What follows is the text of a presentation given at the National Meeting of the Inter Faith Network for the UK on the 12th July 2012:
"Professor Paul Fiddes in one of his books tells the story of an occasion when Archbishop William Temple was listening to a lecture when the person sitting next to him whispered “do you understand what he’s talking about?’ Temple replied ‘well, I understand perfectly what he is saying, but I don’t understand what he’s saying it about.’
I am grateful for this invitation to briefly reflect on the inter faith journey of the churches from an ecumenical perspective. As I pondered what I wanted say it occurred to me how important it is that we not only are clear about what we are saying but what we are saying it about. In other words, we should be engaging in inter faith dialogue and activity not because it feel right, or that it is the latest thing, or because it is the means by which we gain some profile, power or influence, but because it arises genuinely out of our faith.
Recently at CTBI, Bob Fyffe the General Secretary and I have looking at some of the recent history of the organisation, and the journey that the many different churches have made together. CTBI is primarily an organisation that is concerned about unity between the Christian churches: it is a Christian ecumenical organisation, not an inter faith organisation. However, what is striking about the history of that journey is just how much inter faith dialogue has been important and is now an integral part of how the churches relate to the world. Many of you – friends and colleagues of other faiths – are as much partners in the work of reconciliation as fellow Christians. We could not have said that a generation ago. We have gone along way towards building genuine relationships of trust that are enduring. That is a remarkable achievement to note in this 25 anniversary year of the Inter Faith Network, an organisation that has helped us all relate better to one another.
As we looked over the history of our organisation it has been a pleasure to read about the groundbreaking work of those in the British Council of Churches who took risks in creating opportunities to meet with Jews, Muslims, Hindus in Sikhs more than a generation ago. This was the late 1970’s and the time of people such as Bishop David Brown and Kenneth Cracknell, As Dr Elizabeth Harris has noted “They were pioneers and they new it!”
But why do it? The strong sense of what the Christian faith required is what drove this pioneering work: The belief that Christians are called to love God and our neighbour as ourselves and that God is active in the world and we are called to participate in the actions of God in the world.
For most Christians this is what the doctrine of the Trinity is about – the way in which God is active in the world. Now we might want a seminar on that particular theological issue on another occasion and what a lively discussion it would probably be! Nevertheless I want to stress that inter faith is not an add on extra that can easily dropped when fashions change, but arises out of our faith and our belief in what God is doing in the world and what our responsibility is in sharing in that. It is important to note this because we were not waiting around for the Prevent Programme, Near Neighbours, Year of Service or any other Government backed idea before we were able to relate outside our own communities – I am sure that is true for you too!
The next thing to say is that in our communities there is much that is happening that is good, and the different faiths are doing it together. CTBI is in the midst of a research project entitled “Good Society”. This is looking at what local churches are doing to serve their local communities and asking what those communities would recognise as a ‘good society’. What we are finding are remarkable stories of what local communities are doing. And we are finding that in a good many areas of the UK, churches are creating opportunities within their communities so that people live together in harmony and the quality life is improved and that everyone is served.
Two things about this – most of it is without Government money, and secondly it invariably is being done in partnership with other faiths too. What can we learn from this? People of different faiths have always had a deep concern for the communities in which they live, long before the Good Society was even coined. But more importantly, that in many localities co-operation between the faiths now comes so naturally that it is unremarkable to so many ordinary people. I realise that this is not always the case, but it is important to note how things are changing in so many places.
So we have much to thank the early pioneers of all of this. But what of today and what of the future? In our discussions within the churches across Britain and Ireland, we are acutely aware of how much our society – our world – is changing. The world of a generation or more ago is so vastly different from the one we find ourselves in today. Today’s is characterised by globalisation, digital and social networking, increased diversity in religious matters, challenge to traditional structures, less hierarchical and more ‘inclusive’, people driven by values not organisations. All of this brings enormous challenges to established structures and ways of working and we are all playing catch up! But it also offers tremendous opportunities to embrace greater flexibility, dynamic communication, and to reach a much wider audience.
Inter faith was always about changing the world and not about institutions or Government initiatives even though these have been helpful along the way. It is not about power and control but about building relationships of trust. All our structures and institutions that have grown up around this vision of a more religiously harmonious society, are there to help us who care deeply about this ideals, to move towards achieving them. The challenge for us all is how to carry forward the vision with conviction and integrity.
And so there are questions that we within CTBI wrestle with and I am sure they are your issues too:
These are difficult questions to tackle – they will be not be settled with ease or with speed but these challenges also have a tremendous energy and excitement to them."
Add a Comment