David Partridge on why he attends Friday Prayers each week
JUST BEFORE the Millennium, I went with a friend to the World Parliament of
Religions in Cape Town. We came from the same community, where I was parish
priest, and he was the enabler of several interfaith projects, on which we
worked together. It seemed only natural that during that gathering, Mohammed
and I should share each other’s mosques and churches.
Although some may have interpreted this kind of spiritual sharing as somehow
disloyal to our respective faith traditions, neither of us felt this at the
time, or have since. For me, that first little venture into actual rather than
theoretical joint prayer still seems like a justifiable extension of many
years’ ecumenical sharing of prayer.
There were two main factors behind my decision to join those praying at my
local mosque every Friday. First came the discovery that, suddenly, the make-up
of the protest marches expressing concern about the prospect of another war in
Iraq had changed beyond all recognition. One of the things that struck me about
this newly politicised Islam was its prayer times in Hyde Park and Trafalgar
Square. It came home to me that Muslims and Christians were not only protesting
together: they were also praying (and crying) about the same questions of peace
The second factor was a reflection on sheer numbers. At a Good Friday
service a couple of years ago, organised by six churches and led by our
diocesan bishop, the total congregation, including part-attenders, came to no
more than 60. From that service, I went straight on to Friday Prayers at the
new but unfinished mosque in the Muslim part of the city. It clearly wasn’t a
special or "Good" Friday; just the equivalent of a normal Sunday service, but
attended by at least 600 males of all ages.
It’s not just the congregational counts that motivate me to what some might
regard as bizarre spiritual behaviour. What drives me to my prostrating knees
alongside the gentle presence of the local male Muslims is the discovery of our
different experiences of poverty.
For the British Christian, spiritual poverty relates to the problem of
expensive plant and overheads, and struggling human resources to pay the bills.
For the British Muslim, the poverty is the struggle to survive in a hostile
culture, which makes all things spiritual a necessary support.
For both Christian and Muslim in security-anxious Britain, the poverty we
share is the struggle with a prevailing culture that regards the members of any
faith community as either mad or missing out on the pleasures of plush
modernity — probably both.
At the heart of Friday Prayers there comes the drawn-out congregational
sigh, "Aeemeeen". Alongside that sigh, there by the grace of God I am. Every
Friday feels like Good Friday in the intensity of listening to the Punjabi or
Urdu prayers whispered by my neighbours.
Their never failing acceptance of me as a fellow-pilgrim rather than a
semi-detached fly on the wall hints of Easter, especially when their
elbow-warmth is accompanied by a correction — most enjoyably, when a
broad-grinning child or teenager provides it — about some detail of the liturgy
I have missed or performed inappropriately.
One of the most difficult moments during the mosque prayers — especially for
a dyed-in-the-wool Anglican — comes when the sidesmen call out: "Move up,
please", in order to relieve the crush at the back. Any reluctance to shift
from a favoured "pew" (or, rather, piece of floor-space) is prodded into action
from all sides. The shunting around into rows of worshippers that become closer
and closer brings the recurring reflection that Islam is at once more nomadic
and physical than most forms of Christianity.
The synchronised thud of 600 pairs of knees landing on the floor at the same
time — that’s liturgically something else. The absence of icons, indeed, any
form of decorative art or craft, serves only to make the heart grow fonder for
most (though not all) things Christian.
Two Gospel stories come constantly to mind. The first comes to mind when I
meet bright-eyed youngsters sitting among their bearded elders; the second when
I have the sense of meeting the incognito traveller on the Emmaus road.
One of the amazing things about this journey is that my own faith doesn’t
feel in the least threatened. People seem pleased to see me, and accept that my
becoming a Muslim is not on the agenda. I don’t have a secret longing for that,
either. What is non-negotiable is my growing faith in the travelling God of
Abraham, Moses, the biblical prophets, and Jesus — who, in John the
Evangelist’s phrase, "became flesh and tented among us".
My Christian faith feels challenged and confirmed by the meetings with the
godliness of others on the road, and on the other side of all the religious
barriers of history. I have come to believe passionately in the godly mission
of Christians and Muslims in their struggles to understand and trust each
other, if only for the sake of our grandchildren’s world.
TWO ISSUES among many confront any would-be climbers on this impossible
mountain: the future of women in the mosque (in the churches, too); and our
different understandings of the crucifixion.
My friend Abdul reads my mind one day at the mosque. "Yes, over there is the
new room where the women are coming to pray," he says. I know of a mosque in
Portsmouth where female and male worshippers pray together without a wall or
screen between them. How long will it be before all Friday Prayers are
similarly transformed? Despite our dodgy track record, the Christian witness is
On the crucifixion, I vividly remember Muslim theologians in Cape Town
dismissing even the possibility that the divine could be killed. There was no
resolution in our debate, but at least the matter was raised. This has to be
done more and more. It’s time to bring on all our different theology, only this
time minus the curses.
Whatever still divides us, it is now just conceivable that one of the
spin-offs of the second Iraqi war, the building of the Palestinian wall (and
perhaps the aftermath of the tsunami, too), could be a drawing closer of at
least two praying traditions — if only to weather the spiritual wasteland. But,
first, we have to adjust our praying sets, and listen to each other’s
differently pronounced but heartfelt "Amens".
Canon David Partridge is a retired parish priest who works in interfaith
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