Interfaith relations

Guidelines and resources for Christians as they engage with people of other faiths, with special reference to Muslim-Christian Relations

An introductory comment by the Doctrine Core Group

In 2002, the General Assembly asked the then Doctrine Reference Group to give guidelines and resources to the church on appropriate ways for Christians to relate to and engage with people of other faiths. The context of that request was the particular challenge posed in relation to Muslim-Christian relations.

At the 2004 General Assembly, the Doctrine Reference Group was disestablished and a new Doctrine Core Group formed. The Doctrine Core Group ’s role is not to write papers or develop resources in its own right, but rather to coordinate the process by which appropriate resources might be identified and/or written, and then made available to the church.

On the particular issue of the relationship between Christianity and Islam, the Doctrine Core Group asked the Revd. Peter Marshall to write an introductory paper on Muslim-Christian relations. We are grateful to Peter for undertaking this task, and are pleased to now make that paper available below, as Part One of this document.

One of the key issues that comes out of the church’s reflection on interfaith relations is the nature of multifaith worship. Here we would refer people to a paper entitled Guidelines for Multifaith Worship, which was produced by an Australian Consultation on Liturgy in 1995. View a full copy of the document.

For the sake of brevity, we have chosen merely to provide a summary of the Guidelines here, as Part Two of this document.

It should be noted that underlying the guidelines for multifaith worship is the question of purpose. It is one thing to acknowledge the necessity of such events on an occasional basis – for example, in the contexts of interfaith marriages and civic occasions – it is quite another to promote them as a matter of course. Implicit here is the tension between the distinctiveness and integrity of the Christian tradition, including our doctrine of God, and the reality of interfaith sensitivities, where we do not want to cause offence to our interfaith partners or come across as imperialistic.

Graham Redding,
On behalf of the Doctrine Core Group,
June 2006

Part One: Christians and Muslims in Dialogue

Islam and Christianity Across the Centuries

Before Christians can enter into meaningful engagement with the peoples of Islamic faith, it is essential for them to know something of the interaction of Christian and Muslim across the centuries. In the 7th century C.E. Muslim civilisation spread from Arabia, across North Africa to establish principalities in southern Spain. The Muslim rulers were wise and tolerant, permitting Christians and Jews to dwell in peace, serve in their armies and hold high administrative positions in their territories. In the Europe of the Dark Ages, these Muslim Caliphates were bright spots of civilisation where agriculture, trade, and industry flourished, and the glories of Greek science and philosophy were introduced to Europe .

For three hundred years, Muslim, Jew, and Christian lived at peace but the advent of the First Crusade in 1089 brought periodic attacks by Christian armies. Then, in 1469, the marriage of Ferdinand of Castile and Catherine of Aragon united the two Christian States of northern Spain . Using the crusading religious fervour as the only force capable of binding their states together, the Royal Monarchs drove out from Spain, not only all Muslims, but also all Jews as well. Thus began the antagonism of these monotheistic faiths.

The 18th and 19th centuries saw the expansion and colonizing activities of Christian Europe over large parts of the Islamic world. Britain in the Indian sub-continent, the Middle East, Malaysia, East and West Africa; France, in North Africa and South East Asia; Italy in North Africa; and the Netherlands in Indonesia. In Europe and America , people had three hundred years to come to terms with industrialization, urbanization, and the gradual separation of Church and State. [1] And now the world of Islam in the space perhaps of a lifetime was expected to welcome the gifts of civilization and privatize its own faith. But this was something that no true Muslim could do. God alone ruled human affairs and was the supreme legislator; human beings had no right to make their own laws or take control of their destinies.

