Students, Astronauts and Interfaith Work

Marcus Braybrooke recently attended a first student interfaith gathering at Manchester Universities’ Chaplaincy Centre. It  was well attended and enthusiastic. He was one of the speakers and emphasised that the starting point should our oneness not our differences. This inspires us to work together for a better world. A young leader from the Three Faiths Forum and a local rabbi also spoke.

Here is a summary of what he said

One of my secret ambitions when I was younger was to be an astronaut. I suppose by the time you are my age, Richard Branson’s successors will be offering holidays at Costa Lunar. I was particularly interested this morning that there was an interview with Helen Sharman, who was the first Briton in space. One of best things, she said, was the view. Everyone who has been in space speaks of the beauty and fragility of our planet. The ill-fated Columbia space-craft had an interfaith crew – a Hindu, Christians of various denominations a Unitarian and a Jew who brought with him a Torah scroll that had been used at a Bar Mitzvah ceremony in a concentration camp. Kalpana Chawla, a Hindu, said, "The first view of the Earth is magical. In such a small planet, with such a small ribbon of life, so much goes on. It is as if the whole place is sacred. You get the feeling that I need to work extraordinarily hard along with other human beings to respect that." The picture of Planet Earth from space has been called a symbol for our age. It shows the beauty and fragility of Earth, but it does not show the differences of nationality, colour, gender or race.

The mystics who have explored inner space say the same. They affirm the Oneness of all life. Teilhard de Chardin, a Paleontologist and a priest said "Personal Love and Cosmic power are present in every part of the universe." From this perspective not only should humanity not be divided, history also should not be compartmentalised – we are inheritors of all that has gone before – from the most primitive amoeba. In the same way we are heirs of the riches of all religions. I picture the spiritual history of humankind as a great river, with various springs, sources, and tributaries – sometimes dividing, maybe with backwaters, but enriching the present with what is carried forward from the past and opening up new vistas for the future.

Religions are pathways leading us to the Divine. I myself am a follower of Jesus and it is good to have a path to follow but the nearer we come to the Holy One, the less our differences matter. "The religion of love is the message of all religions" said the mystic Rumi and in the vision of the holy city at the end of the Bible, we are told there is no temple and presumably no gurdwara, or synagogue or church, because the Lord God Almighty is the temple. When you arrive you don’t need a map or a satnav. So much interfaith work today starts from the other end; not from our oneness but – from our all too obvious differences – and is intended to create social cohesion. This, of course, is important. But the pioneers of the interfaith movement, who have inspired me, started from a vision of oneness, which includes the oneness of all people and the sacredness of all life. And that of course impels us to seek fullness of life for them all. Seventeen years before Thomas Merton - a popular guru of the seventies and campaigner against the Vietnam war, - who became a monk, was shopping in the centre of Louisville. "I was," he said, "suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people: that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers... There is no way of telling people that they are walking around shining like the sun...'i Thomas Merton, went on, "There are no strangers... If only we could see each other (as we really are) all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed." I read this when I was on the underground and I have to say I saw the other passengers in a new light.

But if you have experienced that love even in a small measure, you heart goes out in compassion. After university, I studied in India for a year. Some of the students helped at a Leprosy clinic, but I think we were more helped by the courage of those who had the illness and the joyfulness of the children. On one occasion, I went there with a Roman Catholic student from Stri Lanka and a Muslim from near Hyderabad. The doctor was a Hindu, wearing a traditional dhoti. It was for me a model of how people of faith and good will should work together for a better world.

That has been the motivation for my interfaith work: but it is not easy.

First it is urgent to challenge the ignorance, prejudice and hatred that has and sometime still does exist between rival believers. One example is how the centuries of anti-Jewish teaching has contributed to the sufferings of the Jews and contributed to the horrors of the Holocaust. There is the same danger now of Islamaphobia – but one thinks too of how slow churches were to oppose slavery or to campaign for women’s rights and gender equality. There is a continuing need to encourage people to have a better understanding of their own and each other’s faith.

But this is not just a theological task. Faith is closely related identity – what you should wear or what you should eat – and people tend to be suspicious of difference. So one of the best ways of overcoming such hostility, is encouraging people of different traditions to meet each other.

