The Reverend David Stanton Canon in Residence
Sunday, 8th October 2017 at 3.00 PM
It is not often a cricketer is mentioned from the pulpit in Westminster Abbey, but there’s a devout Muslim with a shaved head and a long flowing beard who has become a special icon for these troubled times.
Rather like Muhammad Ali, who undermined racism by his wit, sharpness, and swagger, and Billie Jean King, who did much to alter perceptions of women, Moeen Ali has done much to alter perceptions about multiculturalism in Britain today.
In many ways multiculturalism and Christianity have a very long historical association. Let us not forget that our Christian faith originated out of Judaism in the Middle East; Jesus lived and held his ministry there; St Paul was an ethnic Jew; St Augustine of Hippo was North African. The list could go on and on.
The picture is further embellished by the fact that heart-felt religious belief so often engenders intolerance from others. During his ministry, Christ himself was surrounded by intolerance: Jews and Samaritans were highly suspicious of one another; women were treated as inferior to men; and Jewish religious leaders invariably scorned the common people.
Christ stood out as being vastly different. ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’. He was kind, patient, and tolerant because he came not to judge people but to embrace them. He is the embodiment of love and spiritual healing. Our second reading this afternoon consolidates this point: ‘Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling’. (1 St John 2: 10)
Over this last summer we’ve enjoyed some marvellous test matches with England winning exciting series against both South Africa and the West Indies. One of England’s great heroes this summer has been Moeen Ali, a flamboyant left-handed batsman and big-turning off spinner. He’s a Muslim of Pakistani descent, belonging to the Mirpuri community and, as I mentioned earlier, sports a shaven head and long, flowing, black beard. He speaks both English and Punjabi.
Back in 2007, I saw him make his debut for Worcestershire and, to be quite honest, the local crowd were not sure what to make of him. A couple of months ago, I saw him make a hat-trick to seal victory at the Kennington Oval. The picture of him surrounded by his team-mates, with the whole crowd standing and clapping and shouting, was a sight to behold. Pictures of the event went viral around the world.
Since he was called up to the England side for the first test of England’s series against Sri Lanka in May 2014, Moeen has become the fifth-fastest Englishman to complete the double of 1000 runs and 50 wickets.
Yet, in parallel to this, events off the sports field, particularly the recent terrorist attacks on Westminster Bridge and London Bridge, have triggered further social intolerance and a big spike in hate crimes. Many of these being attacks directed at British Muslims.
Figures recently released by the Mayor of London show a fivefold increase in Islamophobic attacks since these atrocities, atrocities that took place a stone’s throw from here and the Oval cricket ground. Indeed, there has been a 40% increase in racist incidents, compared to this time last year. This increase in recorded Islamophobic incidents is greater than it was after the 2013 murder of Lee Rigby and after the 2015 massacre in Paris.
Events this year (on streets and at cricket grounds) reveal a complex picture of love and hate, hero worship and violent extremism. Yet the vast majority of British people recognise that immigrants and their descendants can observe their own traditions, whether religious or cultural, while still being model citizens of the UK.
It holds that the institutions of British public life should protect and promote a plurality of cultures in an environment of liberal tolerance. Yet somewhere along the line, there’s a distinct impression that this doctrine has overstepped its boundaries.
Winds of intolerance seem to be blowing strong, fanned by such things as racial and ethnic prejudice, nationalism, tribalism, and religious extremism.
In many ways the patriotic Moeem Ali is the ideal icon for these troubled times. He has shown that it is possible to be both a devoutly practising Muslim and a loyal participating citizen of Britain; there is no contradiction at all between the two. And, of course, that’s the whole point of multiculturalism. Moeen is not only its living embodiment, but also through his conspicuously Islamic appearance he has become a unifying image.
He’s managed to carve a new and different path. His rise to prominence couldn’t be more timely, and his example is one that needs to be publicised and promoted as widely as possible.
All of us here must be clear that multiculturalism does not stand at odds with our faith, for the Church is called to be both a sign and an instrument of the kingdom of God. It is an instrument in the kingdom of God, and it is God’s agent in the world, showing and sharing the word of Jesus to a broken and hurting world.
But it is also a sign in the kingdom of God, a draw to the kingdom, a credible witness to the kingdom, because people are supposed to look into the Church and say, That's what the kingdom of God looks like.
In this sense, it is a window into the kingdom that compels others to come and be united together. Even when we peer into a shop window, we know there’s much more inside.
Indeed the Revelation to St John the Divine reminds us that people will gather around the throne of God for eternity, and they will be from every tongue, tribe, and nation. Scripture goes to great lengths to point out the diversity around the throne.
Thus it seems only right and pleasing to God that when societies and faith groups live peaceably together, they reveal something of the kingdom of God through their very multiculturalism.
Although Moeen Ali is not of our Christian faith, he believes fervently in God. We give thanks for his patient articulation of moderate Islam that combats Islamophobia. His great pride in representing his country has done much for social cohesion, and his lustrous beard is a symbol for all—that faith really is important.