Priest suspended in evangelism row

Istanbul, Turkey - A London bishop has suspended the most senior Anglican priest in Turkey, who opposed the fast-track ordination of a Turkish evangelist. The dispute highlights a potential clash of cultures between the hands-off approach of the expatriate Anglicans and the missionary zeal of Turkish Protestant converts.

Istanbul Anglicans have branded the bishop “bullying”, “crazy”, “un-Christian” and “a scandal and a menace”. Their colourful language stems partly from the popularity of Canon Ian Sherwood, the Irish cleric at the centre of the battle.

Trey Farmer, a member of the church council, which has also been suspended, illustrated the strength of feeling. “We are not here to convert anyone, but to support what exists,” he said. “If anyone wants to engage in missionary work in Turkey they are going to have to do it over our dead bodies. I don’t want to get shot for going to church.”

His comments were a reference to the great hostility with which Turkish Protestant converts are treated in this mainly Muslim country. Two Turkish Protestants are on trial under Article 301 of the penal code for insulting “Turkishness” and Islam in the course of their missionary work. Last month a Turkish-Armenian journalist on trial under the Act was shot dead by a nationalist youth.

The Right Rev Dr Geoffrey Rowell, the Bishop in Europe, who oversees Anglican communities in and around Europe, has invoked the rarely used device of “visitation” to suspend Canon Sherwood of executive duties pending an investigation. The decision comes after a revolt against the ordination of Engin Yildirim in London. The church council says that Mr Yildirim, who has refused to talk to them, is a pro selytising Turkish convert little known to the community.

The Rev Paul Needle, a spokesman for the Bishop, denied that Mr Yildirim had any missionary ambitions and said that he would continue with his Turkish flock for now. “Engin Yildirim was ordained after going through a rigorous selection process,” he said.

Church council members — who include Victoria Short, the widow of the British Consul murdered in the bombing of the Consulate General in 2003 by a Turkish al-Qaeda cell — say that the Bishop is motivated by personal revenge for losing an earlier battle over the restoration of a chapel damaged in the bombing.

“The Bishop has decided that he wants to punish Ian and Ian doesn’t deserve it,” Mrs Short told The Times. “We are just asking to be left alone to get on with putting our lives back together, and the best person to do this is Ian because he does so much more than a church service on Sunday mornings.

I expect people in the Church, especially our Bishop, to have some compassionate Christian understanding of this situation.”

Norman Stone, a former professor of modern history at Oxford University who now lectures in Turkey, has also expressed his support for Canon Sherwood, who is unable to comment, under the terms of the visitation. He was widely praised for his work with the British community after the bombing and was appointed honorary OBE by the Queen. The council says that the ordination of Mr Yildirim — an accounts clerk who leads a group of Turkish converts — was fast-tracked in order to “put Ian Sherwood’s nose out of joint”.

Andrew Boord, a business consultant and church council member, said: “He is angry at what he sees as our ‘disobedience’ rather like the headmistress of a primary school.”

Gerry Barlow, chairman of Amicus, the faith workers’ union, said that the Bishop and his colleagues were “very confrontational”. He said: “In this case it is made all the more difficult in that Istanbul is an extremely sensitive place.”