Beyond this, there has been the continuing hope that people of faith would work together for a better world. There are a whole range of interfaith initiatives – for example a recently formed interfaith alliance to combat slavery and sex-trafficking in the modern world. Another Wash is a joint effort to provide clean water and sanitation to some of the millions of people who do not have it.

Helen Sharman said that as a child she would never have dreamed that anyone would reach the moon. We may doubt that a new world order is possible but I share the confidence of the environmentalist Jane Goodall has said, ‘We are moving toward the ultimate destiny of our species – a state of compassion and love.’ Nobel Prize Winner, Mairead Maguire, has said, ‘Dream the impossible, then so live that the dream comes true.’ – but perhaps an Indian school boy put it even better, ‘Dream and sweat.’ That’s what the interfaith movement is about high hopes and hard work.

i Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pp.140-42

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Jenny Kartupleis writes:

For whom the bell tolls

This is a short version of a presentation given by Jenny Kartupelis on 2 February at St Edmundsbury Cathedral, organised by Suffolk Inter Faith Resource.

John Donne wrote in his the Meditation number 17 of 1624:
‘No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.’

Yet in his divine sonnets we also find the despair of a soul feeling itself alone, and Donne captures in his body of work some of the most vexed questions of the human condition: to what extent are we essentially alone and to what extent are we all interconnected in our hopes and suffering?

What binds us and what separates us? Religion comes in for a bad press in this respect, accused of making people more likely to turn inwards, and supposedly responsible for parallel lives that never intersect, but occasionally come into conflict. This, in fact, was the main conclusion of The Cantle Report, published in 2001 after the riots in northern English cities.

Since that time, religion has been in the dock more often than ever, the criminal in respect of hatred, war and terrorism. This is a largely unjust accusation that takes little account of issues such as culture, territorialism, conflicted resources and uncontrolled egomaniacs, all of which generate the conditions for violence.

The secular and public policy reaction to the perceived threats and benefits of religion and faith has been variable, shifting between fear and calls for restraint on the one hand, or praise and overblown expectations on the other.

Much of the current debate is couched in terms of ‘values’: British values, faith values, common values, human values. Yet the more one attempts to define what these values actually are, the more elusive they appear.

Take the example of British values, which since 2013 schools have had a statutory duty to teach. In the handbook of teaching standards they are defined as: ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect, and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’.

Many other countries would claim these as their values. Are they important to us because they are unique, or because they should be universal?

What does ‘tolerance of different faiths’ mean? Does tolerance happen in a country that is basically Christian? Or in a multi faith society? Or in a secular state? Secularity need not equate to a decline in religious practice, it may be about the dissociation of religion and public institutions, or it can be taken to mean a variety of worldviews and beliefs existing together where religion is just one option.
Some value systems appear to be created as narratives that give meaning to our common shared life, or draw on mythical pasts. These pasts are often invoked, but not so often rigorously examined for authenticity, and may sometimes be the constructs of authors who in fact were using them to draw contrasts with the brutal realities of their own era.

Values cannot be imposed, they have to be generated from within a group, internalised and normalised. AsTariq Modood has argued, we need to strike a balance between telling a national story, and being involved in writing and re-writing that story, because it is always evolving.

This observation also emerged from the Commission on Religion and Belief report of 2015, ‘Living with Difference’, which called for a ‘national conversation’ including faith leaders to ‘create a shared understanding of the fundamental values underlying public life.’

Values are, therefore, a difficult subject. Invoking them is easy, defining them is hard, yet no-one wants to live in a value-less society. There are so many people searching for ‘something’, described by 59% in terms of something spiritual, to give meaning to life.

Faith values in the context of diversity raise further problems. Reduction to the most basic tenets such as the Golden Rule of treating others as you wish to be treated means acknowledging that these tenets are also espoused by many people who have no faith.

Even if there are basic faith values, seeking to define them runs a risk, that it inadvertently suggests that faiths are ‘all the same really’ and are just a lifestyle choice. This is a convenient construct of secular society, simplifying faith and making it less challenging. We have to be careful not to buy into this secular construct, because coming together with a common voice on particular issues does not mean agreeing that we are ‘all the same’.

