In Christian tradition, the Epiphany feast marks the end of the 12-day Christmas season and celebrates the revelation -- to the whole world -- that Jesus is the Son of God.
Thus, it was highly symbolic when a Muslim participating in an Epiphany rite at St. Mary's (Episcopal) Cathedral in Glasgow, Scotland, chanted verses from the Quran, Surah 19, in which the infant Jesus proclaims:
"Lo! I am the slave of Allah. He hath given me the Scripture and hath appointed me a Prophet. … Peace is on me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I shall be raised alive!" The text then adds: "Such was Jesus, son of Mary: a statement of the truth concerning which they doubt. It befitteth not Allah that He should take unto Himself a son."
Cathedral leaders took to social media to hail this as a lovely moment. But in the Church of England, one of the chaplains of Queen Elizabeth II was dismayed by what many would consider an act of blasphemy -- a reading of this clear Islamic denial of Jesus being the Son of God.
The Glasgow rite was justified as "a way of building bridges and a way of educating people," the Rev. Gavin Ashenden told the BBC.
Nevertheless, he argued that it was wrong to insert such a reading into "the Holy Eucharist and particularly a Eucharist whose main intention is to celebrate Christ the word made flesh come into the world. … To choose the reading they chose doubled the error. Of all passages you might have read likely to cause offence, that was one of the most problematic."
After hearing from Buckingham Palace, Ashenden resigned as one the queen's chaplains. Thus, he surrendered his unique status in a land in which the Church of England has been weakened by almost every cultural trend, yet retains a unique niche in the national psyche.
This was, Ashenden said, a matter of personal principle and ancient doctrine. He also noted that he asked cathedral leaders to apologize because "I think Western clergy in their comfort have responsibility towards other Christians who suffer for their faith. That's part of being the body of Christ."
That kind of language can get a priest in trouble in today's multicultural England.
"They might have pushed me. They didn't. But we agreed that the things that I wanted to say, about the Gospel, about the faith, were becoming sources of embarrassment to the establishment," he said, in a recent "Anglican Unscripted" podcast.
"It's not easy for people outside England to understand that the queen is not just a person, she's an idea. … She is an office. So, behind the office, you have bureaucrats and the bureaucrats have views. The bureaucrats can be leant on by other bureaucrats in other palaces or offices. So the bureaucrats were getting increasingly uncomfortable, and not just with this issue of the Quran being read in the cathedral."
If anything, he said, this collision with Islam's rising presence in the United Kingdom and Europe is a sign that doctrinal traditionalists now face challenges on issues other than marriage, family and sexuality. In this case, it's telling that a public defense of the Incarnation of Jesus as Son of God -- a statement of faith at the heart of creedal Christianity -- created so much public controversy.
Reached by email, Ashenden said he understands that this kind of doctrinal clash may seem picky and unimportant to the growing number of unbelievers in this secular age in Western culture. But doctrine matters to traditional Christians and Muslims who do not believe all religions are the same. It would have been impossible, he noted, to read a biblical passage about the divinity of Jesus during Friday prayers in a major British mosque.
Yes, public battles over sexuality make bigger headlines. Nevertheless, Ashenden said that this Epiphany dispute -- as a "creedal issue" pitting the Quran against the Gospels -- was important. It offered a revealing window into larger disputes in which advocates of "relativism and syncretism" are colliding with the "objectivity of Christian claims about the Universe and God," he said.
"Our culture doesn't like objective differences," he said. "They require people to make choices. … That is embarrassing."