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Priest Forced to Give Up 40 days of Muslim Lent

FERGUSON, Mo. (RNS) The Rev. Steve Lawler should have just given up chocolate or television for Lent.
Instead, Lawler, the part-time rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, decided to adopt the rituals of Islam for 40 days to gain a deeper understanding of the faith.
Two days after it began, he faced being defrocked if he continued in those endeavors.
“He can’t be both a Christian and a Muslim,” said Bishop George Wayne Smith of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. “If he chooses to practice as Muslim, then he would, by default, give up his Christian identity and priesthood in the church.”
Lawler didn’t foresee such problems when he came up with the idea. He merely wanted to learn more about Islam, he said, especially in light of the ongoing congressional hearings on the radicalization of the faith.
On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, he began performing “salah” five times a day, by facing east, toward Mecca, and praying to Allah. He also started studying the Quran and following Islamic dietary restrictions by abstaining from alcohol and pork.
During Holy Week, he planned to fast from dawn to sunset as Muslims do during Ramadan.
But in Smith’s eyes, the exercise amounts to “playing” at someone else’s religion and could be viewed as disrespectful.
Plus, he said, “One of the ways (Lawler) remains responsible as a Christian leader is to exercise Christianity and to do it with clarity and not with ways that are confusing.”
It’s not the first time the Episcopal Church has confronted a priest over dabbling in Islam; in 2009, the Rev. Ann Holmes Redding was defrocked two years after she embraced Islam because, her bishop said, “a priest of the church cannot be both a Christian and a Muslim.”
Smith said Lawler would face punitive actions if he continued with the rituals.
Lawler said he only planned to take his idea so far — he did not intend to embrace one of the Five Pillars of Islam that requires Muslims to declare a belief in the oneness of God and to accept Muhammad as God’s prophet.
On his second day of seeing Lent through Muslim eyes, Lawler issued a press release promoting his unique way of spending Lent. Speaking to a reporter that afternoon, he had no problem reconciling his Episcopal views with those of Islam.
“I could have sat down and read scholarly literature on Islam, but that’s still stepping back from it rather than encountering it,” he said, over a cup of tea in the office of St. Stephen’s Church. “You can think about doing something, but once you do it, you really reflect on it.”
Lawler, who has been at St. Stephen’s for eight years, was born and raised in the Roman Catholic Church but left during his early 20s because he didn’t care for its conservative viewpoints.
“The Episcopal church is a fairly open church,” he said. “If I was the pastor at a very conservative church, I could come in one day and have the locks changed (for doing the Islamic rituals).”
Lawler learned the Episcopal church is more rigid than he had thought. After hearing the objections of the bishop, Lawler reversed course, giving up the Islamic rituals.
“I believe what he’s trying to accomplish or says he’s trying to accomplish, which is to deepen his understanding of Islam, is admirable,” the bishop said. “But you dishonor another faith by pretending to take it on. You build bridges by building relationships with neighbors who are Muslim.”

  • nnmns

    Seems like a reasonable thing to do and an unreasonable boss. To say what the guy is doing is confusing is pretty insulting to the customers.

  • jhubers

    I am a pastor, as well, evangelical no less, who spent thirteen years in the Middle East. I tried to follow this very difficult fast whenever Lent fell during Ramadan for the same reason – to help me gain a better understanding of what this discipline meant for our Muslim neighbors. Most people who knew about it thought it was a great idea.
    How incredibly narrow minded to think otherwise as, in point of fact, the Muslim understanding of fasting is built on Judeo-Christian practices. This would certainly cause me to wonder if making the move from Catholicism to Episcopalianism was worth it.

  • pagansister

    I see no problem with his idea. What better way to understand the faith but to practice it for a short time? A language is best practiced by living in the country that speaks it. What is his Bishop so scared of? Ridiculous.

  • Henrietta22

    What did Lawler discover? His chosen religion has rigidity in it, and he must think, and act in only the way his Bishop says is permissible. It’s left over from being Catholic.

  • cknuck

    how ridiculous Lent then has no meaning. Where do they get these guys from?

  • pagansister

    Where do they come from? The school of trying to understand another faith. It’s called—education. How does learning a different form of worship of THE ALMIGHTY (no matter what she/he is called) as a Lenten project not be a “sacrifice”?

  • GHUD

    Hello, just thought I would add in on the side of cknuck. I think there are huge flaws in what you are saying here woodswalker3. Your worst point was when you said that people are born homosexual then compared that to being a jew or black. The later to are both physical heritable traits and the former is a choice. Your way of proving your point was simply to say that we never made the choice to be hetersexual. Well, there is evidence both ways. People are born, naturally, wanting females. This involves a slew of hormones and visual stimuli that we are born with. These are the obvious biological facts. That is not to say that people can’t be born with scewed biological presets. I say scewed because if God made man to be joined with women, then a man with a man or women with women must be a mess up of the origional created people.
    Basically, God made it one way and we see that people are doing it another. Either way, one way is sinful and one way is not. Plain and simple. That doesnt mean I go and commit sinfull acts (like violence). Unlike the koran and other religious materials, the bible prevents this violence you believe will occur. If a christian does violence to a homosexual, the christian community can rest assured that he is not backed by holy scripture.
    A homosexual must admit his sin to God and fight with his unatural urges as best he can. That sounds terrible to someone who isn’t a christian or maybe simmply isnt following Gods law, but to a Christian who is saved and has, at times, experienced what it is like to live like God created us to, will know that the joy of prevailing in these battles can be amazing.
    A drunk has to battle not to drink every night but in the end, the joy, standard of living, and spiritual revival he or she experiences will be amazing. Although, the Christian Road is not allways an easy road. It is often very difficult to live a true christian life. This issue is just another battle. The act of homosexuality is a sin. Accepting it in your life as an honest value is a sin. Having urges for the same sex is not a sin if you fight them and do not pursue them. Satan allways tries to temp us. Praise the Lord for his grace in our lives to not fall into the pits of life.

  • pagansister

    GHUD, same post on 2 sites, supporting cknuck?

  • Little Chico

    I think the bishop is over-reacting and probably knows nothing about Islam except what he fears. Christians have engaged other religions and shared in their worship without fearing this would be a rejection of their own heritage. My former seminary professor, Harvey Cox, did this all the time and is pictured on one of his books robed in Hindu or Buddhist garb (“Many Mansions”). He loved to dabble in other religions. There is always something to learn from other faith traditions. That’s what Harvey Cox believed and we were encouraged to be open-minded and ecumenical in our attitudes.

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