by Philip Whitfield
[ACNS source: Episcopal News Service] The broad smiles and warm handshakes told it all. Christians and Muslims are back on track discussing the "heavenly religions," as the Sunni Muslim leader put it.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, played a key role in re-establishing the dialogue that was disrupted in the wake of the election of Canon Gene Robinson - an openly gay man living in a committed relationship - as bishop of New Hampshire. A letter from him to the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Al-Sharif, Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawy, delivered October 4, reassured the Sunni leader that Anglicans were not about to change their theology.
The letter which was delivered by the Episcopal Bishop in Egypt, the Rt Revd Dr Mouneer H Anis, said that the official position of the Anglican Communion over human sexuality remains unchanged.
"The official position of the Anglican Communion with regard to matters of human sexuality remains that which was expressed at the Lambeth Conference in 1998," Dr Williams wrote. "May I in conclusion assure you of my own hope that our dialogue will be able to resume in due course and that it will increasingly develop into a channel of serious and fruitful communication between our communities at a time when this is so badly needed in many parts of the world."
Sheikh Tantawy listened to every word of the letter as it was read to him by Dr Ali El Samman, vice president of the interfaith committee that was established after the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, visited Al-Azhar in 1999. Dr Samman, once one of Egyptian President Sadat's closest aids and media advisors, placed extra emphasis on the unambiguous reassurance from Williams.
Sheikh Tantawy smiled approvingly and shook Mouneer's hand warmly. Later Dr Samman explained the importance of the meeting.
"The significance is that we are demonstrating that where there is a problem, or difficulty, the leaders (of the monotheistic religions) are here to resolve these problems. The Grand Imam received a very clear letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury clarifying the actual situation. At the same time the Grand Imam gave approval for the continuance of the interfaith dialogue," he said.
"The second significance is the quick reaction by the Grand Imam with a letter the same day in response, acknowledging the archbishop's letter. It means these two leaders are keen to develop their cooperation," Dr Samman added.
"In terms of practicality, it is useful to see that the issue of homosexuality was dramatic enough to cancel the scheduled inter faith meeting in New York. That means that leaders of religions more than ever should be cautious when they consider such matters concerning not only our daily life but concerning general ethics and the responsibilities of public office."
Bishop Mouneer was one of the delegates to the Inter Faith Conference derailed in New York in early September and has worked since then in dozens of meetings with Muslims to resume inter faith dialogue.
Bishop Mouneer had been equally successful in his reassurances to Pope Shenouda, leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, who has accepted that the election of a gay bishop is not official Anglican Church policy.
"I am delighted with today's outcome. We hope to hold the cancelled meeting here in Cairo within the next few weeks," Bishop Mouneer said.
Philip Whitfield is communications officer for the Episcopal Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East, for the Dioceses of Cyprus and the Gulf, Egypt and Iran