Facing Mecca for Lent?

I’m still here in Israel on an Act For Israel media fellowship. After many days, packed with meetings, yesterday we visited the Golan Heights. On our way from there, we stopped at Yardenit, a site on the Jordan River where, in honor of Jesus’ baptism near there, some are baptized into the Christian faith.

While there, a young woman was wearing a white robe indicating she was to be baptized. I overheard a conversation she was having with someone else. She said she was going to be baptized but “not really” as she’s not very religious and just wanted to do it for her own interest. I’m not easily offended but I was sickened and saddened by this behavior. I thought of that incident as I read this fascinating report from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Episcopal cleric tries Islamic rituals for Lent”:

The Rev. Steve Lawler should have just given up chocolate or television for Lent.

Instead, Lawler, of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Ferguson, decided to adopt the rituals of Islam for 40 days to gain a deeper understanding of the faith.

On Friday, he faced being defrocked if he continued in those endeavors.

“He can’t be both a Christian and a Muslim,” said Bishop George Wayne Smith of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. “If he chooses to practice as Muslim, then he would, by default, give up his Christian identity and priesthood in the church.”

The piece does a good job of explaining both sides in the conflict. Lawler, for his part says he just wanted to learn more about Islam. We learn that he began performing salah five times a day, facing east toward Mecca and praying to Allah. He also studied the Koran and eats halal. He planned to do a Ramadan-style fast during Holy Week. He didn’t plan to declare his belief in the oneness of God or accept Muhammad as God’s prophet. The article also did a good job of explaining actions without judging motivations. In fact, it actually included statements where each side put the best construction on other’s actions. It’s rare to see something like that in a story about conflict.

The piece did not do a great job of explaining the nature or significance of Lent. The reason why he faces so much trouble is not because it’s about giving up chocolate.

But in Smith’s eyes, the exercise amounts to “playing” at someone else’s religion and could be viewed as disrespectful.

Plus, he said, “One of the ways (Lawler) remains responsible as a Christian leader is to exercise Christianity and to do it with clarity and not with ways that are confusing.”

What I liked about the story was the straightforward way in which each side was presented. I could tell that reporter Cynthia Billhartz Gregorian really attempted to understand the doctrinal positions of each side. It’s nice to think of a clergy member worrying about the disrespect such a scenario might cause — but it also takes a good reporter to use quotes that get at the full area of concern for Lawler’s spiritual supervisor. She speaks with one Muslim official who says he’s all for Christians trying out Muslim practices.

We learn many key details, such as Lawler’s issuing of a press release to draw attention to his Lenten spiritual disciplines. We learn that he was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s views on religious study. The report gives background on Lawler, helping the reader understand his work. Before the bishop stepped in, Lawler said:

“The Episcopal church is a fairly open church,” he said. “If I was the pastor at a very conservative church, I could come in one day and have the locks changed (for doing the Islamic rituals).”

By Friday afternoon, Lawler learned that the Episcopal church is more rigid than he had thought. After hearing the objections of the bishop, Lawler reversed course, giving up the Islamic rituals.

This is my one concern with the story. It turns out that Lawler followed his bishop’s words and ceased his Muslim experiment. I almost had to read that last sentence twice because earlier in the story it said he faced defrocking. If the latest news is that he stopped his experiment, I would have expected that up higher in the story. Well, it looks like this news story was written in a feature style. As such, the twist at the end works. Perhaps it’s my fault that I expected a news story in the “Lifestyles” section of the paper.

Anyway, it’s also nice to see that religion reporting is continuing at the paper while Godbeat scribe Tim Townsend is on a few months leave writing his book.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • Dave

    I would have pushed Bishop Smith a bit on the reasons for his opposition. Was it really only confusing the faithful or showing disrespect for Moslems? Or does he fear actual spiritual danger in the rituals themselves?

  • Jerry

    I agree with your analysis, Mollie. It’s really nice to read a story where the participants are respectful and thoughtful.

    As a side note, I would suggest that bloggers here make their affiliations part of their biography. I’ve wondered and commented on your choice of topics and occasionally on the wording of your comments. Knowing that you are a member of a group that wants to use the media to promote Israeli interests such as “empowering pro-Israel activists” as well as “Act For Israel is developing a unique knowledge platform ‘by activists and for activists.’” will color my view of what you write about middle-east reporting in the future. http://www.actforisrael.org/home.html

  • Mollie


    The reason why I keep mentioning I’m here on an Act for Israel media fellowship is that I think people should know the means by which I’m here. However, these fellowships are not awarded according to affiliation or anything. There were precisely no questions of me and my views on Israel. The people in my fellowship group are not all in agreement on policy issues. Our debates and discussions have been part of the fun. In fact, I just finished a dinner with some pretty serious debate.

