Something strange happened today. I went to a meeting. Okay, that's not particularly strange at all, since my life seems to be made up completely of meetings and making the most of the time in between. What was strange, however, was that I went to the meeting as a brand new member, having never met the majority of the people involved, and left as the chair of the group.
I'm somewhat unsure how it happened. I was asked last week by a fellow minister if I'd like to come along to meeting of the interfaith partnership in Rossendale (RFP). I was encouraged to hear that such a thing existed, and so jumped at the chance to meet some of the members of the large Muslim community here.
So off I went this evening, expecting... well, I don't know what I was expecting really. Whatever my expectations were, I found myself surprised when I arrived. It was a small room, but then as there were only 6 of us, it didn't matter a whole lot. There was 1 member of the local Muslim community present, the chair(a Methodist), the vice-chair (an Anglican), an Anglican minister, a member of the local community partnership trust who was there for support, and myself. The meeting began by the chairwoman announcing her resignation. The meeting had an air of tiredness, which was freely admitted by the members. In the busy lives of those in church leadership, they explained, interfaith work very often falls to the bottom of the list of priorities, and when it is done, it is done with the last modicum of energy that they can muster.
We moved on to discuss the annual interfaith walk, an event where each year between 50-100 people come together in dialogue, walk around the valley and end with a celebration of food and fun. As we discussed this, the group started talking about other events that had gone on in the past, the tireless micro-level relationships that had been nurtured, visits to one another's places of worship, meals together, conversations, youth work, and so much more. During that discussion there were real glimpses of glory, moments when I could see all its potential and all of the hard work that had gone into it.
So when the chairwoman explained that she was resigning due to her lack of energy, and that she felt the group needed an injection of enthusiasm that it wasn't likely to get, and that we would probably have to come to terms with this being the end for the partnership, I wasn't quite able to let it go.
So here I am. Fresh blood? Perhaps. New energy? I hope so. I'm not sure if I'm up to the task, I'm not sure that I have all the right ideas, I'm not sure that I know what I'm talking about at all, but I know that I am dedicated to inter faith dialogue, and I'm dedicated to seeing the interfaith partnership in Rossendale fulfil it's potential. Because it is an imperative part of our life of faith.
Dialogue provides access to windows of understanding of how others define themselves and challenges us to grow in our own faith through the experience of the other. It necessitates a shift in paradigm, asking us to embrace those we have previously excluded or demonized. There are many different ways in which we exclude or marginalize others in different ways, ranging from assimilation, abandonment, indifference, and domination of the other. And our exclusion is also conjoined with the distortion of rather than simply ignorance of the other. As Miroslav Volf states, "it is a willful misconstruction, not mere failure of knowledge."
Exclusion often entails cutting the bonds of humanity that connect us as moral human beings and can generate a wide range of emotional responses, from hatred to indifference, and even the cursing of or killing of the other. The other emerges as an inferior being that either must be assimilated by being made like the self or subjugated to the self.
Dialogue is the first step toward accommodating or making space within oneself for the other. The challenge for both Muslims and Christians when they converse is to seek opportunities for interpretations that can make a community see the enemy in a new way. It is essential that we move away from defining ourselves over and above an enemy "other". This seems to me to be the only way of establishing authentic, peaceful relationships. In this sense, I believe we need to go beyond tolerating or understanding the other. More than ever, there is a need to embrace the other. This suggests a different function of dialogue, one that can bring the hearts, rather than just the minds, of people together. For us at the RFP, that means more than 6 of us sitting around a table and talking. It means moving out of our comfort zones and attempting to make room in ourselves for the other. This is a difficult journey for us to go on. Good foundations have been laid, but now we have to build on these foundations in order to demonstrate to our communities that dialogue between religions is a positive thing; it does not only entail relating the intensity or depth of our own faith but also witnessing and growing in it while understanding and respecting the faith of the other.
Standby. I expect there will be much more on Interfaith dialogue to come...