Iftar Southwark Cathedral

Iftar in the Cathedral is exactly what the Queen (and Jesus) would want

If it had been called ‘Tea & Chapatis’ no-one would have batted an eyelid. But the meal had an upper-case Islamic name – Iftar – and it involved Arabic food: dates, samosas and stuff. Southwark Cathedral went a step further and called it ‘A Grand Iftar’, which, judging by the picture, is a bit bigged-up. Chapatis, samosas and tea hardly constitute a ‘big dinner’, which is basically what a grand iftar is. Doesn’t lower case make it so much more palatable?

Iftar is a break-fast meal, eaten after sunset during Ramadan. It is precisely just that – a meal. It isn’t a grand ceremony or a religious service of devotion: it is food and drink. During Ramadan, Muslims eat their cornflakes before sunrise, and their dinner at sunset. Breakfast is called suhur; dinner is called iftar. That’s it.

At 3.00pm on 3rd June Southwark Cathedral hosted a service to commemorate the first anniversary of the terrorist attack on London Bridge and the Borough Market. The great and the good included the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, the Prime Minister, the Mayor of London, the Bishop of Southwark Christopher Chessun, and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Southwark Peter Smith. “The cathedral was decorated with flags representing the home countries of those killed and injured in the events of 3 June 2017, and candles were lit to represent the eight people who died as a result of the attack: Christine Archibald, Sebastien Belanger, Kirsty Boden, Ignacio Echeverría, James McMullan, Alexandre Pigeard, Xavier Thomas and Sara Zelenak…”

At 8.00pm that evening the Cathedral hosted its Grand Iftar – “a community meal of fellowship and hospitality”. There was a choir, an art exhibition about diversity, and some personal testimony. The Bishop of Southwark spoke about “a city of peace, a community of peace”, and invited those gathered to exchange a sign of the peace with one another.

Amir Eden, Chair of the Bankside Residents’ Forum, said: “Today has been a very important day, marking the first anniversary of the attack, and the Iftar has been part of that healing process which the Dean and Bishop Christopher have spoken about. We’ve seen the community coming together over the past year, and this event is another opportunity to bring people together – of different religions and of no particular religion – to celebrate our love and compassion for each other.”

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Rev’d Andrew Nunn, said: “We are pleased to be able to host the Iftar for the second time as a sign of the solidarity and diversity of our community and how we continue to grow and work together for the good of all in the Bankside area.”

There were no prayers to Allah; Mohammed was not named in the succession of prophets; there was no Islam-Christianity syncretism; the Quran was not kissed; the divinity of Jesus was not denied. This was not a service of divine worship: it was, to all intents and purposes, a secular community gathering exhorting peace and fraternity, followed by dates and samosas and stuff.

Forgive the divine presumption – no offence intended at all – but isn’t this the sort of thing Jesus would do? If he could break bread with women (Lk 8:2f, 13:16 cf Jn 4:27), the poor (Lk 4:18, 14:13f), the unclean (Mk 1:40f), oppressors (Mt 8:5-10) and the enemies of Judaism (Lk 10:25-37, Jn 4:4-42), wouldn’t he attend iftar with a few Muslims? It’s dinner: it’s just food and drink. That is it.

And if you can’t quite get your head around that (or consider it a blasphemous outrage), then consider the spiritual vocation of the Supreme Governor and the temporal office of Her Majesty the Queen. In a speech she gave in 2012, she articulated her essential Christian mission:

Here at Lambeth Palace we should remind ourselves of the significant position of the Church of England in our nation’s life. The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.

It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely. Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society – more and more in active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths.

That’s what Southwark Cathedral was doing by hosting iftar: creating an environment for peace and compassion; weaving understanding and fostering reconciliation. This is not some postmodern multi-faith mush of ever-inclusive spiritual pap: it goes to the very foundation of the Church of England.

It is sometimes averred that the statutory requirement for the Monarch to be Protestant and in communion with the Church of England discriminates against her subjects of other faiths. Richard Hooker was himself faced with the assertion that the Monarch had no right to exercise authority in matters to do with the Church (Article XXXVII). Yet while he agreed that the Monarch does not have authority in spiritual matters, he or she has rightful authority in matters to do with the ‘outward government’ of the Church; that is to say, how it functions as a human institution.

For Hooker, church and society were one. The King was acutely involved in leading men to salvation: “A gross error it is, to think that regal power ought to serve for the good of the body, and not of the soul,” Hooker wrote, “for men’s temporal peace, and not for their eternal safety.” If the state were concerned solely with the material, it would cease to be concerned with people’s welfare in respect of a right relationship with God. Hooker’s articulation of the prerogative of the Crown over its subjects’ religious welfare is the same as that which underlies the role of the Monarch in relation to the Church of England today.

The Established Church has a missionary vocation to serve all of its parishioners – of all faiths and none. It does not seek to exclude or to be out of sympathy with any group of people, for it has an acute pastoral concern for the wellbeing of all. The fact that the church’s Supreme Governor is also the Head of State means that she is obliged to exercise her public ‘outward government’ in a manner which accords with the private welfare of her subjects – of whatever creed, ethnicity, sexuality or political philosophy. The Royal Supremacy in regard to the Church of England is, in its essence, the right of the Crown in the supervision of its administration in order that the religious welfare of its subjects may be provided for. While theologians and politicians may argue over the manner of this “religious welfare” or the precise meaning of what Hooker meant by the “true fulfilment” of a “right relationship with God”, the focus on such issues (or some Christians choosing to focus on such issues) serves to alienate and distance the Church of England from many of its parishioners, and this manifestly hinders its mission in the complex context of pluralism, liberalism and secularism.

The Church of England is a territorial church-in-community: that is its model of mission. It works with the state to define its worship; and through dioceses, parishes and chaplaincies to effect its pastoral care and compassionate service. Establishment commits the church to full involvement in civil society, and to making a contribution to the public discussion of issues that have moral or spiritual implications. It also has a pastoral obligation to wipe away tears and heal broken hearts; to inculcate wholeness in relationships and in community, for the integrity of the natural environment and for our harmony with it. If hosting iftar helps with that, then blessed are the peacemakers.