    As for Act for Israel, I asked them about their positions on various Israeli issues and they told me that they have one issue, which is their belief that Israel has a right to exist, a fundamental right to exist. So if you disagree with that, it’s good to know that that’s where they’re coming from. But you don’t have to have a particular view on how to deal with or resolve, for instance, the conflict with Palestinians. For that matter, I was never even asked my views on Israel’s right to existence.

    So if I were you, I’d try to evaluate my work on its own merits. I will continue to disclose my media fellowship if I continue to write about what I’ve learned while here. And I would expect all journalists to do the same.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

    How sad that the young woman (to be baptized)was just doing it for a photo op…or whatever.

    The Living God wants to give her forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation in that baptism, and she says. “not really”.

    I think that Christianity can do without priests acting like Muslims or Hindus or Mormons…or whatever.

    If this guy likes to play “religion” then he should just go for it, and forget about Jesus. Jesus paid a heavy price so that we wouldn’t have to engage in those self-absorbed,religious practices.

  • Brian

    Interesting. Episcopalians can – for all practical purposes – be Unitarians, universalists, agnostics, atheists, practicing homosexuals, … but not Muslim.

  • http://www.aleksandreia.wordpress.com Hector_St_Clare

    Going on a strict fast during Holy Week is a good thing, and I don’t think anyone would criticize that; it would be good if more of us did it. Eating halal is not a problem either, and in fact one might admire that too (since the chickens might be less likely to be produced in inhumane ways).However….facing Mecca, acknowledging the Quran as inspired literature, or reciting Muslim prayers, though, are right out, as they say. Islam and Christianity are deeply opposed in what they say about God, and there can’t be any compromise between them.

    I’m glad that this fellow’s Bishop made the right decision by disciplining him, and I’m glad that the Post-Dispatch wrote the story in a reasonably intelligent and fair way.

  • Ira Rifkin


    Allow me to clarify a misconception about hallal meats that I think may just be a carry over of a misconception about kosher meats.

    Both hallal and kosher (kashrut, being the proper term) are about the specie being eaten (hallal and kosher differ here, though both exclude all manner of pig and boar), the way in which the animal is slaughtered, and who did the killing and whether they said the requisite prayers.

    It has nothing to do with how the animal is raised. The horror of factory farming does not disqualify the end product from being hallal or kosher (although there is a contemporary movement spearheaded by the Conservative Jewish movement to make humane farming a requisite part of the kosher standard).

  • http://charlesbonaventure.wordpress.com Charles Bonaventure

    The first thing I have to say is that I really feel for this guy. His heart is in the right place because he was trying to love his neighbors by trying to understand them.

    Yet we can’t avoid the fact that he failed to see the line where imagining yourself “in someone shoes” becomes “being that person”. I think he needs redirection, but beyond that I don’t think he should be removed from his position over this.

    Is there any specific rule that he broke? I am not Episcopalian but I am curious if this is a “we know heresy when we see it” issue.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Charles Bonaventure,

    Anglican/Episcopalian faith, like that of most Christian churches, is based on the historic creeds (Apostle’s, Nicene, Athanasian, and I guess Chalcedon as well). Those are the essential documents that we are all expected to believe- you don’t have to believe the 39 Articles anymore, and Episcopalians believe a wide variety of things about, say, Mary, the afterlife, the veneration of saints and angels, and so forth.

    It’s an unfortunate fact that there are too many Episcopalian clergy who subscribe to universalism, unitarianism, adoptionism, or any one of a number of other errors. In theory they should all be defrocked, and it’s too bad that people like Spong were tolerated. That being said, it’s good that they are laying the law down in this case, even if they didn’t do it in the past. As my Episcopal priest used to say, just because 99 other people were speeding, and the police didn’t stop them, doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t stop _you_. If you speed, then you have to accept the consequences.

    I suspect that most rank-and-file Episcopalians in the pews, if you explained to them who Spong was and what he believed, would get quite indignant that he had been tolerated.

  • Harold

    I’m curious about a question Jerry asked. I always thought journalism ethics discouraged taking junkets and trips offered by groups trying to influence coverage. Act for Israel clearly has an interest in influencing coverage of Israel, as does the Israeli Foreign Ministry. What are the rules for opinion journalists and bloggers?

  • Kris D

    In some respects, this discussion reminds me of the previous discussion about yoga & Hinduism. Does the way you practice your faith affect what you believe? Believers of all stripes need to be careful about the appropriation of other’s traditions.