But European expansion continued apace. Iran became a pawn in the power games of Europe as Britain sought to secure her Empire in India . Oil was discovered in Iran in 1908 and by the 1930’s Britain owned Iran ’s booming oil industry which contributed almost nothing to the Iranian economy. In 1953, the Iranian Parliament moved to nationalize the Iranian oil industry – an action which won the support of the International Court at The Hague . But a coup organized by the American C.I.A. deposed Premier Musaddiq and the Shah was returned to continue his rule which became more despotic and cruel. [2]

The growth of the West’s influence and, in particular, its secularizing ethos was changing the face of religion, not only in the Muslim world. By the end of the 19th century there were Jews, Christians, and Muslims who believed that their faith was in danger of being obliterated. “To save it from this fate, they had resorted to a number of stratagems. Some had retreated from modern society altogether and had built their own militant institutions as a sacred bastion and refuge; some were planning a counter offensive, others were beginning to create a counter-culture and a discourse of their own to challenge the secularist bias of modernity.” [3]

The 20th century saw two points of view emerging in the Muslim world. There were some who saw the modern world as liberating and empowering. But there were others who viewed this modern world with a mixture of fear, loathing and hatred. Iran ’s debacle in 1953 left a sense of defeat and humiliation at the hands of the international community.

But the Iranian Revolution of 1978-9 led by Ayatollah Khomeini, which resulted in the overthrow of the Shah, was a watershed for the Islamic world. It showed that Islam was not destined for destruction; it could take on powerful secular forces and win. But the victory filled many in the West with dismay.

In September, 1980, Iraqi forces with encouragement from the United States invaded Iran , resulting in a long and bloody war. In this war martyrdom became a way not only of demonstrating loyalty to one’s faith, but also of repudiating the godless secularism in the West. It was a sign of what could be expected in the future.

The century ended with the West apparently oblivious to the changing mood among many of the followers of Islam. Humiliation, fear, and despair were giving way to anger and a religious fervour that would count the lives lost in acts of aggressive violence as building blocks in a new kingdom of faith.

Christianity and Islam: Common Ground and Differences

Christianity and Islam are both monotheistic religions. Both state emphatically that there is only one God. The central doctrine in Islam speaks of the oneness of God – eternal, personal, sovereign, powerful, wise, holy and just. [4] Both faiths honour a common heritage in the figure of Abraham. Islam honours its six greatest prophets as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammid.

In the Qur’an sin is seen as disobeying God’s will. This disobedience is due both to an ignorance of divine will and to an inherent weakness in human nature. Sin, for Christians, is something much more profound than simply breaking God’s law. Sin speaks of a broken relationship with God, and a life characterized by the desire for independence from God, and unlimited freedom. In the Biblical story of the Fall, Adam’s eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil – the ultimate assertion of human autonomy –results in the casting out from Paradise , the separation from God. [5]

Because Christianity and Islam differ in their understanding of sin, it is not surprising that they differ in their understanding of salvation. Islamic teaching sees good deeds outweighing evil deeds. Sins cannot offend God who stands too far above us to be directly concerned by our disobedience. Thus, in Islam, humans are not seen as being in such a dire situation before God. Salvation is the fulfilling of one’s religious obligations owed to God. But Christianity has always emphasized the lostness and tragic alienation of “life in a far country.” If there is to be a restoration for humans, then atonement must be made. And this is the action God takes at the Cross. But any understanding of an atoning sacrifice for sin is quite foreign to Islam. [6]

There is a difference, too, in the way the two faiths understand the role of law in human life. For Muslims God’s law is laid out in the Qur’an and expounded by their scholars. Laws obeyed give assurance of salvation. But Jesus established no laws during his ministry. Instead, he laid upon his followers the imperative of love. But love must always overarch law. We use our laws to try and create a just society. But our endeavours are only partially successful and are never ending. That is because justice is our attempt to implement the imperative of love in a world in which sin exists. Love, not law, judges our every endeavour.

