THE diocese of Oxford has defended a decision by the University of Oxford to invite an imam to deliver the University Sermon at the end of a eucharist last Sunday.
A spokesman for the diocese said that inviting Imam Monowar Hussain to preach at the university church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, was “a good piece of interfaith engagement”.
The spokesman said that the diocese had received 12 complaints about the invitation, but added: “If we had had 100 complaints we would have stood by [the university’s] decision”.
Mr Hussain is a Muslim tutor at Eton College, and the founder of the Oxford Foundation, which works with young people to promote religious and racial harmony. He was made an MBE last year for services to interfaith relations and the community.
In his sermon, he condemned oppressive power, and said that examples included the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the harassment of House of Commons staff, grooming by the Huddersfield gang sentenced last week to a total of 221 years in jail, online videos that sought to radicalise young Muslims, and anti-Semitism.
“Jesus, upon him be peace, radically redefines greatness and, in effect, power. To be great and powerful is to serve others,” Mr Hussain said. He urged the congregation to serve by opening up “new possibilities for those seeking to burst through the bubbles of social and economic disadvantage”.
Mr Hussain, who read theology at the University of Oxford, was invited by the Vice-Chancellor, Louise Richardson. A note in the order of service said that “eminent men and women from many different traditions” were routinely invited by the Vice-Chancellor to deliver sermons.
The diocese said that it received complaints about Mr Hussain’s invitation after the publication of a blog posting four days before it took place, but none since the service itself. Three came from within the diocese, and nine came from other parts of the country.
The blog post, by Adrian Hilton on his conservative Archbishop Cranmer site, noted that as a Muslim, Mr Hussain would not believe in Jesus’s death on a cross nor in his resurrection. He argued: “By inviting an imam to preach not just a sermon, but a eucharistic sermon, it is hard to understand how this glorifies the crucified Son of God.”
The Bishop of Buckingham, Dr Alan Wilson, a friend of Mr Hussain, rejected objections: “[Mr Hussain’s] work has been fundamental in deepening our understanding of Islam and combating the threat of terrorism in this country. He is promoting a charitable and wise interpretation of Islam.”
He told The Guardian: “As long as it is plain who he is and what his faith affiliation is, I don’t think it’s reasonable to object to one of the leading faith figures in the area being invited to give an address in a Christian church.”
Mr Hussain, part of a Sufi order, said on Tuesday that his sermon had been well received, but said: “I was surprised by the coverage last week. There’s no way I’d want to offend anyone. All my work is about building bridges.”
“Some people in the Islamic tradition would object to my presence there [in church] as well. . . This was just the other way around. If you’re being squeezed from both sides, you must be doing something right.”
Although publicity for the service advertised Mr Hussain as “preacher”, he spoke after the post-communion hymn. The Vicar of St Mary the Virgin, the Revd Dr William Lamb, gave a “homily” during the service. A note in the order of service explained: “To respect the sensitivities of Christians and Muslims, the University Sermon will follow the celebration of the eucharist.”
One member of the congregation said that Dr Lamb removed his chasuble before the imam’s sermon, which was delivered from a lectern and not the pulpit.
A diocesan spokesman said that Mr Hussain’s sermon had always been scheduled to follow the communion, but acknowledged that the publicity for the service had not made that clear.
Christopher Gasson, who attended the service, left a comment beneath Mr Hilton’s blog posting. He said that Mr Hussain “came across as a thoughtful and intelligent speaker. Shut your eyes and it could have been any Anglican vicar.”