  • Ira Rifkin

    Good point.

    Used to be that not paying your own way was, to borrow a phrase, a cardinal sin (the issue was particularly sensitive for travel and entertainment writers, but certainly not them alone).

    Still, smaller and special interest publications have always done this, seeing junkets as a perk for underpaid staffers and to extend their publication’s range. But the big dogs always turned up their noses at such offers.

    I think that standard has slipped today as ever fewer outlets can afford to pay for staffers to go anywhere and its become so much easier for people to call themselves journalists and create their own platform without having to answer to anybody.

    Some outlets – the NY Times, for example – still will not accept freelance work if the freelancer did not pay their own way or was not commissioned.

  • Ira Rifkin

    Harold (part 2)

    At the same time more junkets are being offered by more groups who seek outlets for their opinions.

    On the Israel issue, the case in point here, whereas once “pro-Israel” forces (define pro-Israel however you like) dominated the junket offerings its now across the board.

    Pro-Israel Christians and pro-Palestinian Christians (that’s also for you to self-define) are happy to shepard journalists to THEIR sources with equal glee.

    Its’ all part of the conflict’s pr management.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I think Ira has it about right. I’d be much more reticent to take a fellowship like this if I were a beat reporter at some paper. It is the first time I’ve done something like this so I thought about the issue a lot. My own view is that disclosure is key. Readers have a right to know, for instance, that I was able to get into Itamar the day after settlers were murdered because I was there with this group.

    The trip was absolutely invaluable for learning about Israel industry, government, culture and defense. That was the stated perspective of the group, which the other reporters and I understood.

  • Bruce

    Jesus was not baptized anywhere near Yardenit, but well to the south, near Jericho. It’s just that the water at Yardenit, flowing out of the Sea of Galilee, is relatively clean, whereas farther south it is (alas) most definitely not clean.

  • bob

    It’s not mentioned that the cleric *repented* and saw his error. Just that he obeyed and took seriously the threat of being defrocked. That by itself is an accomplishment; the idea that one could actually be called “wrong” in the Episcopal Church alone is worth a religious article. But it’s more of a story that a cleric could really be an apostate and just be told to “shut up” and keep his job. Clearly he doesn’t think there’s anything “wrong” with his lenten “observance”. Not the apostasy involved, not even the idea that Islamic practice is something he could pick up and drop 40 or so days later (which any Muslim would find pretty insulting!). It might be taken up as a story about what clergy are actually expected to believe and teach others. I mean REALLY believe, not just be hushed up if they REALLY DON’T believe something.

  • Jon in the Nati

    This is not the first time TEC has dealt with this problem. A few years ago now there was a priest in the Diocese of Olympia (if anyone cares, a notoriously liberal diocese) who claimed to be “both a Muslim and Christian”. The diocese’s reaction was not warm, and she was ultimately defrocked when she refused recant of her position.

    There was also the case of Kevin Thew Forrester, whose election as Bishop of Northern Michigan was voided by the national church over concerns about (among other things) his practice of Zen-Buddhist meditation. I believe he is still a priest, and also is a lay member of some Buddhist order or other.

    The Diocese of Missouri, like most midwest and great plains dioceses, is not known to be a bastion of TEC-liberalism. I wonder what the reaction of clergy and hierarchy to Lawler’s position would have been in a diocese with a really liberal reputation, like Los Angeles, San Francisco/California, New Jersey, or Minnesota. I don’t mean to suggest that it would have been positive for Lawler; I just wonder if it would have been really different.

  • Jon in the Nati

    Sorry folks, forgot the link for the Olympia thing:


  • bob

    Jon, Ann Redding may have been defrocked, but it wasn’t by the Diocese of Olympia. They were and are thrilled with her. Her bishop back east did it. Redding is now quite **professionally** a Muslipalian, as she does paid presentations on herself in Episcopal parishes in Seattle and in November at the cathedral where she was formerly on the staff. Her theology is very popular among them. I’m not sure just what it means when one is defrocked only to be hired back on a per diem basis to preach the same thing that got you defrocked in the first place. Have to ask them.

  • Jon in the Nati

    Jon, Ann Redding may have been defrocked, but it wasn’t by the Diocese of Olympia.

    My apologies, you are quite right.

  • Jon in the Nati

    Jon, Ann Redding may have been defrocked, but it wasn’t by the Diocese of Olympia.

    My apologies, you are quite right. And yes, if she continues to serve in some capacity in the Diocese of Olympia, it is quite a strange situation.