By Cynthia Billhartz Gregorian
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
FERGUSON, Mo. (RNS) The Rev. Steve Lawler should have just given up chocolate or television for Lent.
Instead, Lawler, the part-time rector of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, decided to adopt the rituals of Islam for 40 days to gain a deeper understanding of the faith.
Two days after it began, he faced being defrocked if he continued in those endeavors.
"He can't be both a Christian and a Muslim," said Bishop George Wayne Smith of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. "If he chooses to practice as Muslim, then he would, by default, give up his Christian identity and priesthood in the church."
Lawler didn't foresee such problems when he came up with the idea. He merely wanted to learn more about Islam, he said, especially in light of the ongoing congressional hearings on the radicalization of the faith.
On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, he began performing "salah" five times a day, by facing east, toward Mecca, and praying to Allah. He also started studying the Quran and following Islamic dietary restrictions by abstaining from alcohol and pork.
During Holy Week, he planned to fast from dawn to sunset as Muslims do during Ramadan.
But in Smith's eyes, the exercise amounts to "playing" at someone else's religion and could be viewed as disrespectful.
Plus, he said, "One of the ways (Lawler) remains responsible as a Christian leader is to exercise Christianity and to do it with clarity and not with ways that are confusing."
It's not the first time the Episcopal Church has confronted a priest over dabbling in Islam; in 2009, the Rev. Ann Holmes Redding was defrocked two years after she embraced Islam because, her bishop said, "a priest of the church cannot be both a Christian and a Muslim."
Smith said Lawler would face punitive actions if he continued with the rituals.
Lawler said he only planned to take his idea so far -- he did not intend to embrace one of the Five Pillars of Islam that requires Muslims to declare a belief in the oneness of God and to accept Muhammad as God's prophet.
On his second day of seeing Lent through Muslim eyes, Lawler issued a press release promoting his unique way of spending Lent. Speaking to a reporter that afternoon, he had no problem reconciling his Episcopal views with those of Islam.
"I could have sat down and read scholarly literature on Islam, but that's still stepping back from it rather than encountering it," he said, over a cup of tea in the office of St. Stephen's Church. "You can think about doing something, but once you do it, you really reflect on it."
Lawler, who has been at St. Stephen's for eight years, was born and raised in the Roman Catholic Church but left during his early 20s because he didn't care for its conservative viewpoints.
"The Episcopal church is a fairly open church," he said. "If I was the pastor at a very conservative church, I could come in one day and have the locks changed (for doing the Islamic rituals)."
Lawler learned the Episcopal church is more rigid than he had thought. After hearing the objections of the bishop, Lawler reversed course, giving up the Islamic rituals.
"I believe what he's trying to accomplish or says he's trying to accomplish, which is to deepen his understanding of Islam, is admirable," the bishop said. "But you dishonor another faith by
pretending to take it on. You build bridges by building relationships with neighbors who are Muslim."
Mohammed Ibrahim, chairman of the board of directors of the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis, isn't offended at all by Lawler practicing Islamic rituals.
"I think it's a good idea to understand better what Islam is," he said. "We do welcome it. People can come and watch us pray at the mosques and participate in prayer if they want to."
For his part, Lawler said he was not disappointed with the Episcopal church's reaction.
"It's a conversation, so I don't feel excluded or ordered about, and I understand Bishop Smith's concerns about what this would mean," he said. "I knew I was stepping into this as a discovery. It's turning out to be different than I thought, but also richer than I thought."
Cynthia Billhartz Gregorian writes for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.