Tim Dieppe, Christian Concern’s Head of Public Policy, explains why ‘multi-faith worship’ is problematic for Christianity.
The Royal Family website describes the recent Commonwealth Day Service in March 2022 as a “multi-faith service.” The Queen was represented by The Prince of Wales at this annual service. Famously, and controversially, Prince Charles has previously suggested that he would prefer to take the title ‘Defender of the Faiths’, or ‘Defender of Faith’ rather than “Defender of the Faith” when he becomes king.
More recently he has made clear that he will take the title “Defender of the Faith”, while using the position to also protect other faiths. It will be very interesting to see how this develops when he actually does become king, and whether he agrees to the very explicitly Christian coronation vows he will be asked to make. Any divergence from the Christian nature of the coronation service is likely to provoke a constitutional crisis.
Multi-faith worship prohibited in CofE buildings
Many people do not realise that multi-faith worship is actually prohibited in consecrated Church of England premises. Canon Law insists that all services “shall be neither contrary to, not indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter.” (Canon B5). Even the use of the building for any other purpose, such as a play, a concert, or an exhibition, should be such that “the words, music, and pictures are such as befit the House of God, are consonant with sound doctrine, and make for the edifying of the people.” (Canon F16).
While the Commonwealth Day service was described as ‘multi-faith’, it actually did not include any prayers to other gods. The full service can be watched here. At the end of the service [1:33:00], representatives of four major faiths pronounced blessings on the Commonwealth on behalf of their faith communities. This probably did not breach canon law, though it comes very close, and arguably did at points. The Hindu representative, for example, stated that “Peace is Brahman” which is a statement of Hindu doctrine that contradicts Christian teaching, and therefore should not be pronounced in a Christian act of worship.
Multi-faith worship is controversial
There have been some highly controversial cases where canon laws have been breached.
In 2017, the Qur’an was recited during a worship service in St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow. The passage recited from Surah 19, actually stated that Allah cannot have a son, and that Jesus advocated worship of Allah! This caused a huge storm in the press, since it clearly breaches the canon law above.
On another occasion in 2017, the Islamic call to prayer was held inside Gloucester Cathedral. This is an explicit call to worship another god, as well as a proclamation that “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.” Once again, this was a clear breach of canon law, which caused significant controversy.
In 2015, St John’s Church, Waterloo, hosted an Islamic jummah salah in 2015. Since this included prayers to Allah, it was clearly a breach of canon law. The Diocese issued a statement asserting “it is quite clear that Islamic prayer should not take place in a consecrated building.” The Bishop of Southwark also stated: “it is clear that an act of worship from a non-Christian faith tradition is not permitted within a consecrated Church of England building.”
‘You shall have no other gods before me’
Christian teaching is clear. There is only one God, and he alone is worthy of worship. The first commandment spells this out: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). If that was not clear enough, the second commandment prohibits worship of idols. The New Testament is no less clear that we should not worship or pray to any other god. John writes “Little Children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).
Jesus clearly taught that there is only one way to God. The clearest statement is in John 14:6:
“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”
Jesus is not “a way” or “a truth”. There are not other ways to come to the Father.
Similarly, in Acts 4:12:
“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
In other words, Christianity makes exclusive truth claims. It does not claim to be just one of many religions. It claims to be the true religion. It does not claim that our God is one amongst many gods. It claims that there is only one God who calls everyone to worship him.
Exclusive claims are not unique to Christianity. Most religions make claims to be the only true religion. If fact, any truth claim is necessarily exclusive in that it claims that those who disagree are wrong.
Not the same god
The gods of other religions are not the same as the Lord God of the Bible. Therefore, they should not be worshipped or prayed to. The book Not the Same God, by Sam Solomon with Atif Debs makes very clear that Allah is not the God of the Bible, in case there was any doubt. Hindu and Buddhist gods are clearly also not the God of the Bible. Judaism is a special case, but modern Jews reject the divinity of Jesus, and therefore cannot be said to be worshipping the same God as Christians who worship Jesus Christ as Lord.
The worldviews behind multi-faith worship
The idea behind multi-faith worship is to treat all religions as if they are equivalent or equally valid. There is also a motivation to be inclusive and to treat all religions equally. Sometimes the philosophies of multiculturalism or cultural relativism lie behind these ideas, whereby they believe that all religions or cultures are equally valid. I have written about the various problems with multiculturalism and cultural relativism before.
These motivations may sometimes be laudable, even though they are misguided. In fact, to respect religions properly, one should respect their differences, and not try to treat them as if they are all the same. People of different faiths cannot come together to worship the same god, or participate in acts of worship based on radically different concepts of what God is like. If you really want to treat all faiths equally then you should have a separate service for each religion.
Sometimes the motivation is actually anti-Christian. Secularists and Muslims are intent on trying to rid our culture of its Christian roots and heritage. One way to do this is to replace Christian civic services, which are rooted in our explicitly Christian heritage, with multi-faith services. Muslims may be happy to agree to this, because the Qur’an does teach that Muslims and Christians worship the same god. This also helps with the Islamic aim of reducing the influence of Christianity in society and increasing the influence of Islam.
Participation implies agreement
Participation in a multi-faith act of worship amounts to tacit agreement that other gods are just as valid as the Lord God of the Bible. This is clearly not something that any Bible believing Christian can endorse. It could also be seen as tacit agreement that other religions worship the Lord God of the Bible, when this is clearly not the case, and not what Christians believe.
Christians should therefore avoid participation in multi-faith services or acts of worship and clearly explain that they cannot endorse the view that Christianity is just one faith amongst many equally valid religions. This explanation is a great opportunity to witness to the truth of the Christian gospel.
What about interfaith?
Multi-faith tends to refer to acts of worship. Interfaith, by contrast refers to dialogue between members of different religions, or sometimes collaboration. Christians are very happy to participate in interfaith dialogue as it is an opportunity to witness to the truth of the gospel.
Christians may also be happy to collaborate with members of other faiths in social activities, political lobbying, volunteering or other projects. As Christians we agree that dialogue is valuable and helps to aid mutual understanding. We may also agree with members of other faiths about lobbying on religious freedom issues or some other moral issues. This kind of collaboration involves no multi-faith worship and can be done without compromising the distinctive believes of the different religions.
The distinctive truths of the gospel
While the motivation may be to respect all faiths, multi-faith worship actually disrespects the differences between the religions. To be respectful, people should respect that Christians do not agree that we are worshipping the same god, or that all religions are equally valid, and therefore they will not participate in multi-faith acts of worship.
It is very concerning that the Royal Family website describes the Commonwealth Day service as multi-faith. We hope and pray that the coronation of Prince Charles will once again witness to the distinctive truths of the gospel.