We’ve just got back from the first of this years series of Lent Lectures at St James, a talk on inter-faith dialogue from Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford. It was quite an occasion in the life of the church, as thanks to the size of the diocese of Oxford, most of the times we see a bishop in Finchampstead, it is the Bishop of Reading.
The subject of his talk came from his long standing interests in communication between Christians and other faiths, including being the Chairman of the Council of Christians and Jews from 1992 – 2001, and as a founder member of the Abrahamic Group in Oxford which brings together Jews, Muslims and Christians for serious theological dialogue. He started by looking at some of the reasons why maintaining a good inter-faith dialogue is important, for example highlighting the part Churches played following the riots in Bradford. He also strongly made the point that we should not shape our opinions of other faiths through stereotypes or caricatures. For example whilst extreme Islam is what makes the headlines, equally there are many many normal Muslims who don’t hold such beliefs, and object in much the same way that many Christians object to groups like Christian Voice claiming to speak for all Christians.
He then moved on to some of the thinking that needs to go on behind the dialogue, particularly looking at, and debunking the four major ways in which people deal with different religions as being valid methods:
- The fundamentalist view, that all other religions are evil and the work of the devil.
- ‘All religions say the same thing’
- ‘There is no truth in any religion’
- There are elements of truth in all religions but Christianity (in our case) is the only one which has it all correct.
His core message was that theologically you have to go in to any discussion being open, and certainly not looking on it as an opportunity to convert someone to Christianity. The essential theme was one of respect, that those people you are speaking with hold beliefs that differ from your own just as deeply as you hold your beliefs. This did produce a bit of polite Finchampstead disagreement from some in the audience, who from the phrasing of their questions took more of a literal interpretation of ‘preaching the Gospel’. The Bishop countered that the sort of direct, street corner preaching, or blatantly manipulating a discussion towards religion rarely works as a tool for gaining converst, and if anything has the opposite effect, annoying most people. As an example, he cited a visit to Leeds, where the driver of the taxi that collected him preached at him the whole time, and even handed him leaflets on Islam with his change when he paid the fare. Like most people in that situation he couldn’t wait to escape. He instead said that Christians should be preaching through multiple mediums – through words if appropriate, but as much through lives, and through behaviour and attitudes. As he pointed out, the message of words is lost if people can see that our actions do not match with those words.
The questions following the talk covered a diverse selection of topics, including highlighting the problem of the media, with which he agreed with the questioner that the media makes matters worse precisely by highlighting the extreme Muslim clerics, and groups like Christian Voice. This was then followed up by a comment from someone sat a couple of rows in front of us who demonstrated exactly what had been said about stereotyping, and how the media focuses on extreme groups, by asking whether current problems were caused by the fact that all followers of Islam were taught to hate non-Muslims, citing the example of the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie. The Bishop countered by pointing out that senior Muslim clerics in Britain had opposed the fatwa at the time. He also highlighted that more recently, although the press primarily concentrated on the high profile Muslim protests, the protests were not representative of all Muslims.
The discussion then moved on to a question over whether if the Church of England were ever disestablished, with greater attendance at mosques than Churches, Britain would cease to be a Christian country. As would be expected, he disagreed with the proposition that disestablishing the church would result in people suddenly not regarding themselves as Christian, certainly a recent survey found that most Britons regard themselves as Christian despite not attending Church. We then went down a route that has come up quite often at Church meetings before, with several people putting forward the opinion that the country is being flooded with Muslim immigrants, which tends to annoy me as it isn’t backed by the figures which show that of the top five largest groups only one is from a Muslim country. Again I see it as an example of peoples fears being whipped up by the press. In response to this the Bishop then said that he believed that disestablishment could result in a resurgence of Christianity, almost as a wake up call. I think the big point to make here is that rather than bemoaning the rise of Islam we should be looking at how to bring people into Churches, for example if the Church could bring even a quarter of the 67% of people in the BBC survey who said they were Christian, then would there even be a problem. Indeed other statistics in the same survey seem to imply that Muslims are more likely to go to a mosque, with 38% of Muslims going weekly compared to only 17% of Christians. Rather than endlessly discussing what can be done about ‘the rise of Islam’, Churches really need to be focusing on why they are putting off the vast majority of people in this country who regard themselves as Christian. The Bishop finished this bit of discussion with an interesting comment, that the biggest proponents of keeping the Church of England as an established Churches were a senior Islamic cleric, and the UK’s Chief Rabbi, both of whom regarded the presence of an established church as acting almost as a steadying, tolerant force that protected minority religions such as theirs. Indeed he made the point that liberal Christians, Muslims and Jews were probably a lot more comfortable with each other, than with the more fundamentalist wings of their own religions!
As you will probably be aware, the Bishop retires at the beginning of June, with his last service at Oxford at Easter, so we were given the opportunity to buy a book of reflections on the Bishop, ‘Public Life and the Place of the Church: Reflections to Honour the Bishop of Oxford’ being sold to raise money for his outreach fund.
As my pretty epic posting probably shows, this was a pretty thought provoking way to kick off the lent series. The relatively big name speaker, reflected in a pretty high attendance, with at least a third of the ninety or so people who came along being from other Churches. Julie Kentish-Barnes, Beth’s landlady when she first arrived in the UK had even come up from her new place down near Odiham, which allowed us to catch up with her news, and to arrange to go down to see her when Beth’s parents visit in the summer. It certainly will be interesting to see whether this is repeated with next weeks lecture, both in terms of the discussion it provokes, and the attendance.