Sometime in the 1960s, a book appeared with the title Rome: Opponent or Partner? The author was suggesting that the time had come for his fellow-Protestants to consider the Roman Catholic Church as a partner and no longer as an opponent. As things turned out, the book made a significant difference to my life. BBC Northern Ireland scheduled a panel discussion of the book in which I was the Catholic participant. One result was that my Presbyterian fellow-panelist, the well known Donald Gillies, and myself became friends. I became more sympathetic to his evangelical Protestantism and he, from being an opponent of ecumenism and the World Council of Churches, became sympathetic to their aims.
The challenge facing us today is the question: Do we want Islam as a partner? Or is Islam to remain the opponent it still is for the most part? Islam is surely a mystery. How could Islam overcome Christianity in Egypt and elsewhere? How could Islam forestall Christianity in places like North India? One of my students when I lived in Belfast and taught the module on Interfaith Relations in the adult education course of the Irish School of Ecumenics, became confused and upset when she encountered our Muslim teacher, a lecturer in some branch of engineering in Queen’s University. How could Islam produce a person who was so deeply religious, so full of faith, a man of such piety? She was a well-educated, sophisticated Catholic. She too had encountered the mystery of Islam.
If we are to evangelise our contemporaries and help them to believe in God and another world we need as many partners as possible. Islam is surely one. If in the past and the present it fails to live up to its ideals, who will dare throw the first stone?
How to make Islam a partner? Are the answers to the question ‘How to make Friends’ not relevant? It is sad that the Pope failed when in Regensburg.. His State visit to Turkey will, it is to be hoped, enable him to redress the situation…