The 'not guilty' verdict today in the case of the Evangelical minister, James 'Jim' McConnell, who was prosecuted for his public critique of Islam, has momentous consequences for future intervention by the state in theological debate.
It was my privilege to be part of the defence team, or what the pastor’s solicitor, Joe Rice, called 'the lads', a band which brought together Catholic priest with Muslim imam, Unionist with Nationalist, standing in support of the Protestant preacher’s freedom to speak in conscience, even as he and I will strongly disagree on doctrine.
One example of this touching camaraderie across confessions, was the testimony of Catholic priest Patrick McCafferty. Paddy had responded to hurtful comments from James McConnell about his faith with frank and sometimes abrasive dialogue, tea and the nurturing of a 20 year friendship between the two clergymen.
We watched in some dismay as Jim McConnell was dissected on the stand. He floundered as it was insisted he find words – the right words – to articulate his revulsion at Islamist ideology when those of us who work in the field have failed yet to find those words. As flesh and blood met the cold sophistry of the criminal justice system, I saw in that moment the scornful face of Pontius Pilate looking upon Jim McConnell’s rude words and sneering, Quid est veritas? 'What is truth?'.
There are multiple points whereon I should want to sit with Jim McConnell and contend that parts of his sermon on Islamic theology are as wrongheaded as his remark that the Roman Catholic Church is about to add the Blessed Virgin Mary as a fourth person of the Trinity.
But for all the lack of scholarly polish, the fact is Jim McConnell’s less than coherent efforts to express how he feels about the outworking of some Islamic beliefs in the cruelty we see on our television screens, has branded in my heart an indelible sympathy for these grievances and determination to fight for the academic freedom to engage and debate them.
During the period of the Third Reich, a theological movement known as 'Positive Christianity' emerged. It sought to distance Christ from his Jewish origins. The blue-eyed European Jesus of High Renaissance art found his clearest dogmatic expression in a German Christianity which was to be thoroughly 'national' in character. The established Lutheran-Reformed church in Germany largely bought this idea, and thus, in this sorry history we see the everlasting paradigm of Golden Calf religion (Exodus 32:4-6), of men fashioning God in our ethno-national image in order to foster exclusion and hatred of others of His children.
In his book, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews James Carroll, gives moving personal testimony of his concerns about Positive Christianity-like tendencies among some churches in the United States.
While I'm proud to count among my friends American Evangelicals of deep biblical faithfulness and grace, I've also been to megachurches where I meet a Jesus who apparently opposes gun control, who would repeal healthcare and welfare provision for the poor, who doesn’t much like Mexican immigrants, and who blesses the bombing of faraway foreign places.
There is also an idolatrous Positive Islam which is now sweeping across the Middle East, Africa and the Orient. The persecution and genocide by Islamists of Christian and other worshippers of God can only be blasphemy against His Name, and so when I hear others like Jim McConnell express their anger and bitterness at Muslims like me for what we are doing in the world today, I can only ask your forgiveness and your support in the struggle to make it right.
When I hear McConnellist preaching, I hear across the ages the voice of John Knox, a brash Highland Calvinism, a Northern Irish homiletics which is far removed from the careful and anodyne liberal high churchmanship of Northern London. Jim McConnell’s bluntly scriptural style is actually extraordinarily 'Islamic'. In court I reflected how he could be standing in a pulpit in Cairo. It is rudely and shamelessly truth-seeking and truth-speaking and really rather improper for the Establishment-embedded Church of England.
I have seen the diametric opposite of Jim McConnell’s artless candour in both Christian and non-Christian within the interfaith public relations industry. I've seen the forked tongued craft of saying nice things you don’t really mean to people you don’t really like. Thus, each terrorist outrage is followed endlessly by self-appointed Muslim talking heads on Newsnight rehearsing bland dictums about their 'religion of peace' and that more taxpayers’ money be spent on capacity building Islamic community leadership – in a perpetual violence-apologist-violence cycle.
So although McConnell is out of order with the state’s expectations of what church should look like, his preaching is entirely familiar, not only to Muslims, but also to millions of African and Asian Pentecostals and other non-white, non-wealthy, non-Western Christians, so many of whom are enduring persecution today. Precisely the people, in fact, for whose sake the ecclesiastical politicians in the Anglican hierarchy and the Establishment have failed adequately to speak up.
Sheikh Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini is Senior Fellow in Islamic Studies at the Westminster Institute. You can follow him on Twitter @MYAlHussaini