I took an extra day off this week in lieu of the couple I missed in Easter week due to one thing or another, and by the time I got back to work and the world of facebook I discovered that a self-described "progressive" political party had pressed the self-destruct button, probably jaundicing young political activists of that ilk for a generation, and that Pastor James McConnell had lit the blue touchpaper on a whole heap of inter-faith fun and games.
Anyway, whilst away from my desk for a couple of days it was good to see my friend and colleague here in south Belfast, Steve Stockman, addressing the issue from a couple of angles; first from the perspective of what it means to love your neighbour, and for the congregations that Steve and I serve, the Belfast Islamic Centre and those who attend it are PHYSICALLY in our neighbourhood, and secondly reminding fellow residents of Northern Ireland that is not long ago that we were often all written off as untrustworthy terrorists... That was frequently my experience on trips back and forward to Scotland... so much so that I became sadly inured to it.
However, Steve's blog has, as is often the case, been a lone voice in the wilderness. The wider institutions have been deafening in their silence... A point made much of by William Crawley on facebook and Sunday Sequence this morning apparently. I have seen nothing from the Church of Ireland. The Presbyterians released a short statement on request to those who wanted it, but (at the time of writing) I have not seen it on their main website. My friend and Irish Methodist President Heather Morris put the statement she released to the Nolan Show, plus some wider personal comments on the Presidential facebook page on Friday night, while the Catholic Church were clearly too busy telling people how or who (not) to vote for, but since the Catholic Church and individual Catholics have been subject to similar attacks by Pastor McConnell in the past, perhaps they felt they were better off keeping their heads down.
On my return to the desk yesterday I wondered whether to stick my head above the parapet at that point, but I felt that as a local minister I owed it to my congregation to make a statement to them before putting something on my blog/facebook which most of them do not follow.
Therefore this morning I announced that I would be contacting the local Imam and stating that I would be personally dissociating myself from the inflammatory comments of Pastor McConnell and others, inviting them to sign a simple letter that I intend taking to the Islamic Centre in the next few days.
To the Imam and members of the Belfast Islamic Centre,
We the undersigned are members of Belfast South Methodist Church and, as followers of Jesus Christ, the prince of Peace we wish to dissociate ourselves from the recent uncharitable and inflammatory words of Pastor James McConnell and others regarding Islam and Muslims. We welcome you as fellow citizens here in South Belfast, and pray that you will continue to feel welcome and secure in our midst.
Yours in Christ...
The majority of those present subscribed their names, and a number have subsequently contacted me to apologise for not doing so for various reasons, wishing to have their names added.
We might have massive qualms about the doctrine of Islam (or the many variations of it), and be unequivocal in our belief that Jesus is the way to the Father, but describing their faith as Satanic and writing off all Muslims as untrustworthy will do nothing to foster healthy engagement with Muslims.
The original sermon was entitled "The Sermon that Ministries and Pastors will not be Allowed to Preach in the Future" , a title which is classic scaremongering, stirring up fear, not only of Islam but of contemporary secularism. It's rhetoric, and that of others like him, even though it may be dressed up in passages of scripture, and may not be "hate speech" as defined in law, can offer false-justification for the racist attacks that are far too prevalent in our society at present, just as similar rhetoric about Catholics acted as the pump-primer for too much of the sectarian violence of loyalist paramilitaries, and the endemic sectarianism that still pervades much politics here. I was encouraged when writing this blog to find a much more irenic statement by Pastor McConnell on his website, but sadly I believe that this will get much less attention than his original sermon, by both his critics and those who will use his words as an excuse to justify their prejudice, hostility and even violence to those of the Muslim faith.
To them I say, their words and actions are not in my name... nor, I would argue can they really be said to be in the name of the Prince of Peace...