Which raises two of the most important questions - how can faiths connect together while recognising their differences? And why should they?
Taking the second question first, that of ‘why?’ Human nature, as Donne observed, pulls us in two directions. On the one hand towards people with whom we share a group identity and commonality, and on the other hand towards making connections with the stranger in whom we see our own humanity, needs and hopes reflected.

Of course groups of commonality can be very positive and nurturing: the family, the place of worship, the school. But group membership can have a darker side, a ‘them and us’ mentality that leads to building walls. Society creates many types of belonging, some where people are held together by internal bonds of love, some with chains of fear.

Tugging us in the other direction is our innate recognition of humanity in others, the recognition of your spirit by my spirit, which is what the greeting ‘Namaste’ means. Following our instincts for empathy and curiosity leads to interfaith dialogue.

The tension created between the conflicting human instincts to turn inwards and to look outwards is writ large in the response to the current refugee crisis. We observe the ebb and flow of opposing feelings, depending on the dominant narrative of the day. One moment this narrative focuses on millions of anonymous people at our borders, creating generalised fear; the next moment a photo of a small dead child on a beach, who could be our own son or grandson, evokes unbearable sorrow and sympathy.

This spiritual pull towards others is the motivation that enables bridging between internally bonded groups, and answers the ‘why’ of interfaith.

What about the ‘how’ of interfaith? How can this innate empathy be harnessed to promote connectedness between religions and beliefs?

The relationships formed in ‘real life’ are not generally ones of conscious pastoral care, of one person giving and another receiving, but of day-to-day, two way interactions that happen naturally in families and other small communities. Interfaith understanding needs to learn from this, and go beyond reciprocity, religious literacy or the Golden Rule if it is to be effective in enhancing individual lives and improving society. It needs to be based on personal relationships of trust and listening that provide the links and incentives to bring together different faith communities and places of worship.

The need for religious literacy is often taken to mean, a requirement to teach what I would call the ‘mechanics’: the dates and practices of festivals, artefacts, famous names and incidents. Such teaching may include an encounter with a person of the faith being studied, but this can be fleeting – an hour or two.

The real need is not just to be informed, it is to relate to the lived experience of different faiths, and this can only happen through individual relationships that are created over time in our neighbourhoods, schools, community centres and places of work. Everyday places, rather than constructed environments, where relationships can evolve and trust can be established, such that the ‘other’ remains different but no longer separate or threatening. These individual encounters create bonds, which the people concerned can then build into bridges between their parallel communities.

The individual benefits of encounter are learning and friendship, the social benefits are a foundation of understanding that prevents or mitigates conflict and promotes working together to tackle community problems.

The full extract from the meditation by Donne reads:
‘No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were. As well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind, And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.’

Jill Segger writes about recognising our humanity in the suffering of others

It is when we are brought face to face with suffering that we most recognise our oneness. In that instinctive response, we are gifted with the truthful moment. And because humankind cannot bear very much reality, the acquired protections may quickly kick in. Most of these begin with 'but...' as we erect our defences of conditionality, of confirmation bias, of prejudice and exclusivity.

If one image above all others brought the terrible reality of the refugee crisis into our comfort zones, it was the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, face down in the sea on a Turkish beach. Of course, the normal adult response to the death of a defenceless child is one of horror and pain. But there was something else operating here. In his red shirt and blue shorts, Aylan was the toddler next door, dressed from the Boden catalogue. The protection of 'otherness' had been stripped away: we were enabled to acknowledge that this was Everychild and that his death had most horribly diminished us all.

How are we to use these openings which are given us when we encounter vulnerability – our own or that of others? It is not easy. The tendency to partisanship runs deep and we are perhaps more
ready to be disturbed or made timid by difference than we are to recognise the essence.

I am a Quaker. So, as most of us will, I turn to the experiences of my own tradition when reaching for understanding. Here are some words from the Epistle of the recent Friends World Committee for Consultation during which Friends from many different countries and strands of Quakerism came together in Peru: “Through listening deeply and tenderly to each other and to God, we reached a place where we can hear and sense where the words come from even when we may not understand the tongue they are spoken in.”

I feel therefore led to try harder to adopt and take for my guide the meaning of Namaste: 'my spirit recognises your spirit.' It is in this radical acknowledgement and in the practice of attention and humility which it surely mandates, that I believe we may learn to look beyond the outward forms which divide us and deep into the true commons of our species. That commonality is the Divine spark which war, selfishness, the machinations of politicians and the lure of short-term gratification can never quite extinguish.

Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he told us that the pure in spirit will see God.

Jill Segger

What do we mean by Interfaith?

Rev Dr Marcus Braybrooke, Joint President of the World Congress of Faiths
What do we mean by interfaith? We cannot even agree how to spell it – as one word, two words or, the Anglican compromise, with a hyphen? The word has only recently got into dictionaries. More importantly, what do we mean by interfaith work today?
Even the word ‘faith’ is ambiguous. Over the years ‘faith’ has changed its meaning. When Sir Francis Younghusband founded the World Congress of Faiths in 1936 he meant by faith an individual’s guiding conviction or belief. This is why WCF has continued to be based on individual membership.
Today in Britain ‘faith’ is often seen as a badge of identity. Your faith community tells you what you should wear, what you should not eat, whom you should not marry – even if you do not practise your religion.
As I said in my last blog, there is so much that religions need to do, and can do in a suffering world that we are drawn to working together. But at the same time we need to face the challenge of genuine difference while questioning traditional teaching that claims uniqueness and denigrates other religions. Unless we do go deeper, our relationships will remain superficial and fragile.
First we need to reduce ignorance about each other’s beliefs and practices. For example, many Christians now recognise that castigating Hinduism as polytheistic and idolatrous fails to acknowledge the Hindu sense of the Divine Spirit pervading all life. Even now people still do not know that God and Allah are different names for the Holy One, even though as long ago as 1076 Pope Gregory VII wrote to the Muslim Prince al-Nasir, ‘There is a respect which we owe to each other … because we recognise one sole God, although in different ways.’
But more difficult than ignorance is prejudice – for example anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia. Still, fifty years on from Nostra Aetate, many people still do not know that Churches now make clear that Jesus was a faithful Jew and was put to death by the Roman authorities. People are still surprised when they are told that the Qur’an speaks of Jesus (Isa) as a messenger of God.
I know my own faith has been widened and deepened by sharing my beliefs and learning from others. Going on pilgrimage with Sikh friends to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, where they bowed down in front of the Guru Granth Sahib, taught me a new respect for the Bible.
It is sometimes said that those who study comparative religion end up ‘comparatively religious.’ But, in fact, learning about what others believe has not, in my experience, diluted my faith in Jesus; but has deepened it.
When I first went to India, I remember being told that the exterior dialogue should be accompanied by an inner dialogue, in which you reflect on what you have heard or read in the presence of the Lord.
There are different defining insights and emphases in each faith rather in the way that when a mother dies, the children recall their memories. She was special to each of them but in different ways.
Each religion has a message for us all. The Qur’an itself says it is a ‘mercy for the world’ not just for Muslims and the angels good tidings when Jesus was born was ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all people.’
The interfaith discovery is that we can be loyal to our group but see other groups as enriching our faith rather than threatening it. The Native American leader Black Elk said that in a vision he saw ‘the hoop of my people and it was holy’. ‘Then’, he added, ‘I saw the hoop of many religions and I saw that they were holy too.’
The interfaith movement is a constant challenge to all parochialism and undue preoccupation with dogmas and ritual.
Revd Dr Marcus Braybrooke

Larry Culliford writes following our Spirituality Conference

ALL WE NEED IS LOVE!

THE WORLD CONGRESS OF FAITHS AND SARUM COLLEGE
PROMOTING SPIRITUAL LIFE: an interfaith perspective

4 February 2016

FEEDBACK
Larry Culliford

The day felt something like déjà vu or time travel. The issues raised and discussed at the symposium were similar to those confronting the executive committee of the ‘Spirituality and Psychiatry’ special interest group of the Royal College of Psychiatrists after its inception in the late 1990’s, beginning with the question, ‘What is spirituality?’ In circumstances where colleagues, patients and their families came from many different world religions and none, we sought to develop a language of spirituality acceptable to all. Rather than worry about Humpty Dumpty’s highly egocentric perspective, the idea of poet Aline Kilmer (quoted in ‘The Week’ on 6th Feb) seems more useful: “Many excellent words are ruined by too definite knowledge of their meaning”.

