Christian in a Muslim Culture: The Intriguing Insights of an Egyptian Bishop

Bishop Mouneer Anis, Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Egypt, and Presiding Bishop of Jerusalem and the Middle East, delivered the ninth annual ‘Moule Memorial Lecture’ on 8 June 2016 in Cambridge. These annual lectures were established in 2008 in honour of Professor C.F.D. ‘Charlie’ Moule, former Vice-Principal of Ridley Hall, and Lady Margaret Professor of New Testament for many years in the University of Cambridge Divinity Faculty. Ridley Hall is a theological college of Cambridge University responsible for training Church of England ordinands. And Charlie’s great uncle Handley Moule was its first Principal.

The topic of Mouneer’s lecture was “My Experience of Christian and Muslim Relations in Egypt”. As the title suggests, the bishop drew on personal experiences to speak about living as a Christian minority in a Muslim culture. He began by stating that approximately 10% of Egypt’s population of 90 million belong to Christ. Despite being in the minority, Mouneer said that Egyptian Christians take great joy in knowing that they belong to an ancient Church. He even went as far as claiming that, according to Acts, there were some Ancient Egyptians amongst the crowd in the Jerusalem at the first Pentecost. The bishop then recounted the story of the Church in Egypt from the Arian controversy, to the Muslim conquest of the seventh century, to the British colonial rule, to modern times. Throughout, Mouneer reminded us of Christ’s promise that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against God’s Church (Matt 16:18).

As is often the case, the question and answer time at the end of the talk proved to be more candid. The bishop was asked if he had learned anything from being immersed in an Islamic culture. His response was oddly intriguing: he was spiritually encouraged by the call to prayer (‘adhan’) given five times a day throughout Egypt. Mouneer clarified by saying that he was truly humbled by the widespread, disciplined and sincere devotion of his Muslim neighbours. The reverence that his fellow countrymen had for prayer was deeply moving, especially when compared to the often lacklustre approach Christians take to worshipping the One and Only Living God. This was a challenge for Christians in the West to take their devotion to God seriously – seriously enough to put aside their business to fall on their feet in worship of our holy God. How else would the Muslim world understand that the Church honours God if our public (and private) devotion lacks an earnest discipline, or integrity?

In the same vein, Mouneer spoke about how much damage is being done to mission in the Muslim world by the Western Church’s frivolous attitude to sin in general, and sexual sin in particular. The situation in North America is particularly ‘hurting mission’. Going further, the glorified licentiousness of modern Western society is all too often perceived as synonymous with the activities and attitudes of the Church. Therefore the permissive culture in which we live is not only causing internal harm to the Church, but it is also having a significantly negative effect on the ability of non-Westerners to commend Christ to their friends and family. The bishop posed a rhetorical question posed by the Grand Imam: ‘how can we know Jesus when His Word has been so violated?’

Mouneer offered a practical solution to this. Since Christianity and Islam are both missional faiths, he encouraged us to be humble in the way we approach evangelism to our Muslim neighbours. In the first instance we need to recognise how Western Christians are perceived by the Arab world. Then we must educate ourselves on their worldview (part of this is understanding that ‘Western’ has traditionally been translated as ‘foreigner’ in Arab cultures). Finally he advised us all not to confuse the principles of religion with the followers of religion. Although this may be occurring on the other side, the Church is called to love sinners generously and with compassion, rather than with arrogance and ignorance.

For those of us who are active in cross-cultural ministry (which is, I assume, all of us), the question must be how to apply Mouneer’s lessons in the post-Christian culture of Australia. How is our mission being affected by our conduct and attitudes as Christians? How can we encourage one another to think about public worship in an evangelistic way? And what are we doing to reach those who do not share our Western values and background?

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