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British priest in Kerala in conversion debate

Sangeeth Kurian

Rev. David Hart finds no contradiction in being identified as a "religious pluralist"

PHOTO: C. RATHEESH KUMAR

THE PUJA: David Hart offering puja to Ganesha in front of his house in Thiruvananthapuram last month.

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: A controversy has broken out in the U.K. and the U.S. with the media reflecting a debate over an Anglican priest who converted to Hinduism in Kerala where he has now stayed for nearly a year, and where he regularly offers ritual prayers in a temple.

Rev. David Hart, 52, who has a fascination for Lord Ganesha, celebrated Vinayaka Chathurthi in front of his house here last month. Mainstream newspapers, church journals, popular websites and radio stations in the U.K. and the U.S. are now debating the propriety of allowing Rev. Hart to continue his "pluralist religious identity" while remaining a priest of the Church of England.

The Times, of London, in a report headlined `Hinduism no barrier to job as priest in Church of England' (September 8), published a photograph of Rev. Hart offering prayers to Ganesha and quoted from a report in the Kerala editions of The Hindu on August 27. Church Times, of the Church of England, launched a poll on whether Rev. Hart, "who recites the Gayatri Mantram with the same devotion with which he celebrates the Eucharist or offers namaz in Muslim prayer halls" should be allowed to continue as a priest.

The Times' report by its religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill quoted Pauline Scott, the team vicar of the St. James' Parish Church, Stretham, Cambridge, where Rev. Hart offers communion while in England. The vicar said she would now oppose Rev. Hart celebrating the Eucharist in Ely diocese. It was under the Bishop of Ely that Rev. Hart renewed his orders for priesthood nearly two months ago. The Times on September 8 said the Bishop's office had denied knowledge of Mr. Hart's conversion. However, a letter written by the Communications Officer of the diocese, published by The Times on September 11, said Rev. Hart's permission to officiate was under review.

The religion correspondent of The Times triggered a debate in her weblog by seeking comments on whether "this Hindu convert should remain as a `C of E [Church of England] priest'?"

Church Times, in an article headlined `Ely diocese finds out that one of its priests is a Hindu,' on September 8, quoted the Bishop's lay chaplain, Dr. Bridget Nichols, as saying that the news of Rev. Hart's conversion was "a complete revelation to us."

She said: "The first time we had heard that David Hart had converted to be a Hindu was yesterday... We cannot keep an eye on all our non-resident clergy who have permission to officiate... We take an application for permission to officiate in good faith."

Rev. Hart, an Associate Professor in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Winchester, mentions his conversion in a book Trading Faith: Global Religion in an Age of Rapid Change. Focussing on a new model for understanding religious practice and faith, it was released here earlier this year. A follower of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), Rev. Hart has changed his middle name from `Allen' to `Ananda Krishna Das.'

He is unruffled by the debate. On September 10, the BBC's Radio 4 did a live telephone interview with Rev. Hart for its `The Sunday Programme.' Around 20 U.S.-based online discussion groups have sprung up debating the controversy.

Defending his decision not to inform the Bishop of Ely about his conversion while renewing his orders, Rev. Hart told The Hindu : "Becoming a Hindu has not brought about any change in my spiritual status. The act has not shaken my Christian beliefs by even one per cent."

Also the international secretary of the World Congress of Faiths based in London, he does not find any contradiction in being identified as a "religious pluralist."

He said: "Asking me to express my preference for any particular faith is like asking me to choose between an ice-cream and a chocolate. Both have their own distinct taste."

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