The SIG Committee’s response led to the publication in 2002 of the original RCP leaflet ‘Spirituality and Mental Health’ – with sections on ‘What is spirituality?, ‘How is spirituality different from religion?’, ‘What is spiritual health care?’, ‘What difference can spirituality make?’, ‘Religious/spiritual assessment’, ‘Spiritual practices’, ‘Spiritual values and skills’, ‘The place of chaplaincy/pastoral care’, ‘Education and research’, ‘About the special interest group’, ’How to start…?’, Further reading, websites and references. (The latest version of the leaflet can be obtained free from the College and is available to download at: www.rcpsych.ac.uk/healthadvice/treatmentswellbeing/spirituality.aspx)

James Woodward, in his opening address, referred to spirituality as ‘an unreliable concept’, to which I respond immediately that it may be better thought of as an aspect of experience (right brain), rather than the product of cognitive function (left brain). This gives rise to ineffability, a problem of description – the right brain not being directly connected to the speech and language centre, which resides in the left brain. However, spiritual experience, far from unreliable, affords trustworthy guidance and is often transformative. A useful phrase to mark this kind of spiritual effect on a person is simply, ‘Something happens’.

Whenever ‘something happens’ in this way, the deeply personal aspect of the individual is communicating (however briefly or imperfectly) with a universal realm or reality, improving awareness of a seamless and sacred connection to the divine, to nature, and to everyone else, to the entirety of humanity – living, deceased or to come.

There are two sets of ideas which I have developed to assist my own clarity of thinking around the topic of spirituality. The first concerns five seamlessly inter-linked dimensions of human experience: physical (matter and energy), biological (life), psychological (thought, emotions, sensations, impulses to speech and action), social (interpersonal relations, group dynamics) and spiritual (an originating principle, creating, linking, shaping the other four – the miracles of existence, life, consciousness and love). All are important. However, religions, for example, have important social as well as spiritual aspects, while personal spirituality is more concerned with the psychological dimension.

The second big set of ideas involves seeing ‘life as a journey, where good and bad experiences can help you to learn, develop and mature’ (quoting from the RCP leaflet). In my books and the free access paper, ‘The Meaning of Life Diagram’, in the Journal for the Study of Spirituality (See: www.maneyonline.com/doi/pdfplus/10.1179/2044024314Z.00000000019) I have comprehensively developed James Fowler’s 1981 ‘Six Stages of Faith’ renaming them Egocentric, Conditioning, Conformist, Individual, Integration and Universal. There are different attitudes and priorities at each stage, which explains more about why disagreements arise (both between and within different faith groups) than do theological or cultural distinctions.

A preoccupation with consensus and uniformity, for example, derives from dualist stage three conformist, ‘Either/Or’, ‘Right/Wrong’, ‘Us/Them’ type thinking. Preference for a more personal level of involvement is consistent with the stage four individual approach, requiring people to take responsibility, thinking and acting for themselves. This is a prerequisite for further spiritual development towards the quieter, homecoming waters of integration stage five and universal stage six wherein kinship with others is no longer a decision but more in the nature of an inner imperative based upon a recognizably shared reality, demanding expression of an innate disposition for compassion. This is where holistic or unitary, inclusive, ‘Both/And’ thinking and experience hold sway, the basis of true wisdom: thought, word and action (also, of course, silence and inaction) for the benefit of all, without discrimination.

People do not like to be thought of as immature, naturally; but the idea does speak of human potential for growth and ripening under fruitful conditions. The most fruitful conditions for spiritual development involve feeling secure, worthy and, especially, loved. There are many pathways to maturity, some enshrined in religious practice, others less well defined. The Royal College leaflet suggests that, ‘a three-part daily routine can be helpful: i) a regular quiet time (for prayer, reflection or meditation); ii) study of religious and/or spiritual material; iii) making supportive friendships with others with similar spiritual and/or religious aims and aspirations’. Seeking out a sympathetic and mature guide, guru or mentor may also be helpful (but caution: Beware of false prophets, spiritual materialism, etc.).

This is where inter-faith dialogue, communication and fraternization can also be of such remarkable benefit. Take, for example, the meetings over three days in 1968 of the Cistercian monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama of Tibet. Merton later wrote, “I felt we had become very good friends… There is a real spiritual bond between us”. His Holiness reciprocated, speaking later of the “profound spirituality and love” in Merton’s eyes.

