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

The World Congress of Faiths
Collaboration House, 77-79 Charlotte Street, London, W1T 4PW UK.
Charity  No. 244096

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