Monday, 26 August 2013

Acting and thinking in good faith

THE final conversation of Just Festival 2013 is looking at what it means to be inter-faith in the modern world, and particularly in Scotland at the moment. 

The speakers are Sister Isabel Smyth (Interfaith Scotland), Bashir Malik and Iain Stewart (Edinburgh Interfaith Association), and the chair will be the Rev Markus Dunzkofer (Church of St John the Evangelist).

"Dialogue is all about identity, who we are... our story," said Markus Dunzkofer, kicking off tonight's exchange.

Iain Stewart talked about his own engagement arising from his upbringing in Glasgow, as a Presbyterian aware of the conflict between people that used religion as one of its conduits.

Later, he ended up in ministry in the Church of Scotland, and then working for the Edinburgh Interfaith Assosication. "When you come to dialogue, you come as who you are... you don't leave that behind, you have to be true to who you are," he declared.

Some 1,300 racist incidents have been reported in Glasgow, and 1,240 in Edinburgh, in the past year. This indicates that "fear of the unknown" and of the other still exist. Perhaps in a more secular society there is less understanding of the beliefs of others.

Sister Isabel Smyth spoke of her experience of jobs and social opportunities being effectively closed to Catholics. "We felt not wanted... but the Catholic school system have us opportunities to become teachers, and so on."

On the other hand, the stereotypes of people of other backgrounds and faiths was very unhelpful, she said. "I hardly knew a Protestant, let alone others",  Isabel said to laughter. "It seemed that they never smiled and never took their religion that seriously" was the caricature that she inherited.

Becoming a nun in Blackburn, she ended up studying at Lancaster, examining world religions, meeting people of other faith, and living for the first time in a secular community. "It was rewarding and nourishing, but also quite closed," she said of her Catholic upbringing. "I had a strong Catholic identity, but it was a closed Catholic identity... Lancaster changed me," Isabel explained.

"I discovered a spiritual wealth that belonged to us no matter what religion we belonged to... even Protestantism!"

She continued: "Like Iain, I do not fear a secular society. I don't want to live in a religious dominated society."  However, she added, there is a difficulty that people of faith fear a certain kind of secularism, one that is closed or antagonistic.

"I went to a Catholic school, as well as an Islamic one," Bashir Malik explained. "I have been very blessed. My father was an army officer, and I lived most of my life in a large city... that eventually became part of Islamabad."

"But even the officers were not paid so much, and his saving were not enough to send me to college. But I learned Persian, Arabic and English at school... I used to go to factories and mills about 200 miles around Islamabad, and I was advised to do advanced knowledge in textiles. I did an apprenticeship in Yorkshire. It took me two years to get my passport."

Bashir found himself assisting interfaith understanding at the request of a doctor, and as part of his study in Britain, before returning to Pakistan. Then he returned and got a job at Lucas, experiencing segregation for the first time - but subsequently found himself accepted personally by a number of people. In 1974 he moved to Morningside in Edinburgh.

"When I was in Birmingham there was no mosque... when my father came, he was disappointed."  But the reality was that it took time for people to get the time and money together.

"When you listen to these stories, you realise that going back some time ago, what we are doing here is something we couldn't have done then."

For Sister Isabel, it became a matter of practical need to understand those she was talking about. "Now I see it as a justice issue," she said, part of the quest for a society where people of different beliefs and backgrounds learn to live together creatively.

For Iain Stewart, the important thing is what we can learn from one another, "for example, from Sikhs in regard to equality and hospitality."  He acknowledged that religion could be used for ill, but also believed it could be a real force for good.

"Community is one very important aspect of faith," Iain said, referring to the experiment in 'atheist church' in London, which has also featured as part of the Just Festival conversations this year.

What is the greatest joy of being inter-faith? "People", Sister Isabel replied without hesitation. The comment was echoed by the others. "Also, there is a strong sense of God at work in these different communities," added Iain.

The collapsing of boundaries, labels and prejudices is an important reward of seeking to build bridges between different belief communities.

"There is so much good that can come from it," Iain declared. "How can I say 'love your neighbour' on Sunday, and then walk past them," said one Christian of Muslim neighbours.

So what is the next step in the C21st?

Bashir spoke of introducing around 35 Christians and others to a mosque. People who had never been to such a building before, joining the breaking of the fast at Ramadan. Much of what needs to be done in breaking down barriers remains human and basic.

Cooperation between faith groups in the face of poverty and austerity, including food banks, is another vital way forward, said Iain. The threat of the EDL, SDL and BNP also needs to be faced together.

But Isabel warned that "interfaith is a minority sport... it needs to go beyond the enthusiasts." She cited Professor Hans Kung's reminder that "there will be no peace without peace between the religions. There will be no peace between the religions without dialogue between the religions."

However, there is another step: "There will be no dialogue between the religions without dialogue within the religions." The message needs to be developed within each belief community.

"What is happening here at St John's is miles away from what is happening in the national church... for good, I hope," one contributor from the floor said.

Iain Stewart agreed, but spoke of, for example, the positive interfaith training going on within the Church of Scotland among ministers. "This is quite life-changing for some... we need to share the experience."

There was a warning about 'tea and sympathy' inter-faith work. But Sister Isabel responded by pointing out that human contact was actually vital to building understanding. (In England, a mosque disarmed a group of EDL antagonists by making them tea!)

Interfaith Scotland is opening up secular space for conversation between people of faith and non-faith. Conversations about values and social justice offer some fertile territory. This is another dimension of the conversation in the C21st.

Discussions with Humanists and non-religious secularists are important. But so are spaces for discussion among the religions (plural).

Grassroots action is the key, the panel agreed. The failure of part of the ecumenical movement within western Christianity has been that it didn't permeate local parishes and communities enough. It became structurally independent. There are lessons for interfaith action now.

"Ministers feel pressure to run a 'successful church', to keep reorganising, to maintain 'market share'," said the Rev Dr Chris Wigglesworth from the floor. "But actually, because many people are not interested in what we are enthusiastic about, we need to get out into the wider world."

"Sometimes that pressure comes from the laity," responded Markus Dunzkofer. It isn't, he suggested, simply a kind of clericalism that produces ecclesiastical introversion.

"Before you take on things that are a bit difficult, you have to become friends," another audience member stressed.

As in other conversations on religion at Just Festival, the issue of gender and of space, recognition and dignity for women was raised.

"One religious community cannot tell another one how to treat women," Sister Isabel suggested. It was a question of setting and recognising good examples.  The work of Beyond the Veil was mentioned.

Iain Stewart said that this was a serious issue, and spoke of the 'Faith in Women' project, sharing culture and faith, but also working on empowerment and leadership in the community.

Markus Dunzkofer felt it was both possible and important to issue challenges about the place and role of women within the religions.

Interestingly, one woman said, women's involvement in interreligious dialogue was one way that they got recognised within their own communities, and in Scotland more widely.

The danger of Christians (or post-Christians) criticising others in an imperialistic way was noted. "You can only judge from within the terms of reference of that community," it was suggested. Female Genital Mutilation has been opposed most effectively from within religious communities, for example.

This is a developing live blog...

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