Love is a key concept in spirituality, breaking down barriers, building bridges of faith, understanding and acceptance. As I see it, spirituality knows no boundaries. Whereas terms like ‘Christian spirituality’, ‘Muslim spirituality’, even ‘Humanist spirituality’, do have meaning, they hark back to stage three, conformist (left brain) thinking, very helpful, but only as a platform for integration into something greater, something universal, something recognizable through intuition, even if beyond the reach of mere words.

This is where – individually and collectively – humanity is headed, according to De Chardin, through personal and social evolution towards the Omega Point. The World Congress of Faiths and Sarum College are undoubtedly playing their part. Faith, hope, patience and perseverance are required; and the continued promotion of spiritual over material values in all corners of society. Words, shared discussion and dialogue, can be important, but so too are silence, stillness, contemplation and prayer. Being and doing; Mary and Martha: both are of value. Clock time (chronos) is less significant in the search for wisdom than God’s time (kairos). As the Book of Proverbs has it: “Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight” (Ch 9: v 6). Alternatively, as the Beatles once advised: “All we need is love”.

Larry Culliford is a retired psychiatrist and author of ‘Love, Healing & Happiness’ (O Books, 2007), ‘The Psychology of Spirituality: an introduction’ (JKP 2011) and ‘Much Ado about Something: a vision of Christian maturity’ (SPCK, 2015). See: www.LDC52.co.uk. Email: larry@LDC52.co.uk.

Living With Difference

Living with Difference, Rabbi Norman Solomon
The population of Great Britain has increased in half a century from 45 million to almost 65 million and its religious make-up has changed dramatically. 50 years ago 95% of UK citizens would have described themselves as Christians of some sort; in the 2011 census only 59% in England and Wales identified themselves as Christian, while 25% said they had no religion; of those who claimed a religious affiliation Muslims were the largest group, followed by Hindus, Sikhs, Jews and others. However you look at it, this is a large number of people to fit on a small group of islands, with plenty of opportunity for majorities to oppress minorities or for minorities to annoy one another or for individuals to be lost or squeezed out. How do you get all of them, whether they like it or not, to live happily together as one great society working from the common benefit?
That is the problem addressed by the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, set up by the Woolf Institute, Cambridge, under the chairmanship of Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss. The 18 Commissioners, of whom I was one, included experts in law, theology and education and were drawn from across the religious and humanist spectrum of the UK; the results of two year’s work, including consultations with groups and individuals throughout the UK, were published in December 2015 in a Report under the title “Living with difference : community, diversity and the common good” (www.woolf.cam.ac.uk/news/detail.asp?ItemID=1004 ).
We addressed both the national problem and the needs of minorities and came up with a number of recommendations, several of them aiming to promote mutual understanding and acceptance. One of the most sensible and practical calls was for teaching, in faith schools as well as others, about the variety of religions to be met with in our society – training of suitable teachers is vital. This is complemented with measures to encourage the acceptance of a minimum of pupils of other cultures or religions in faith schools, to ensure that the young actually confront and learn to accept difference.
The Commission rightly drew attention to the risk that faith schools can be socially divisive and lead to greater tension - witness the consequences of segregated education in Northern Ireland. However, we stopped short of calling for the abolition of faith schools, preferring to recognize the benefits of the current system while calling for modifications to bring it in line with current social realities. How well are we preparing our children for the realities of the society in which they must find their place when they leave school? They should of course be taught about cultures and religions other than their own, but it is perhaps more important that they should actually meet with others on a regular basis, in the classroom and on sports field, learning to accept difference as a normal component of society.
Can the law help us to live with our differences? The law, the Report reminds us, “cannot change people’s hearts and minds. It can, however, restrain the heartless and can encourage the mindless to have due regard for matters they might otherwise neglect”. The Human Rights Act 1998 introduces a positive right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion or belief equally with discrimination on grounds of age, disability, gender, race and sexual orientation.
Should the law go still further and insist on compliance with human rights legislation by religious courts, including Batei Din (rabbinic courts) as well as Muslim Sharia courts and others? The London Bet Din already acts within the framework of law as a Court of Arbitration in civil disputes; on the other hand, it could not, as a rabbinic court, agree to end gender discrimination in such matters as divorce law, to the extent to which it can operate in that sphere. It is not easy to determine the circumstances in which the practice and teaching of religion should be treated as exceptional under human rights legislation; clearly it would improper to invoke equality law to insist, for instance, on the right of women or of homosexuals to be appointed as rabbis or imams.
Issues of Church and State were discussed, noting that the Church of England is no longer the dominant force it was when the present constitution came into being; Prince Charles, as we know, has expressed a wish to be ‘defender of faiths’ rather than ‘defender of the faith’. Is it still appropriate for the second chamber to consist of Lords Spiritual, drawn from the CofE, together with Lords Temporal? The Report recommends that representatives of religions other than the Church of England be appointed to the House of Lords, as indeed were the previous two Chief Rabbis. I was not happy with this, partly because I can see no way of deciding who should represent each community or even what communities should be represented, but principally because I take the view that if there is to be a second chamber – a question not within our remit – its members should be appointed or elected ad personam, not on the basis of ecclesiastical or other office.
I was occasionally bemused to hear fellow-Commissioners bewail the “religious illiteracy” of the media, in the professions generally and in government; how many times have I heard in gatherings that journalists (the favourite target) are “scientifically illiterate,” or “artistically illiterate,” or “economically illiterate,” or lacking in understanding of whatever it is the group specializes in! There are many calls in the Report for better religious education of journalists, teachers and administrators; this is certainly desirable, but I do not know how it is to be accomplished.
Publication of the Report in December attracted a lot of media attention, much of it welcoming, some of it predictably off target – we were accused, for instance, of calling for the abolition of Christian teaching in schools, when what we actually recommended was the dropping of the statutory requirement stemming from the 1944 Act that the school day should start with a compulsory act of Christian worship – a provision already largely ignored in practice. The real test will be how much of our recommendations find their way into legislation and common practice. People of all religions and none stand to benefit from the acceptance of difference, and from the outlawing of discrimination. At the same time we are all challenged. We expect others to be more understanding and accepting of us; are we – in the different religious communities - ready to take on board, especially in our school system, the measures that would lead our children to understanding and acceptance of others, and to a sense of identity with British society as a whole?

