Akbar Ahmed Gets Standing Ovation at the House of Bishops
By Jonathan Hayden Washington, DC
Presenters left to right: Eliza Griswold, Reverend Bill Sachs, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed and Presiding
Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori
The frequent controversies currently swirling around Islam, from the still fresh Ground Zero Mosque debate to Congressman Peter King’s hearings, have led many Americans to ask questions about the relationship between Islam and other religions and to America. The atmosphere is tense and for many Muslims, unwelcoming. Recent polls show distrust and fear of Muslims with many mosques threatened around the country.
In the context of this uncertainty, a recent event in the hills of North Carolina can point the way ahead. Last week, the Episcopal House of Bishops invited Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, American University’s Chair of Islamic Studies to lead the bishops on a day-long encounter with Islam and the Muslim community within the United States. The topic for the day was: Who is my neighbor? Islam and Christianity.
The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church annual retreat is the largest gathering of bishops in the United States each year. With bishops from around the country, Canada and Central and South America, it gathers over 150 bishops together to meditate on the direction of the Church and debate how to handle the hot button issues of the day.
The Episcopal Church has long been a leader among Christians in tackling controversial issues and with this choice of speaker they made another bold case for leadership. It also sent a message to America’s beleaguered Muslim community that the Church recognized it was in need of sympathetic neighbors.
For the Church, one of the pressing issues of the today is Islam and its relation to Christianity. Many within the church have argued that while they have been doing behind the scenes work for years, in the current atmosphere in the US, it would behoove everyone if they came out of the closet and made a public stand on the issue.
Ahmed was the first Muslim to speak to the bishops and he did not disappoint. He was given a standing ovation at the end of his plenary session in the morning which included a speech and question and answer session. The Right Reverend Bishop John Chane of the Diocese of Washington DC, who has a long relationship with Ahmed starting with the First Abrahamic Summit along with Senior Rabbi Bruce Lustig, beamed: “Nobody gets a standing ovation at the House of Bishops except the Presiding Bishop…when we first met in 2002, I never would have believed you would be here with me presenting a full day on Islam.”
In his talk, Ahmed said he was “honored and humbled to be here” and spoke about his own experience being educated in Christian schools in Pakistan. He also spoke about the similarities between Christianity and Islam before examining the Muslim community in America.
Ahmed called the bishops to action, encouraging them to take the lead in reaching out to Muslims. While the bishops were unanimous in their praise for Ahmed and the initiative, judging by the question and answer session some had reservations about the true nature of Muslim reverence for Jesus. To that, Ahmed answered that “long before the House of Bishops was started, we have been writing and talking about Jesus.” He quoted Hafiz and Rumi and stated that the issue of Jesus has long been settled for Muslims and that the sometimes difficult issue of Jesus and salvation was not a problem that Muslims have to resolve. It is a problem that Christians must deal with for a successful dialogue, both for Muslims, those of other faiths, and even Christians of differing sects and interpretations. Yet such potential theological impediments should not stop dialogue from occurring.
Reverend William Sachs, director of the Center for Interfaith Reconciliation in Richmond, Virginia, moderated the daylong session on Islam which included a panel discussion, time for small group discussion on the issue and a presentation by Eliza Griswold, author of “The Tenth Parallel” and daughter of former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church Frank T Griswold.
The presentations were well received and Ahmed was greeted warmly and was invited by many to give similar presentations in their Diocese. The symbolism of a Muslim speaking to the House of Bishops was not lost on observers.
Reverend Sachs said of the session, “Bishops have profound influence as gate keepers in church life. If they embrace an idea, they have to promote it with great influence; if they are uncertain, possibilities lag. So it was a pleasure to see how energetically the bishops of the Episcopal Church responded to a day’s discussion of Christian-Muslim relations, and especially to the thoughts of Ambassador Akbar Ahmed. The bishops’ response bodes well for a deeper and more promising dialogue between faiths.”
This initiative is, of course, not the first time the Church has been involved in interfaith dialogue. There are many excellent initiatives already in place which have built strong ties bridges between the Muslim and Christian communities in each area. In Boston, Bishop Tom Shaw of Massachusetts told of a Cathedral downtown opens its doors to over 300 Muslims each Friday for prayers. A plan in Omaha to build a mosque, a Synagogue and Church on the same property, dubbed the Tri-Faith Initiative was introduced by Bishop Joe G. Burnett of the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska.
Bishop Shaw said of the session, “To proclaim the gospel effectively in the 21st Century, we have to take into consideration the pluralism of the faith community. I think inviting the Ambassador to come and speak to us was a way for us to learn about a faith community that is often misunderstood but is so much of a part of the 21st Century in the country.”
The Episcopal Church’s very public extension of its hand to the Muslim community is a bold step in the right direction. For the country’s seven million Muslims, it is a hand that is desperately needed. Bishop Burnett said of the Church’s actions, “The Episcopal Church is called to lead the way in building positive and constructive relationships, as well as help counter the discrimination, fear and prejudice that so many of our Muslim brothers and sisters are experiencing in some places in our country.”
The problems of the country will not be solved in one day, but the bishops made an audacious move by organizing the session on Islam. Hopefully, the dialogue will have ripple effects across the country and move these two religions towards greater interaction and respect.
(Jonathan Hayden is a research assistant at American University)