St Edburghas Church Yardley men-only male-only iftar ramadan
Church of England

Birmingham church hosts men-only ‘community’ iftar

Having robustly defended Southwark Cathedral for hosting the sort of iftar (the break-fast evening meal during Ramadan) of which the Queen (and possibly Jesus) would approve, here’s an iftar which neither would look on with favour, and, frankly, it is incredible that the Church of England ever countenanced it.

St Edburgha’s Church Hall in Yardley, Birmingham, hosted a ‘Taste Ramadan’ evening on 2nd June. It was billed as a “community iftar meal” to “share food and share friendship”, and was open to members of the public. We read:

The free event has been organised by Qamar Abbas, president of UK Islamic Mission Solihull, and his team. He will also speak at the event, along with Idrees Sharif, vice president of UK Islamic Mission Midlands.

Free food is very generous – it’s usually worth putting up with a few boring speeches.

Confirmed attendees are councillors Babar Baz and Neil Eustace, West Midlands Police and representatives of several local churches including Stechford Baptist Church, All Saints Stechford and Corpus Christi RC Church.

So, well-integrated into the community; all nice and ecumenical.

Mohammed Yasin, chairman of Stechford Mosque, some of whose congregation helped put together the event, said: “We have people from all religions and communities coming together to share an iftar meal and more.

“This is the first community iftar we have held in a church rather than a mosque and the first one we have opened up to the public. We hope to see people there from all walks of life.”

Marvellous exercise in community cohesion. But then we get:

He added: “This is a male-only event and the church has a capacity of 100 people.”

And here you have to wonder why St Edburgha’s Church was content to accept the booking. Okay, the iftar was held in the church hall, not the nave; and the vicar and churchwardens probably (prayerfully?) determined that it was missiologically better to be hospitable and neighbourly to Muslims than aloof and discriminatory. And perhaps, too, they didn’t want to be accused of breaching the Equality Act (2010) by discriminating against Muslims in the provision of goods and services. But the reports of this iftar refer to it being a men-only event in the church. The church hall is not quite a sacred space, but it is still consecrated ground. The General Synod’s Legal Advisory Commission determined in 2016 that: “A church hall must be used for the purposes of the Church of England.” It is thereby consecrated to whatever is noble, pure, lovely, excellent and praiseworthy… which might stretch to ‘Slimming World’ and the ‘Steps Dance Academy’ (bookings taken for £20 per hour), but to permit the sharia imposition of sex-segregation is simply not acceptable.

How could they entertain a “community iftar” on church property which excludes half the community ? Why should a few Pakistani or Bangladeshi men be permitted to discriminate against Yardley’s 33,000 women? Would St Edburgha’s have hosted a straight-only event, or a white-only event, or an able-bodied-only event? If not, why host a group which discriminates on the basis of sex?

And since when was iftar a men-only occasion, anyway? The iftar at Southwark Cathedral was manifestly open to all, and it is highly unlikely that the Dean would have contemplated hosting a men-only evening even in the cloisters. Didn’t anyone at St Edburgha’s bother to ask Qamar Abbas or Idrees Sharif why the church hall had to function as a mosque for the evening? Didn’t anyone wonder why the hall had to be claimed and dedicated to the Dar al-Islam? Because if they were determined to impose sharia compliance on church property there was actually no obligation on St Edburgha’s to accept the booking at all, for religious organisations are permitted to discriminate in certain circumstances and refuse hire of property to certain groups in order “to avoid causing offence to members of the religion or belief that the organisation represents”. In this case, an iftar was hosted which conflicts with the Church of England’s own equality policy: it was incompatible with the church’s essential mission to convey to the nation that men and women are made in the image of God and are worthy of equal respect and honour.

Is a men-only iftar on church property not offensive to the affirming, challenging, transforming Women and the Church, who labour day and night to combat gender injustice, inequality and exclusion in the Church of England? What’s the point of eradicating it from the church if it creeps back in via the church hall?

And didn’t anyone at St Edburgha’s bother to think how it might look for their church to be hosting a “community iftar” which the Bishop of Aston, the Rt Rev’d Anne Hollinghurst, would be unable to attend?