Rabbi Dr. Norman Solomon, Oxford.
January 2016

Religions for Peace, not hate

Alan Race reports on his attendance at one of the world’s greatest interfaith gatherings.

A common assumption among ordinary people and the media is that religions are a source of hate and conflict in the world. The exact opposite point of view was celebrated at a recent gathering of people from different religions, which I attended in October earlier this year. The so-called Parliament of the World’s Religions, the fifth since 1993, was held at Salt Lake City in Utah State, USA, and marked another milestone in the growing movement for interfaith co-operation around the world.

The event was not so much a Parliament in the usual sense, as a huge coming together of nearly 10,000 people, dedicated to learning about one another and promoting the virtues of peaceful co-existence and shared values. Of the participants, women and young people under 30 made up more than 65% of the total numbers.

At the Parliament there is something for everyone, including music, dance, worship, seminars, lectures, art and different foods. You could learn about Christians working for justice and peace, or about Hindu meditation and yoga, or about native American ties with the natural world, or even about Mormon feminism. Everywhere the emphasis was on what faiths can give to one another and to the world.

Some of the most moving moments came when we heard first-hand from young adults of how they had witnessed the killing of family members through hate crime and then went on to dedicate themselves to work for better understanding between cultures and faiths and promote the value of diversity. These were impressive people who give hope to the world by refusing to return hate for hate. Sikhs, Muslims, Christians and Jews were united in their determination to present the true worth of compassion, trust and service.

It was thrilling to hear Jane Goodall, well-known for her work among chimpanzees, speaking about threats to the environment either through human intervention or through human preparations for nuclear war. Nuclear weapons were now thousands of times more powerful than the first bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. This goes well beyond anything deterrence theory ever envisaged. So who among the nations will be bold enough to confront such madness?

The Dalai Lama was prevented from attending through illness. But he sent a message, saying that our problems are of our own making and that “we must take responsibility for our actions.” No-one was going to disagree with this call from one of the world’s most respected religious leaders.

