Page last updated at 01:35 GMT, Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Church to debate conversion rules

By Robert Pigott
Religious affairs correspondent, BBC News

The issue of evangelism has become a sensitive one

The General Synod of the Church of England is to discuss a motion calling on it to recognise explicitly its aim of converting people to Christianity.

Critics of the plan say raising the issue will simply serve to damage the Church's relations with members of other religions, including Muslims.

However, there is strong backing for the controversial proposal.

The motion calls for bishops to give extra training and encouragement to clergy to evangelise non-Christians.

But the motives of Paul Eddy, the traditionalist synod member who tabled the motion, are not limited simply to winning potential converts among the Muslim, Hindu or other communities who might be susceptible to the Christian message.

His motion goes right to the heart of the central division between liberal and traditionalist Anglicans.

'Liberal drift'

In the past these tensions have focused on what the Bible teaches about homosexuality.

With his motion, Mr Eddy intends to tackle what he sees as a liberal drift in the Church by challenging the synod to confirm a traditional, if sometimes uncomfortable, duty.

Naiz is a former Muslim, who joined the Church of England.

His conversion illustrates just how sensitive the issue of evangelism can be.

He has been disowned by most of his family, and threatened by other Muslims. But he insists that converting other people like him is a Christian duty.

Any religion that believes it's going to bring tangible benefits - peace, satisfaction and understanding in this life and the next - would like to share that
Abu Eesa, imam

"Jesus said to his disciples 'go and make disciples of all nations by baptising them in the name of the father and of the son and of the holy spirit and teaching them every thing I have commanded you'. So it's the duty of the Anglican Church to do this."

Steven Longden travelled in the opposite direction. He is a former Anglican who converted to Islam, and now prays regularly at the mosque in Cheadle in Manchester.

Mr Longden sees nothing wrong in the Church trying to convert his fellow Muslims. He says Islam can expect to more than hold its own in the battle for converts.

"There's an emphasis on prayer, so there's a spiritual side of it. And of course there's strong family values and all the kind of support that comes through that".

The imam at Cheadle Mosque, Abu Eesa, says it is natural for all religions to seek converts among other groups. He does so himself.

Abu Eesa acknowledges that "there would be a level of disappointment from someone like myself... if I thought I have not explained my religion well enough to a Muslim that would make them go elsewhere", but he condemns the sort of hostility encountered by Naiz.

"Any religion that believes it's going to bring tangible benefits - peace, satisfaction and understanding in this life and the next - would like to share that."

Free choice

Naiz's vicar - who didn't want to be identified for fear of further exposing Naiz - takes a similar view to Abu Eesa.

Steven Longden and Iman Abus Eesa
Steven Longden says he became a Muslim partly because of Islam's emphasis on monotheism

Leaving aside Church politics, he believes important principles are at stake.

"We're in a country where we value free choice and freedom of choice.

"Why should people be frightened to talk about what they believe in this country.

"I think it's everyone's right to share with others what they think, and have a discussion and make their own mind up."

The motion will be fiercely resisted by synod members who see it as inflammatory and divisive, but Mr Eddy has chosen the territory for opening his second front against liberalism carefully.

He knows the duty to spread the message and teaching of the Bible - as a universally accepted duty for Christians - is hard to argue against.

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