A tribute to one of our most respected interfaith scholars of the 20th Century.
Bishop Kenneth Cragg – An Appreciation
by John Clark
Bishop Kenneth Cragg, who died on 13 November 2012, was one of the pre-eminent Christian scholars of Islam and Christian Muslim relations of the last century. He pioneered new approaches to understanding Islam and other faiths based on a generous hospitality and openness within which effective ‘embassy’ or witness could take place.
Kenneth Cragg was born in Blackpool on 8 March 1913 and educated at Blackpool Grammar School before going to Jesus College Oxford to read Modern History. Nurtured in the evangelical tradition of Christ Church, Blackpool and Tyndale Hall Bristol, he served his curacy, after ordination in 1936, under the redoubtable mentoring of Henry Hill of Higher Tranmere Parish Church, Birkenhead.
In 1939 he went to Beirut with the British Syrian Mission (which later merged into what today is Middle East Christian Outreach - MECO) to teach in its Lebanon Bible Institute and under the Bishop in Jerusalem to be Chaplain of All Saints Church (celebrating its centenary this November). His early years were devoted to the study of Arabic (in which he became fluent), the chaplaincy and to reflection on his Christian calling, undergoing what he termed ‘the sifting of the East’ as he encountered Christians of other traditions and more particularly people of other faiths notably Islam. As he put it in his autobiography ‘was the personal evangelism that the Mission insisted’ on a sufficient response to the complexities of Islam. Because ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself’ did there not need to be a bearing of that Gospel on the whole ethos of Islam and not just on the individual Muslim caught up in all its complexities and culture?
With these seed questionings in mind he moved directly under the Bishop Graham-Brown of Jerusalem and in 1942 established St Justin’s Hostel for students at the American University of Beirut (where he was also an Assistant Professor of Philosophy) – a hostel named after the early Christian Apologist Justin Martyr, concerned to present the faith to the philosophies and cultures of his age, thus reflecting Cragg’s hopes for exploration of faith and philosophy in the Hostel.
It was on December 31, 1940 that he married Melita Arnold in Beirut. It was in Gaza to which they were evacuated in 1941 that their first son was born, to be followed by a second in Beirut, a daughter Joy in Longworth in 1948, who tragically died a cot death at two months and a third son in Oxford in 1951.
Oxford and the USA
In 1947 family ill-health and the mounting crisis in Palestine caused the Craggs to return to Britain where he was appointed by Jesus College as Rector to its living in Longworth (just outside Oxford) thus enabling him to complete an Oxford DPhil
From Oxford the family moved in 1951 to Hartford Connecticut where he served as Professor of Arabic and Islamics in its Seminary until 1956. During that period he was joint editor of The Muslim World – bringing new vitality a journal of great significance to the Christian approach and understanding of Islam. In the discussions of a small group for the Christian study of Islam in New York and their desire for a ‘manual’ about Islam he began to develop the ideas that were to emerge fully in his first and seminal work The Call of the Minaret (1956 – 2nd edition 1986) which has never gone out of print.
‘The title’ he wrote later, ‘was meant to indicate that there truly was a ‘call’ from the mosque that could only be answered by perceptive open reckoning of what it was to be a Muslim…. The book’s third section ‘Minaret and Christian’ tried to explore what that call might entail in respect of thought, witness and attention’ from Christians.
His approach of respectful dialogue as a basis for understanding and responding Christianly to others was seminal and hugely influential. Bishop Dehqani-Tafti of Iran was to write of the influence on him of Bishop Kenneth’s visits to Iran and theological engagement in Arabic with Iranian Muslim religious leaders in which his knowledge of Islam and capacity to interpret the Christian faith to them won admiration, respect and understanding. This experience of informed respectful dialogue was one of the points made by Bishop Hassan at the 1968 Lambeth Conference and has become essential to encounter with Muslims and people of all faiths.
Jerusalem and Canterbury
From the USA the family moved in 1956 to Jerusalem where he was a Canon Residentiary at St George’s Cathedral, responsible for carrying on an educational courses and teaching ministry in the diocese and those neighbouring – the fruits of which were published in The Dome and the Rock (1964). From Jerusalem he returned to Britain in 1960 to become Warden of St Augustine’s College, Canterbury – a place where Anglicans from around the Communion could meet, study together form relationships which could continue across continents – communion in reality. The closure of the College in 1967 by Archbishop Michael Ramsey was a bitter disappointment for it ended something which he felt was fundamental to the life of the Communion.