With an American friend and colleague, Jim Kenney, I joined in leading a workshop on the themes of cultural evolution and interfaith dialogue. We presented our thoughts on how values are evolving towards a better fit with what we know about the world through experience and analysis – for example, that violence is actually decreasing in the world or that the argument for equality between genders has been won, often in spite of what looks to be the case, and that the future of religious awareness lies in dialogue between traditions. Looking at how these themes might play out in different parts of the world rescues us all from our limited knowledge and narrow-mindedness.

On the Sunday morning there was an interfaith devotional time, organised by our President Marcus Braybrooke, when we used prayers and sayings from different traditions to help lift the heart. The theme here was ‘Peace in our hearts, Peace in our world’. Christians, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists joined harmoniously before the mystery of existence and the mystery of the sacred.

The Parliament of Religions is held in a different part of the world every four years. There was talk over coffee breaks about the possibility of coming to London. I tried to encourage the rumour as best I could!

Alan Race
December 2015

Fo Guang Temple Meeting

Tea ceremony and interfaith debate in Inter Faith Week 2015

The Fo Guang Shan Temple is in the heart of London’s West End, but one would never guess at its bustling environment once inside, and enjoying the peace of its meditation and meeting spaces. The Humanistic Buddhist Temple was the setting for one of the first events in Inter Faith Week 2015, when jointly with the World Congress of Faiths it hosted a tea ceremony and a debate on 15 November.

Attended by more than 30 people, the tea ceremony offered an insight into the calm and contemplation associated with small but significant acts, such as sharing and appreciating refreshment. After the ceremony, guests were given a new publication of daily reflections, ‘365 days for Travellers’.

They then moved to the Library, where Inter Faith Network UK Director Dr Harriet Crabtree welcomed the first day of Inter Faith Week, a tradition that was moving from strength to strength with more events and support every year.

The debate was chaired by Dr Alan Race, Chair of WCF, and the four speakers were introduced by Jon Dal Din of Westminster Interfaith. They were: Venerable Hui Sheng , of the Fo Guang Shan Temple in Paris; Roman Catholic Archbishop Kevin McDonald of England & Wales; Rabbi Helen Freeman of West London Synagogue; and Jayde Russell of the London Central Mosque and Islamic Cultural Centre. Each spoke on the theme of ‘Vision and hopes for the future: What can faiths achieve together in the coming year?’ and delegates then discussed some of the issues and questions arising.

Younghusband Lecture 2015

Faithful sharing and giving
The recent Parliament of World Religions was a chance to celebrate the global growth of the interfaith movement, but in our dark and dangerous world one cannot help questioning what has been achieved. Many of the same issues were discussed when Sir Francis Younghusband founded the World Congress of Faiths in 1936 – also a time when the clouds of war and hate were growing darker.
Councils of Faiths do a lot to encourage members of different communities to meet, thereby promoting social cohesion. The members of such Councils are usually there to represent and speak for their faith community.
But talk is not enough – increasingly as people of faith get to know each other, they want to work together for the good of their community, and perhaps also for wider goods such as human right or the environment. This is also happening at an international level, for example, The Global Freedom Network is an interfaith movement to combat contemporary slavery.
All such work is vital, but the question that has to be asked is ‘Does religion add anything specifically to such work or is the real basis our common humanity? Is there anything unique about faiths working together?’
I would argue that working together does help to reduce ignorance and prejudice, as it creates spaces and opportunities not only to understand better each other’s beliefs and practices, but also to see the lived faith of the other person expressed through compassion and everyday practice. As we get to know each other better, we realise that we all have the same questions about why there is suffering or what happens when we die.
Fellowship with other people of faith, which WCF offers, widens our sympathy and, despite the daily evidence of holy hatred and human indifference and cruelty, gives us the hope and the energy to go on labouring for a better world.
Moreover and more important, the more people of faith and good will who speak out, the louder the voice and the more people who act, the quicker change will come - as we are seeing, to give just two examples of so many, in the interfaith campaign to bring clean water to all people, or in the struggle to end all forms of slavery.

Seeking the Sacred

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WCF held a joint conference in July 2015 with Modern Church at High Leigh, Hoddesdon on Seeking the Sacred.

Listen to the event Chair, Canon Dr. Alan Race, speaking to conference here...

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You can see a brief event report and details of workshop discussions on our Report Archive page here.