Religion | Seattle priest takes ecumenism to a new level: Give me a collar and a headscarf

Issue: "When the base cracks," July 21, 2007

A recent study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found several general similarities in the beliefs of American Muslims and Protestants. Majorities from both groups, for example, take religion very seriously, believe society should discourage homosexuality, and consider their respective holy texts the actual word of God.

But as the study notes, Muslims and Christians maintain "distinctly different religious beliefs and practices." Most do, that is.

Ann Holmes Redding, a longtime Episcopal priest, took interfaith dialogue to a whole new level last month when she publicly claimed to be both 100 percent Christian and 100 percent Muslim. The former director of faith formation at Seattle's prominent St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral compared her dual loyalty to being both African-American and a woman.

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But pairing qualities from the separate categories of race and gender is different than claiming multiple positions within one category of religion. Can a person really be both a Muslim and a Christian-simultaneously?

Redding's bishop, the Rt. Rev. Vincent Warner, seems to believe so. He did not return WORLD's request for comment but expressed excitement about interfaith possibilities after Redding's story surfaced initially in the local diocese's newspaper.

Rt. Rev. Geralyn Wolf, who oversees the Diocese of Rhode Island where Redding was ordained more than 20 years ago, has a different take. In an email to Episcopal Church leaders, she explained that Redding would lose her collar for a year, during which time she is expected to "reflect on the doctrines of the Christian faith, her vocation as a priest, and what I see as the conflicts inherent in professing both Christianity and Islam."

Indeed, the conflicts are many. Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute and author of numerous books on Christianity and Islam, explains that the respective faiths are mutually exclusive: "Christians believe that Jesus was crucified; Muslims do not. Does Rev. Redding claim to believe both that he was and he wasn't? Christians believe that Jesus is divine, the third person of the Trinity; Muslims do not. Does Rev. Redding claim to believe both that he is and he isn't?"

Redding did not return WORLD's request for comment, but attempted to defend her position in a question-and-answer column for The Seattle Times.

Question: "Do you believe in the divinity of Christ?" Answer: "I believe that Jesus is divine in the same way in which all humans are related to God as children of God. Jesus is different in degree, not kind."

Question: "By believing in the Muslim Allah, you are denying the divinity of Jesus Christ, thereby not having the faith required for salvation. How do you reconcile these differences?" Answer: "First of all, there is only One God; calling God Allah does not change that reality for me. Also, belief in that One God doesn't mean that I can't recognize Jesus as being unique in his relationship to that One God."

Redding, who is slated to begin teaching classes in New Testament this fall at the Jesuit-run Seattle University, first became enchanted with Islam in the fall of 2005 when a local Muslim leader spoke at St. Mark's and closed with prayer. The following spring, after another Muslim leader taught on chanted prayer at the cathedral's interfaith class, Redding began practicing the Islamic ritual and soon after made the required Muslim confession that there is one God and Muhammad is his messenger.

In an interview with The Seattle Times following her one-year suspension, Redding maintained that "since entering Islam, I have been, by my own estimation, a better teacher, a better preacher, and a better Christian."

Last year, three months after professing Muslim faith, she delivered a sermon titled "Revisiting the Trinity." In it, she quoted the teachings of Muhammad as the words of God and admonished parishioners to examine "whether or not other faiths can help us see our own in new ways. We could begin by acknowledging that just as we know that Scripture is not something to be taken entirely literally, that God's Word is larger than our words; that this understanding applies so much more to a doctrine like the Trinity. The Trinity starts as an abstraction; it never was literal, so there's no way it can be taken literally."

Most Christians would take serious issue with such views on the Trinity, much as most Muslims would object to Redding's continued belief in Christ's crucifixion and resurrection. "Most Christians and Muslims will, however, agree on one thing," Marshall offered: "Rev. Redding is likely neither a Christian nor a Muslim, but a deeply confused person."

Cross and crescent

Christian and Muslim charities formally join forces to do the humanitarian thing

The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), a prominent Christian humanitarian agency, inked a deal last month with Britain's premier Islamic charity, Muslim Aid. The agreement codifies what had been a grassroots partnership dating back to tsunami relief efforts in Sri Lanka in 2004. The groups will now work together in official capacities, funneling financial and personnel resources back and forth as needed in particular areas.

Leaders from both organizations say the deal will increase productivity and help more hurting people. "Our partnership with UMCOR reaches out beyond our own religious communities to benefit people in need, no matter what their religious faith," Muslim Aid chairman Farooq Murad said in a statement.

R. Randy Day, general secretary of UMCOR's parent organization Global Ministries, believes the union will foster greater credibility for the United Methodist Church in Islamic quarters of the world and do likewise for Muslim Aid throughout predominantly Christian regions. "They'll open doors for us and vice versa," he told WORLD during a telephone interview from Davao City in the southern Philippines.

Day said he has yet to hear from any disgruntled Methodists concerned that their foreign aid dollars might wind up in the hands of Muslim workers. In fact, he has yet to hear criticism on any count from inside or outside his denomination.

UMCOR's strict humanitarian agenda heads off most apprehension about competing evangelistic objectives. "There's no proselytizing when we respond to tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, and all those things," Day explained. "We have other units that do all kinds of church growth. We have missionaries. We do all that, but we don't mix the two together. Muslim Aid has a very similar philosophy in that they're not proselytizing either, so we're able to work together on these humanitarian issues without any problem at all."

Even prior to its connection with Muslim Aid, UMCOR employed people of varying religions, underscoring the agency's primarily secular purpose. When relief workers in the field receive questions on matters of Christianity, they are directed to Sunday services at local United Methodist churches.

A pastor for 33 years before joining Global Ministries in 2000, Day values the involvement of local churches in relief efforts, but insists that humanitarian aid and evangelism can remain separate and still prove effective. He hopes the partnership with Muslim Aid can serve as a model for interfaith dialogue and cooperation, perhaps cleaning up a global image of religious conflict and turmoil: "This is open to all kinds of religious groups, so we hope others come and join us, too-Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu."


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