But the most significant difference between Christianity and Islam lies in their different understandings of Jesus. Muslims honour Jesus as one of God’s greatest prophets. But, they say, Jesus did not die upon the Cross. If God had allowed such a great prophet as Jesus to be put to death then, in Muslim eyes, this would be a denial of God’s justice and faithfulness. So Jesus did not die upon the Cross; God raised him to himself before death overtook Jesus. [7]

A second difficulty for Muslims is the Christian belief that Jesus is divine. However Christians choose to express this, there is common affirmation that in the man Jesus, God’s very being is present with humanity. But the prophet Muhammid’s mission was to preach the oneness of God to Arab tribes who associated many gods with the Supreme God. It is against the intense struggle to overcome Arab polytheism that we must understand Islam’s repudiation of Jesus’ divinity. It was to prevent any deification of God’s creatures, who would then have become part of God. [8]

Christians and Muslims in Dialogue

A vexed question that must be faced before any real dialogue can begin between Christians and Muslims is the status of the land of Palestine . The promise made to Abraham (Gen 12:1-3) is seen by many Zionist Jews and some Christians as the Biblical foundation for the eternal right of the Jewish people to a nation in Palestine . But the Biblical record indicates that once settled in the Promised Land, the people of Israel found a significant number of other peoples – non-Israelites- already living there. The Deuteronomic laws make it clear that not only the fatherless widows and orphans, but also the aliens, were equally entitled to care and sustenance. (Deut Ch 26)

In Ezekiel’s view, the new Messianic age would take the focus away from the Promised Land. “You are to allot the land as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens that are settled among you….. You are to consider them as native Israelites” (Ezekiel 47:21-23). For Second Isaiah, the restoration of Israel was not to be achieved through military conquest and nation building, but rather by the living out of the life of the Suffering Servant, whose life of humility and grace would change the hearts of kings (Isaiah 42:1-6).

Jesus, of course, enfleshed the Suffering Servant with his loving compassion for the weak, the blind, the outcasts and foreigners, and by his ultimate act of self-giving upon the Cross. Jesus never promised his people that their nation would be restored. But the new Age he inaugurated demonstrated that God’s promises made to Israel are now offered to all people.

Chawkat Moucarry, writing as a Syrian Christian, asks the question: “Is it possible to reconcile firmness of conviction with openness to alternative views?” He believes that it is, saying, “Dialogue is a good way of testing how open we are, in our minds and hearts, to people of other faiths. This dialogue between Christians and Moslems is a serious business…. “Political correctness, ignorance, or theological relativism may lead to a superficial agreement between us. A confrontational debate, on the other hand, may run the risk of causing antagonism…..” [9]

Similar points are made in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. ’s publication, Christians and Muslims in Dialogue: “It is Christian faith which sets us free to be open to the faiths of others, to risk, to trust, and to be vulnerable. In dialogue, conviction and openness are held in balance [10] “…. as Christians dialogue with Muslims, they should come into a deeper understanding and appreciation of their own beliefs.” [11]

The Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. continues: “Dialogue does not preclude Christian witness; in fact it demands that partners come to see one another with their respective faith commitments”. …. “True witness follows Jesus Christ in respecting and affirming the uniqueness and freedom of others.” “Both the Christian and the Muslim should be confident of their faiths and able to articulate them.” [12] …. “Since it is to God who brings about conversion, we as Christians are free to witness fully and with integrity to the grace of God working in us and leave the rest with the Holy Spirit.” [13] ….“When witness is faithful, it invites reflection and meditation on the power of God in the world. A life that is faithful before God is invitational.” [14]

What then are the possibilities for genuine dialogue between Christians and Muslims? We need to remember that the Muslim faith takes on different faces and forms in various cultural settings. Muslims are divided by language, history, economics, and customs which may have little to do with the Islamic faith itself. But, of course, exactly the same statement can be made about Christianity.

At the heart of Islam is the belief in God’s sovereignty over every aspect of life. There can be no distinction between “sacred” and “secular”, “church” and “state” but the realities of the 21st century pose profound challenges for both Muslim and Christian. Market forces bring a gross consumerism across our world. Modern media emphasize the sensational and salacious, a persuasive individualism breaks down community links, religion is pushed into a corner, often to be an object of ridicule.

Christians and Muslims may have different theological beliefs. But surely we could find common ground as both faiths attempt to critique so much that is happening in our world. By working together to try and change human life more towards what both faiths recognize as God’s intention, we could learn to trust, respect, and understand each other better.

