Pilgrims and visitors to the site of Ephesus in modern day Turkey, are usually taken to see the remains of the great church of St John which even in ruins is a magnificent sight. Built by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, it commemorates the supposed burial place of John the Apostle, and sits high on a hill alongside the citadel of Seljuk.
Liturgists among us will find the building fascinating, not least the immense colonnaded forecourt, reminiscent of the very large gathering spaces found in many of our newest church buildings where the assembly can gather and greet one another, and linger to socialize after the liturgy.
Only after the church has been viewed however, are visitors invited to look down from the parapet of the forecourt into the valley below, where a 14th century building constructed largely of stones taken from the ruins of Ephesus, is in the process of restoration. This structure also consists of a worship space and a large courtyard, and is the Mosque of Isa Bey (Jesus the Lord).
This stirring sight brings home to all who gaze at it the inclusiveness of Islam with regard both to Jesus himself and to Mary (Maryam) his Mother, both of whom are honoured in the Qur’an. Indeed the supposed house of Mary and John stands just a mile or two away from this spot, and is a source of pride and delight to Muslims as much as to Christians. This area of Turkey is holy ground because of these connections.
This is a corrective of vital importance in this age when extremism threatens to engulf all three Abrahamic religions, and when mutual suspicion and arrogant dismissal is so often the order of the day.
We cannot of course look to the Christian scriptures to be equally inclusive of the Prophet Muhammad, for 5 centuries were to elapse before his appearance, but subsequent religious history does not give us grounds for satisfaction about the Christian ability to respond in kind. The history of Jerusalem is a case in point. When the Muslims captured the city in 637 CE they spared the inhabitants, both Jewish and Christian, and established an era of religious tolerance. When the Crusaders took the city in 1099 (as described by John Julius Norwich in Byzantium), they slaughtered all the Muslims in the city and burnt all the Jews alive in the main synagogue. The followers of the Prince of Peace had arrived.
As Hans Küng reminds us, there can be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions, and we need urgently to find ways of moving beyond our history of mutual violence. Whilst it is impossible to conceive of a way to return the compliment of the Mosque of Isa Bey, with a church dedicated to the prophet Muhammad, there are at least ways, when we design or re-design our liturgical spaces, in which buildings set aside for Christian worship might be made more hospitable to all seekers after God, particularly to those of other Abrahamic faiths.
Soon after the Episcopal Cathedral at Philadelphia had been re-ordered in 2002, it received an unwitting compliment from an unlikely quarter. Two ladies from the Main Line, arriving at the cathedral for a diocesan liturgy, were overheard struggling to find words to describe their reaction to the spacious openness, the minimalist foci of font, ambo, table and chair, and the complete absence of pews, choir stalls or altar rails. All they could manage to say, in appropriately outraged tones, was “Well! It’s just like a mosque!”
The journey had begun.