleFace satirized the move with a piece entitled " Episcopal Church Appoints First Openly-Muslim Bishop ." It was a fine example of reductio ad absurdum humor: If the Episcopal Church sacrificed a long-held moral doctrine, would it next have a bishop of another faith? The point worked as humor, but would not work as argument precisely because the possibility seemed absurd. Yet less than four years later, the Episcopal Church has been faced (albeit briefly) with its first openly Muslim priest.
The Rev. Ann Holmes Redding, who was ordained in 1984 and has been affiliated with St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle for the past six years, became Muslim in early 2006. Redding first became intrigued by Islam in the fall of 2005, when a local Muslim leader spoke at her cathedral. Her interest deepened after an interfaith class the following spring. Redding told the Seattle Times that her mother died around that time, and she could not cope with that death except by "total surrender to God." In March 2006 she recited the shahada , the declaration of faith that makes one a Muslim.
When Redding went public with her conversion fifteen months later, in June 2007, she felt that she did not need to relinquish her position at St. Mark’s. "I am both Muslim and Christian," Redding said. "I’m 100 percent both."
Perhaps the true punchline to the joke ScappleFace made four years ago is how the Diocese of Olympia reacted. The diocese’s newspaper was actually the first to announce that Redding had become Muslim, and its bishop, the Rt. Rev. Vincent Warner, said that "he accepts Redding as an Episcopal priest and a Muslim, and that he finds the interfaith possibilities exciting."
Because Redding was ordained in the Diocese of Rhode Island, that diocese has disciplinary authority over her. The Seattle Times reported in early July that Rhode Island’s diocese¯the diocese with “disciplinary authority over her”¯ had suspended Redding from the priesthood for a year , during which time she is expected to "reflect on the doctrines of the Christian faith." But the fact that the Diocese of Olympia’s initial response was to embrace Redding as a Muslim and as a priest suggests that there may be yet another theological schism within the Episcopal Church. And if recent history is any indication, such schisms do not fade quietly.
It is not without reason that this turn of events would have seemed unlikely four years ago: As a matter of simple logic, the idea that Redding could be both Christian and Muslim is untenable. Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft has described the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity as "the central Christian doctrine." And Frank Spina, an Episcopal priest and professor of Old Testament and biblical theology at Seattle Pacific University, was correct when he told the Seattle Times in response to Redding’s conversion: "The essence of Christianity was not that Jesus was a great rabbi or even a great prophet, but that he is the very incarnation of the God that created the world . . . . Christianity stands or falls on who Jesus is."
On the other hand, the idea that Jesus is not divine is equally central to Islam. The Qur’an, which Muslims believe is the direct word of God, denies Jesus’ divinity multiple times. Sura 4:171 warns People of the Book (Christians and Jews) to "believe in Allah and His messengers, and say not ‘Three’¯Cease! (it is) better for you!¯Allah is only One God. Far is it removed from His transcendent majesty that He should have a son." Going beyond that, Sura 5:17 declares that "they indeed have disbelieved who say: Lo! Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary." And Sura 5:73 denounces adherence to the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity as a form of disbelief.
This conflicting view of Jesus’ divinity is all one needs to know to understand that it is impossible to be Christian and Muslim at the same time. This doctrinal difference is anything but incidental: It goes to the two faiths’ very conceptions of the deity. A necessary part of being Christian is accepting that Jesus was divine. This is enshrined in the catechism of the Episcopal Church, which teaches that God the Son is part of the Holy Trinity. Likewise, a necessary part of being Muslim is denying Jesus’ divinity: The idea that Christ was God violates the tenet of tawhid (the oneness of God) that is central to both the Qur’an and Muhammad’s teachings.
A powerful movement within the broader Christian church seemingly believes it polite to water down religious doctrine that may make non-Christians uncomfortable. Indeed, many non-Christians are offended by Christianity’s belief that salvation can be found only in Jesus¯thus holding that other religions provide a deficient connection to God.
Some argue that having religious doctrine that is at odds with contemporary thinking hurts the Church. Certainly, the Rt. Rev. Warner’s stance on Redding’s conversion suggests that he favors a path of accommodation on doctrinal issues. Others in the Episcopal Church have shown similar inclinations where Islam is concerned. In a 2003 Christmas sermon, the Rt. Rev. John Bryson Chane, Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C., asked a series of rhetorical questions: "And what was God thinking . . . when the Angel Gabriel was sent by God to reveal the Law to Moses? And what was God thinking . . . when the Angel Gabriel was sent by God to reveal the sacred Qur’an to the prophet Muhammad? And what was God thinking . . . when the Angel Gabriel was sent by God to reveal the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God?" This was particularly puzzling, since the Rt. Rev. Chane affirmed Jesus as the Son of God in the same breath that he affirmed the sacred nature of the Qur’an, which expressly denies the Holy Trinity.
The question is whether such doctrinal compromise actually creates interfaith opportunities. Not only is this approach unlikely to bolster interfaith activities, but it may actually undermine them. The available evidence suggests that interfaith dialogue is least effective when those engaging in it do not have their feet firmly planted in their own faith traditions. The point of interfaith dialogue is to learn about religions that are foreign to us¯and an integral part of accomplishing this is being upfront about theological differences. When a church involved in interfaith dialogue soft-pedals Christian doctrine in the interest of painting a picture that appeals to its dialogue partners, its credibility can be undermined. A couple of years ago, I spoke with a member of a conservative church that had recently begun interfaith dialogue with a mosque. Before that, the mosque had dialogued with a more liberal church. Mosque leaders were pleased to have more conservative dialogue partners: They expressed satisfaction that "now we’ll get to see what Christians really think."
But perhaps the greater danger for Christians is not that church leaders like the Rt. Rev. Warner will undermine their own credibility, but instead that they will be seen as legitimate representatives of the faith. Christianity goes far beyond mere belief that Jesus’ teachings constitute a good system of morals and ethics. It holds that one’s salvation is tied to a belief in Jesus’ divinity, as well as his Crucifixion and Resurrection.
Conservative Christians and Muslims alike have expressed skepticism about interfaith dialogue and activities precisely because they fear it will lead to bizarre new doctrines such as that held by Redding. Christians and Muslims need not feel ashamed that their respective faiths make irreconcilable truth claims. Nor should they see interfaith dialogue as an attempt to bridge the considerable theological gap between these faiths. Eboo Patel, the executive director of Interfaith Youth Core and author of Acts of Faith , told me as I was preparing this article that, in serious interfaith-cooperation efforts, "the vast majority of Christians are going to stay Christian and the vast majority of Muslims are going to stay Muslim."
The highest purpose of interfaith dialogue is not to create some strange hybrid religion that reconciles two faiths that make competing truth claims. Rather, at its best, interfaith dialogue can help people build relationships of understanding, respect, and cooperation even though they adhere to faiths that cannot simultaneously be true. Worse than merely producing theological incoherence, the position held by Redding and the Diocese of Olympia could actually undermine that vital mission.