A similar task beckons as the world faces its perennial problem of poverty and disease, to say nothing about our care for God’s created world. The beliefs that we share in common; compassion and aid for the disadvantaged, respect for the world God created in love, could surely lead us into shared action which would draw us together rather than divide us.


Christians and Muslims in Dialogue, Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. Office of Interfaith Relations, Louisville, USA : 2002

Guidlelines for Multi-Faith Worship, Australian Consultation on Liturgy, 1995

Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God; Harper & Collins London, 2000

Chawkat Moucarry, Faith to Faith; Christianity and Islam in Dialogue, I.V.F. Press, Leicester , U.K. , 2001

M.J. Akbar, The Shade of Swords; Routledge, London, 2003

B. Lewis, What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Islamic Response, Phoenix , 2003

Part Two: Guidelines for Multifaith Worship: [15]

Christians have varying reactions to the idea of interfaith worship. For some, it is something new and strange which causes genuine concern. For others, opportunities for dialogue and worship across different faith traditions are exciting prospects which are eagerly grasped.

In 1995, A.C.O.L., the Australian Consultation on Liturgy, issued “Guidelines for Multi-faith Worship”. ACOL is a body nominated by its member Churches to assist them in deepening their understanding of their own and other Churches’ worship and to share current liturgical work and future projects. The guidelines were produced at the request of the member Churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, to help them make decisions about appropriate participation in multi-faith worship.

The Guidelines recommend that services of worship involving members of different faith communities be arranged as “multi-faith services in serial form”. This entails allocating each of the various faith groups taking part a separate segment of the program in which to offer its own worship. The community selects and presents its own material for a brief, complete worship service that is characteristic of its tradition. For example, Christians might use readings from scripture, trinitarian prayer, a creed of the church and hymns.

The Guidelines also recommend that a community figure be the overall leader of the gathering with the separate segments led by representatives appointed by the faith groups involved.

A service which blends items from a variety of Christian and non-Christian sources is not recommended because of the inherent dangers of syncretism (thoughtless confusion of different faith traditions), indifferentism (“we all believe in the one god anyway”), and idolatry (giving worship to that which is not God).

A multi-faith service in serial form allows those present to share in the worship of other faiths only to the extent they feel able, so that they are praying in one another’s presence but not necessarily praying together.

The Guidelines recommend that representatives of all the faith communities which are to participate in the service be involved in the planning from the beginning and that purpose of the occasion is made clear to all.

Discretion needs to be exercised when decisions are made about who will participate in the service. Christians would wish to be represented by a member of a mainstream denomination. Similarly, members of other faiths would expect to be represented by appropriate people. Without detailed knowledge of other faith communities, it is sometimes difficult to ascertain which leaders are genuinely representative of certain groups.

Finally, consideration must be given to the venue for the occasion as this will have a bearing on what activities are appropriate and what kind of atmosphere is generated. The Guidelines recommend that a multi-faith service be held on neutral ground such as a public building or open-air site. The ideal would be to have each community offer its own act of worship in its own place of worship, with the gathering processing from place to place.

[1] Karen Armstrong. Battle for God; Harper & Collins, London 2000, p.115

[2] Ibid., pp.230-2

[3] Ibid., p.166

[4] Chawkat Moucarry, Faith to Faith: Christianity & Islam in Dialogue. I.V.F. Press, 2001, p.83

[5] Ibid., pp.95-100

[6] Ibid., pp.100-111

[7] Ibid., pp.127-134

[8] Ibid., pp.184-194

[9] Ibid., p.21

[10] Christians and Muslims in Dialogue, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Office of Interfaith Relations, Louisville, U.S.A., 2002, p.11

[11] Ibid., p.14

[12] Ibid., p.18

[13] Ibid., p.18

[14] Ibid., p.19

[15] Elizabeth Harrington, “Liturgy Lines”, , 25.3.01. Elizabeth is the Education Officer for the Liturgical Commission of the Archdiocese of Brisbane .