Retired Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester, England has spoken at GAFCON 2013 plenary sessions as well as a mini-conference on Islam. (Photo credit: Stephen Sizer,/GAFCON)

October 25, 2013

GAFCON Conferees Engage Challenge of Islam

Living alongside and evangelizing Muslim neighbors has been a recurring theme at the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) meeting this week in Nairobi, Kenya. Relations between Anglican Christians and Muslims have been made more complicated in recent years with the rise of radical Islamists and key differences in how Christians and some Muslims understand moral codes and public law.

“Our arguments should have validity and strength in the pubic square, people should see it is focused on love, truth and graciousness,” declared Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali at a GAFCON mini-conference session on Islam held on Thursday. The former bishop of Rochester, England explained that Christians and Muslims have a different attitude about power.

“Islam believes you change the world by gaining power, Christians believe you change the world by a willingness to give up power,” Nazir-Ali assessed. Yet temptation to theocracy, he reported, is everywhere.

“The reason it will never work is that we are not God,” the bishop surmised. The role of religion in society, he determined, was persuasion and not coercion.

An older European concept of separation between religion and public affairs to “keep the peace” has passed according to Nazir-Ali, with the question now not whether religion should have a role in the public square, but what sort of role.

The bishop asserted that democracy has arisen in Christian societies because of belief that everyone is made in God’s image. Majoritarian democracy, however, can lead to a tyranny of the majority Nazir-Ali assessed, with decisions made on very important moral issues by counting heads.

“Yes, we need to know what the will of the people is, but there need to be safeguards [for minorities],” Nazir-Ali proposed. “Government by consent” was more important than simple majority rule.

“The true test of democracy is not taking power to the ballot box, but being willing to lose power at the ballot box,” the bishop stated.

Nazi-Ali explained that public law traditions come from a framework of moral law. The role of public law to guarantee religious freedom is to allow religious communities to live and worship according to their faith. The problem, Nazir-Ali identified, is when moral code like shari’a (Islamic law) is recognized in place of public law.

The system of public law works on a principle of equality, the bishop explained. Shari’a, however, is based on inequalities of Muslim and non-Muslim. Divorce is different for men and women under shari’a, for example.

Even a “soft” shari’a that was limited to family law would bring basic inequality into public law, according to Nazir-Ali.

The retired bishop also addressed issues of culture and contextualization in reaching muslims for Christ.

“How is the Gospel being communicated?” Nazir-Ali asked, noting that even words as simple as “Allah” could mean just “God” or a specific qua’ranic concept of God.

Nazir-Ali also reported on the practice of some Christian believers to culturally “remain Muslim” and worship in mosques. This practice, the bishop determined, was taking cultural contextualization too far, with worshippers at mosques reciting a statement that Mohammed is the prophet. “How can the cross be at the center of life while hearing denials daily that [the incarnation] took place?”