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Obituary: THE RT REVD KENNETH CRAGG

by
16 November 2012

Exercising "hospitality of the mind": Bishop Kenneth Cragg

Exercising "hospitality of the mind": Bishop Kenneth Cragg

Canon Christopher Lamb writes:

THE life work of the Rt Revd Kenneth Cragg, who died on Tuesday, aged 99, was summed up in the title of his best-known book, The Call of the Minaret, first published in 1956, and still in print. In it, he not only opened up for Christians a deeper understanding of the world of Islam, but summoned them to hear the implications of that call for themselves.

In an engagement with Islam extending over 70 years as missionary, scholar, bishop, and friend, he earned the respect of Muslims for his knowledge of the Qur'an, and the gratitude of Christians for showing how a deep familiarity with things Islamic can go hand in hand with unabashed witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. His conviction was that the logic of all that was true and honourable in Islam should lead Muslims to Christ.

Cragg read Modern History at Jesus College, Oxford, winning university prizes in theology and philosophy. After a curacy in Birkenhead, he went to Beirut with the British Syrian Mission (later to become part of Middle East Christian Outreach). There, he founded and ran a hostel for Arab students, and in wartime conditions taught philosophy in the American University of Beirut. Back in England, doctoral studies in Islam led to his appointment as Professor of Arabic and Islamics at Hartford Theological Seminary in Connecticut, USA. There, he published The Call of the Minaret, the first of a stream of books on Islamic and Christian theology, religious studies, and English literature.

After Hartford, he was a roving interpreter of the Muslim world based at St George's College, Jerusalem, then in Jordan, and in 1959 he went to St Augustine's College, Canterbury, becoming its Warden. The College was intended to be a central college for the Anglican Communion, but lacked adequate support, and closed in 1967, to Cragg's lasting regret.

Opportunity to return to the Middle East came in 1970, with his consecration as an assistant bishop in the Jerusalem Archbishopric, now the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East. His base was Cairo until 1973, when he resigned to make way for an Egyptian Arab priest to be Bishop of the revived Anglican diocese in Egypt. Again redundant, he taught at Sussex University, and was finally Vicar of Helme, near Huddersfield, in the diocese of Wakefield, until retirement to Oxford in 1981. There he continued to lecture and to write, publishing his 60th book in 2011 at the age of 98.

Born into a conservative Evangelical family, Cragg eventually found his inspiration in two CMS missionaries to Egypt and the Middle East, Temple Gairdner (1873-1928) and Constance Padwick (1886-1968). Their legacy to him was the idea of Christian "hospitality" to the worshipping Muslim world. Hospitality meant more than meeting Muslims and accepting their hospitality: it involved a hospitality of the mind - the demanding hospitality of the Christian mind to the true intentions, the inner heart of Islam itself. By making the theme of hospitality a key element in his approach to Islam, Cragg rejected the idea that no faith can be sympathetically studied except in a neutrality, or abeyance, of belief. God, he believed, could not be turned into an academic topic.

Cragg made parallel use of the metaphor of embassy. To be a "resident alien" is one description of the missionary, and suggests the extensive adjustment of mind and manner required to be at home in a culture and faith not one's own. There is a "country of the mind" to be explored and inhabited. But, more importantly, the Christian in that country is not an isolated individual, but is in a representative capacity, and must learn to speak the local language so as to be understood. In this, Cragg extended Paul's original use of the theme of embassy in 2 Corinthians 5.20, though the message of reconciliation remains at the heart of his use of it.

Much of his thinking and writing aimed to search out resources within the faith and culture where the Christian ambassador is resident by which the Christian message may be cogently expressed, in terms comprehensible to the "local" people. So he sought an Islamic "language" available to the Christian missionary in which he may speak of Christ.

Described in this way, there was really nothing very new or startling in Cragg's programme. Cragg argued further that its precedents went back to the New Testament itself, and were practised, if not elucidated, by Paul. Without any compromise on essentials, the theme of reconciliation, and the Pauline spirit, are everywhere apparent in his writing. In a characteristically compressed sentence, he suggested that the story of Christ was all about a hostility to be overcome: "The story to be told is only safe in the custody of those for whom every antagonism is an opportunity. For that, precisely, is the heart of the story itself."

It is an attitude to Islam that, after centuries of mutual hostility, we urgently need. "Islam in Christian minds", he said, "must always be the object of a policy of hope."

 

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