Egypt, Sussex and Yorkshire
The next three years were unsettled and spent as Visiting Professor at Union Theological Seminary, New York; at Ibadan, Nigeria and a more settled Bye-Fellowship at Gonville and Caius, Cambridge for research and writing until in 1970 he was invited to be an Assistant Bishop to the Archbishop in Jerusalem but based in Cairo. It was a great sadness to him that he was not able to continue in this role when the Archbishopric came to an end in 1974 in preparation for what was to emerge as the new Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East, with a Bishop President in 1976. So he returned to Britain to take up the post of Reader in Religious Studies at Sussex University until 1978 after which he returned to parish life as Vicar of Helme in W.Yorkshire, where his pastoral visiting and caring ministry were much appreciated. He retired in 1981 to Ascott-under-Wychwood and after the death of his beloved wife Melita in 1989, into Oxford itself.
But it was during this time that the fruits of his many journeys and lectures around the Middle East and more widely (he reckons he made 342 flights in his ‘forty years of duty’) began to come into print. His concern with the Qur’an took shape in The Event of the Qur’an (1971) and The Mind of the Qur’an (1973) followed in 1988 by Readings in the Qur’an. Issues for Christians about Muhammad – and for Muslims about Jesus were tackled in Muhammad and the Christian (1984) and Jesus and the Muslim (1985). His passionate feelings about Palestine and Israel and the tragedy of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict were movingly and creatively explored in Next Year in Jerusalem (1982). And in The Arab Christian: A History in the Middle East (1991) he tackled the issue of dual identity – being Arab and Christian, since Arabness is so often synonymous with Islam. Constance Padwick’s pioneering studies of Muslim devotional books contributed to his own study of Muslim prayer which complemented his wide knowledge of Christian devotion and bore fruit in two studies of prayer within Christian and Muslim traditions – Alive to God (1970) and Common Prayer (1999).
Books poured from his pen in retirement (more than fifty throughout his life) – or rather from the elderly Imperial typewriter on which he would tap away for hours, often recalling quotations and citations from memory – and the wealth of his reading in theology, Arabic texts and English literature can be seen in the footnotes to his many publications. At their heart lay what he saw as his faith as a Christian ‘in negotiation with the formidable life-setting’ of the Middle East and Islam into which God had called him.
In 2011, physically frail but mentally still active, he moved from Oxford to the College of St Barnabas near Lingfield in Surrey, a residential care home for clergy and it was here that he passed away peacefully on the morning of 13 November, four months short of his hundredth birthday
A summary of Kenneth Cragg’s main life events and publications can not adequately catch his deep Christian faith, his unostentatious humility, his sense of humour with that special twinkle in his eye and the quality of his many friendships – Christian, Muslim and Jewish- (complemented by his annual Christmas card containing his latest poem about the nativity). He loved language and literature in which he was widely read (his last book Bent to Literary Intent (2011) is a study of classic authors). His books require careful reading because of the play on words that he so enjoyed, to bring out deep meaning and insight.
It was out of the evangelical faith in which he had been nurtured that he found the secure base from which to venture into the explorations of interpreting that faith to the wider world. He was of that generation of John V Taylor, Stephen Neill and Max Warren, who were Evangelical without a qualifying adjective and were appreciated and held in respect by Christians of all traditions.
One friend recalls first hearing him speak in 1976 in a course of lectures responding to the World of Islam Festival held in London that summer. At the distinctive heart of Christian faith, he said, are found two historical places – Bethlehem and Jerusalem – the sites of the incarnation and the cross and resurrection. As Archbishop Rowan Williams has put it: “he was a witness above all else to the universal reconciling hope that Christians find in the confession of faith in Christ as First and Last, as the truth on which all truth converges.”
Perhaps the passion and guiding convictions of his life are summed up in one verse from a hymn/poem that he wrote in 1948 after ‘the bitter tragedy’ of the cot death of two month old Joy.
Thou art, O Christ, the joy of man’s desire,
Thy splendour one in manger, cross and throne,
Let Thy light burn within ourselves a fire,
Thy warmth be ours, the glory Thine alone.
During his career John Clark has been Regional Director for the Middle East and Pakistan for the Church Mission Society and is currently Chairman of the Jerusalem and East Mission Trust which supports the four dioceses of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East (www.jmeca.org.uk