The bishop who gave up the Bible for Lent

(and read the Koran from cover to cover instead)
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The Independent Online
Giving up the Bible for Lent may sound like a joke told by an errant Sunday school pupil, but the Bishop of Jarrow, Alan Smithson, is sublimely serious. Not only has he laid aside the good book at a point in the church calendar more usually associated with a period of deep reflection on the Old Testament, but he has used the time to read the Koran from cover to cover.

Today, after 40 days and 40 nights in what his detractors see as Islam's spiritual wilderness, the Bishop will turn back to the Bible to preach his Easter sermon on the theme "If Christ were not risen we would not be here". He has read 20 pages of the Koran a day for six weeks and is delighted to have finished it before the end of Lent. Reading Islam's holy book "prayerfully" has been a spiritually enriching experience, he says, although he has missed the "warmth of interactive love of the Trinity and the joyful recognition of Easter" which the Koran does not accept.

The bishop has been wounded by negative reaction from corners of his own church and from Muslims abroad, but he has no regrets. He refuses to be photographed with the Koran because of letters he has received from bishops in northern Nigeria where Islamic fundamentalists had seized on his decision to read the Koran "as propaganda while they burned Christian churches to the ground". But if he is reluctant to afford them a visual publicity coup, he is just as determined not to be silenced by the actions of Islamic fundamentalists or by the Anglican traditionalists who have found his Lenten task un-Christian.

"People have asked me how I can do this at a time when Muslims are doing terrible things to our fellow Christians in Pakistan and Nigeria and elsewhere," he says. "I say to them, what more important time is there to get into the heart of religion? What hope is there for the Middle East without tolerance between faiths? Religious texts can always be applied ruthlessly by fundamentalists: the Gospel has been exploited by unscrupulous people, Rabbis have denounced the behaviour of the Israeli government in the name of God, Imams I have spoken to have said they believe the actions of extremists have brought shame on the Islamic world. It is about misinterpretation."

The Bishop is capable of withstanding criticism because he has his own powerful reasons for undertaking his study of Islam. He has made not so much a leap of faith but a plunge into religious outer space, to a spiritual crossroads he calls "interfaith". Here, where all paths lead to God, the monotheistic faiths Judaism, Christianity and Islam, worship the same supreme being and "interconnect" with the polytheistic faiths Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism. Here in interfaith, the Bishop believes, Scientologists and Jehovah's Witnesses have a place at God's table if they have done good works and followed their conscience, despite his view that Scientology may be "dangerous" and that Jehovah's Witnesses are "founded on a heresy". Here even unbelievers, whom he says he pities, may find salvation as "God may be in all sorts of places where religion has yet to find it."

Holding the Koran and the Bible together carefully in his lap, he explains: "If you are a monotheist it is the only answer you can give. The God I believe in has to be good enough and gracious enough to draw all people to himself. That doesn't mean all people get it right. They may get on all sorts of wrong routes."

The Bishop's road to Damascus began one Easter more than a decade ago when he was preaching on the raising of Lazarus from St John's gospel. As he read the familiar story he became aware that Martha, Lazarus's sister, was the first person to make explicit the idea of the resurrection. "I realised," he says, "that the first affirmation of the resurrection came from an ordinary Jewish woman long before the Easter story. It set me thinking about the ways in which Christians have misrepresented the Jews over the ages." After his sermon a friend accused him of having been reading radical Jewish-Christian theology. He hadn't been, but now he sought it out. "It is a great act of faith to find God's truth in more places than one," he says.

Perhaps radicalism comes with the territory for a clergyman who has inherited two dissenting traditions. He is the Bishop of Jarrow, where 200 unemployed men began a 275-mile march to petition Downing Street in 1936, and also deputy to the Bishop of Durham, an appointment long associated with controversial theology. In fact, David Jenkins, the former Bishop of Durham, was an inspiration to the young Alan Smithson long before he served as his deputy. Mr Jenkins was the college chaplain when the Bishop was an undergraduate studying classics at Queen's College, Oxford. "I sat under his feet for four years and I resonated with his teaching," he recalls.

Years later, when the Church of England was growing weary of Mr Jenkins's outspoken philosophies, his young acolyte was struck by the aptness of a verse from the New Testament. "It was when the Church was treating David so cruelly and I was preaching a sermon on the day's lesson using these words from the epistle: 'I believed and therefore I spoke out'. I realised I was speaking about David. Now that is what I am doing, I am speaking out. I am saying that interfaith means so much to me I am prepared to give up reading the Old Testament to read the Koran. It was an act of parable to show how I think different faiths can come together." Over the past six weeks it has been Mr Jenkins's turn to support his friend Bishop Smithson.

That decision, he says, has prompted claims that he is "reneging on the Bible", an accusation he strongly denies. "I remember very well the words of the Archbishop when I was made a Bishop: 'Receive this book. Here are the words of eternal life'. I believe those words most profoundly but I do not think it is any disrespect to the Bible to look for spiritual truth in other books - they are not mutually exclusive. God's truth may be found in more places than one."

Reading the Koran has put to rest a number of theological difficulties for the Bishop, which he mainly explains away by offering new interpretations of problematic verses. The passage which has most influenced him during his period of reflection on Islam comes not in the Koran, however, but in the Sayings of Mohammed. "There is a passage where Allah puts his own right hand into the fire of hell to save his people. This not only answered theologians who argue that Allah is a non-interventionist God, but was a profoundly moving image I have held on to."

"Of course I may be wrong," he says suddenly. "If you try and make an interpretation you have to take that risk. I believe it is a risk worth taking. I cannot see a reason why God would want his different believers to be enemies."