3 principles for establishing interfaith dialogue

*** A note from the editor: Arab Millennial is a secular website that encourages interfaith dialogue from, towards, and within Arab community groups. We have therefore edited Julian Bond’s post accordingly through mutual consent. Julian’s original post can be found at http://www.christianmuslimforum.org/index.php/news/327-christian-muslim-interaction ***

1. Openness

I begin this introduction to how Christians and Muslims relate to each other and the ‘project’ of Christian-Muslim relations by focusing on openness. For me, and for the work of my Christian Muslim Forum, everything begins with openness. The big challenge, if we want to encounter one-another, is to open ourselves, to share our vulnerabilities and to listen, without too much desire to speak. We should gain the trust of our dialogue partners, then we can open up the bigger questions. It requires maturity and a sense of our shared history together. This exploration, making ourselves vulnerable, can lead to challenging thoughts —  is God, the Spirit, moving in other religious traditions, creating spiritual ‘fruit’ in the lives of those who believe and think differently to us? Dogma may say ‘no’, but direct evidence, if we are open, may say ‘yes’. My own spiritual heritage can have a reputation for saying ‘no’ to this and other open-ended questions. But interfaith encounter and dialogue is about saying ‘yes’ to difference, uncertainty and challenge.

Without falling into syncretism, I have found the deep teachings and mystical aspects of both religions to have many similarities, the difference is in language and theological distinctives. I have observed Muslim friends and colleagues having the same experience. I was struck a couple of years ago by a Muslim friend, one of Julie Siddiqi’s colleagues, quoting ‘God is love’ in one of his articles. This famously Christian expression was also Islam for him, though the words themselves don’t appear in the Qur’an. Muslims and Arabs often quote the phrase ‘God moves in a mysterious way’, perhaps due to their attending Christian school or assembly in their resident locations, but that too proves the point. Our spiritualities and reflections on the Divine are related, not foreign.

Deeper connection can be the beginning of dialogue or it may be that dialogue reveals the spiritual heart —  our most meaningful meeting place. This is excellently expressed in Ray Gaston’s book A Heart Broken Open, which I strongly recommend and can only scratch the surface of in a brief talk. If our hearts are ‘broken open’, as they must be if we are to really dialogue with and encounter one-another, then we reach a place where we are able to recognise the grace of God and the workings of the Spirit. And we will see this in all who seek to serve God, and realise that God is not limited to one religious tradition, though dogma may argue differently. But dogma is often not designed for interreligious encounter (if it even knows about other religions), and when we meet each other we are not doing systematic theology but meeting God’s fellow creations.

The Christian Muslim Forum itself is committed to a structural agenda of openness and love. A theme on which Julie and I have shared a platform before, she even suggested that I should dress up like Tina Turner. Our aim is to encourage and celebrate Christian-Muslim relationships, and seize opportunities for being good role models. These are some of the commitments that we have made ourselves, jointly developed with some of those who have worked with us:

  • Gesture: We pledge, as members of both faiths, to live up to the best of our traditions by respecting, welcoming and being hospitable to our multiethnic neighbours of other faiths.
  • Testimony: We will speak generously of other faiths, scriptures and worshippers with our own congregations, while recognising that we have some critical theological differences.
  • Transparency: We will engage openly and honestly with each other about our own faith and scriptures… all issues of concern, including sensitive or painful issues.
  • Dialogue: We will make a point of developing and sustaining friendships with leaders and members of other faiths in our multiethnic and multifaith communities…

Developing the relationship of love is also preparatory for deeper dialogue. Some of the conversations that we have had within the Christian Muslim Forum we would not have been ready for in our early years. We had to get to know each other, build the relationships and then open up the conversation. Our difficulties and divisions can provide a bridge to engage with ‘the other’ as we embrace God’s acceptance of us, and therefore each other. When we talk of God’s acceptance of us and our openness to the other then we are back to love again and the personal – and deeply spiritual – aspect of inter faith dialogue. We can often be task- and project-focused, thinking of structures and statements, but let’s embrace the personal aspect which can often be left out. Christianity and Islam, Jesus Christ and the Prophet Muhammad, the Bible and the Qur’an, don’t want us to be impersonal because that drives extremism, taking us into places where we cannot dialogue with other community groups.


