What the Hijabi Witnessed (and What She Didn't)
August 26, 2013
I have had the pleasure on a couple of occasions of sitting next to a girl wearing a hijab. Typically, this has occurred in departure lounges of airports or on the platforms of railway stations. Never has it happened in a place of worship at the time of a service. Never, that is, until recently.
On the last Friday in June, I happened to be in Cambridge with my youngest son and decided to expose him to one of my alma mater's true delights: choral evensong at King's Chapel. We dutifully queued in the pouring rain (for me, those blue remembered hills are definitely English and cloud covered), and, when the chapel finally opened, we took our places at the far end of the aisle. It was then that I realized that the young girl sitting to my left was wearing a hijab. It was an interesting, if unlikely, juxtaposition: the middle aged Orthodox Presbyterian and the twenty-something Moslem waiting for the Anglican liturgy to begin. I assume that - rather like me - she was probably in the chapel for aesthetic reasons rather than religious ones. King's choir is famous; the preaching in the chapel was, at least in my student days, at best, infamous. Sermons then were the ultimate Schleiermacherian nightmare: rambling reflections on the religious self-consciousness by the irremediably irreverent. It may have improved in recent decades but, not being remotely postmillennial, I have no confidence that that is the case.
Once the choir had entered and taken its place, the service began. For the next hour, the sardonic Presbyterian and the attractive hijabi sat, stood and on occasion knelt together as the congregation worked its way through the Book of Common Prayer's liturgy for evensong, modified to take into account the appropriate Feast Day (as a good Presbyterian, I have erased the detail of whose day from my memory). The singing, both corporate and choral, was beautiful; and the austere elegance of Cranmer's liturgy seemed to find its perfect acoustic context in the perpendicular poise of the late Gothic Chapel. Then, at the end, we filed out in silence, having, at the level of mere aesthetics, heard one of the great male choirs singing words of deep and passionate piety. Outside, the rain continued and my son and I left the young hijabi chatting on her phone as we headed off to Don Pasquale's, a favourite haunt of my student days. Indeed, it was the place where one took a girl on a date if one wished to appear sophisticated while still operating on a budget. (For any would-be sophisticated but impoverished Cambridge bachelors out there, I can confirm that it is still there, and still a prudent balance of atmosphere and good value for money).
Sitting in Don Pasquale's, my son and I indulged in a little thought experiment. What, we wondered, had the girl in the hijab made of it all? Culturally, it may not have been a completely alien environment. She was a Spanish Moslem, and, with the exception of the hijab, dressed in the casual attire of any fashion conscious Western girl. So the look and sounds of a Christian church was possibly not as alien to her as, for example, I had found the Blue Mosque in Istanbul while touring Turkey in the 80s. Yet she was still a Moslem. The service itself would have been foreign territory.
So what exactly had she witnessed, I asked myself? Well, at a general level she had heard the English language at its most beautiful and set to an exalted purpose: the praise of Almighty God. She would also have seen a service with a clear biblical logic to it, moving from confession of sin to forgiveness to praise to prayer. She would also have heard this logic explained to her by the minister presiding, as he read the prescribed explanations that are built in to the very liturgy itself. The human tragedy and the way of salvation were both clearly explained and dramatized by the dynamic movement of the liturgy. And she would have witnessed all of this in an atmosphere of hushed and reverent quiet.
In terms of specific detail, she would also have heard two whole chapters of the Bible read out loud: one from the Old Testament and one from the New. Not exactly the whole counsel of God but a pretty fair snapshot. She would have been led in a corporate confession of sin. She would have heard the minister pronounce forgiveness in words shaped by scripture. She would have been led in corporate prayer in accordance with the Lord's own prayer. She would have heard two whole psalms sung by the choir. She would have had the opportunity to sing a couple of hymns drawn from the rich vein of traditional hymnody and shot through with scripture. She would have been invited to recite the Apostles' Creed (and thus come pretty close to being exposed to the whole counsel of God). She would have heard collects rooted in the intercessory concerns of scripture brought to bear on the real world. And, as I noted earlier, all of this in the exalted, beautiful English prose of Thomas Cranmer.
Now, I confess to being something of an old Puritan when it comes to liturgy. Does it not lead to formalism and stifle the religion of the heart? Certainly I would have thought so fifteen or twenty years ago. Yet as I reflected on the service and what the girl in the hijab had witnessed, I could not help but ask myself if she could have experienced anything better had she walked into a church in the Protestant evangelical tradition. Two whole chapters of the Bible being read? To have one whole chapter from one Testament seems to test the patience of many today. Two whole psalms sung (and that as part of a calendar which proceeds through the whole Psalter)? That is surely a tad too old fashioned, irrelevant, and often depressing for those who want to go to church for a bit of an emotional boost. A structure for worship which is determined by the interface between theological truth and biblically-defined existential need? That sounds as if it might be vulnerable to becoming dangerously formulaic formalism. A language used to praise God which is emphatically not that employed of myself or of anybody else in their daily lives when addressing the children, the mailman, or the dog? I think the trendy adjective would be something like 'inauthentic.'
Yet here is the irony: in this liberal Anglican chapel, the hijabi experienced an hour long service in which most of the time was spent occupied with words drawn directly from scripture. She heard more of the Bible read, said, sung and prayed than in any Protestant evangelical church of which I am aware - than any church, in other words, which actually claims to take the word of God seriously and place it at the centre of its life. Yes, it was probably a good thing that there was no sermon that day: I am confident that, as Carlyle once commented, what we might have witnessed then would have been a priest boring holes in the bottom of the Church of England. But that aside, Cranmer's liturgy meant that this girl was exposed to biblical Christianity in a remarkably beautiful, scriptural and reverent fashion. I was utterly convicted as a Protestant minister that evangelical Protestantism must do better on this score: for all of my instinctive sneering at Anglicanism and formalism, I had just been shown in a powerful way how far short of taking God's word seriously in worship I fall.
Of course, there were things other than a sermon which the hijabi did not witness: she did not witness any adults behaving childishly; she did not witness anybody saying anything stupid; she did not witness any stand-up comedy routine or any casual cocksureness in the presence of God; she did not see any forty-something pretending to be cool; in short, she did not witness anything that made me, as a Christian, cringe with embarrassment for my faith, or for what my faith has too often become at the hands of the modern evangelical gospellers.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is The Creedal Imperative (Crossway, 2012).