2. Relationships

Exploring openness and talking about love has led into thought about relationships. If we believe that God is active in the world, then we see God’s agency behind the world that we live in and the society that we share. The UK has changed from what was a Christian society to one which is multicultural, multiethnic and multi-religious. The presence of people of other faiths and ethnicities alongside us can be seen as an invitation from God to get to know our neighbour; it is very difficult to love your neighbour if you don’t know her, or him. I understand this to mean that God wants us to maintain good relationships with all our neighbours and embark on a quest together of creating a society where both the human and the divine are valued.

For some, the challenge of getting to know Muslim neighbours and welcoming an Arab and/or Muslim presence in British society seems to be too great. There may be a sense of threat and a perception that Muslims are taking over. This is exploited by far right organisations talking about preserving Britain’s or England’s Anglo-Saxon, Christian heritage. But we are this country’s Christian heritage and Christianity is shown through relationships. A faith which is centred on God’s relationship with – and love for – human beings calls us to love our neighbour.

In the Christian Muslim Forum, we have sought to create committed relationships as a foundation of our work —  no work without relationship. Our organisation partly arose out of committed relationships that existed before we were launched in 2006, and before the Archbishop’s Christian-Muslim Initiative in 2001. I still miss the presence of two dear Muslim colleagues who had a long history of interfaith engagement and shaped our work and our ethos, and of the original leader of our small pre-forum initiative, the late Bishop John Austin. The relationships that we develop create the trust that enables us to take some risks, to explore new areas  —  which may be difficult and sensitive  —  and to deliver ground-breaking initiatives.

For us, this has meant producing shared resources and statements on: the place of Christmas in contemporary society, ethical evangelism and daw’ahhalal meat and, most recently, on interfaith marriage. The last of these we thought would be more difficult than it was; our relationships with each other and ability to listen, even when our views were very challenging to each other, enabled us to identify areas that we could agree on and also enabled us to engage constructively with aspects where we disagreed.


3. Partnerships

The forum’s work has been one of partnership from the beginning. As the bulk of our organisation is made up of people who are serving in a voluntary capacity, we have a particular way of working. The forum itself can be seen as a coalition or a network, sustained by the relationships which make it up. This is reflected in our collaborative approach. Also, as a representative organisation, we aim to achieve buy-in and support from our sponsoring communities, thus the Archbishop of Canterbury is our Patron (at the suggestion of Muslim colleagues), and we seek Presidents  —  representative religious figures  —  via the Christian and Muslim traditions in England. This has meant developing relationships with Churches Together in England, the Church of England, the Catholic Church, and other denominations, as well as Muslim umbrella bodies such as the Muslim Council of Britain and the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board (MCB).

Our relationship with the MCB has been developing over the years and we have cooperated in various ways. Although we have some similarities as organisations, there are some significant differences between Christian and Muslim structural bodies – in both England and in Arab countries – which reflects the distinct contrast between organised Christianity and organised Islam.

As the Christian Muslim Forum is a bilateral organisation, you will usually see it represented by Christians and Muslims and our approach at events is to have paired Christian and Muslim speakers. So, as I spoke earlier, our very way of working is one of partnership. As Julie and I are sharing a platform, as we have done a few times in the last couple of years, except where organisers seemed not to be keen on having women speakers, I can highlight the partnership between our organisations. Structurally, the forum has more in common with the other organisations I mentioned. But in terms of our work, striving for change and seeking to make a positive impact, we have much in common and our outlook is quite similar. Archbishop Rowan referred to this as showing how people of faith are “normal”, rather than a bunch of eccentrics.

This partnership goes right to the heart of the raison d’être of both organisations, showing that it is okay to be Christians and Muslims working together, that it is okay to be Muslim and/or Arab in Britain, and taking others on a journey, God willing (إن شاء الله), to that realisation. The process often involves myth-busting: I certainly felt that when our two organisations formed a partnership to launch Islam Awareness Week last year on the theme of ‘Love’. Christians should, I believe, have no problem with supporting Islam Awareness, just as my colleague Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, our Co-Chair, has said publicly that he would like there to be more awareness of Christianity in our society.

The forum is involved in many other partnerships but I want to share, in this post, our partnership with Christian, Muslim and secular organisations in the London Peace Network. We are also planning continued initiatives for International Day of Peace (21 September). ‘Flights for Peace’ will involve diverse groups talking about peace as they use the Emirates Air Line (cable cars crossing the Thames in Docklands). Perhaps this is a parable —  a small group of Christians and Muslims suspended in the air, on a journey of faith, hope, peace and discovery. Julie and I hope that you will also be embarking on this journey of discovery, challenge, risk-taking, relationship-building and exploring how God wants us to love our neighbour in our pluralist society.

Julian Bond, Former Director, Christian Muslim Forum

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