What should ecumenical and interfaith dialogue actually be about?

I’ve taken, in the manner of Jeremy Corbyn, to asking for suggestions for things that I might write about on the blog. This article stems from a suggestion by Hugh Foy via twitter.

It seems to me that in Scotland, things are very different within the ecumenical movement to where we are thinking about interfaith. Indeed, I’d say that it is difficult to see much energy these days within the ecumenical world whereas, I think there’s still a lot of interest in things interfaith.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, ecumenical is to do with how churches within Christianity relate to one another and interfaith is to do with how churches relate to other believers and maybe atheists, secular humanists and other groups focused around non-belief too.

Ecumenical endeavour and interfaith work feel very different because I think that there has been a default position within the ecumenical movement to focus on that which unites churches and to ignore the things which divide the churches and also ignore the things which divide people in churches one from other. It is an understandable thing to do but it seems to have led us into a bit of a cul-de-sac. Action for Churches Together in Scotland, the main ecumenical organisation in Scotland is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary. I remember very well the hopes that surrounded its founding – particularly since it represented the first time that the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland had become a member of an ecumenical body. Unfortunately the arrival of the Roman Catholics led to the withdrawal of the Baptists. Even more unfortunately, when the Scottish Parliament came along, the Roman Catholic Church opted to set up its own parliamentary lobbying office in addition to the Scottish Churches Parliamentary Office.

I have never known the ecumenical movement to be at such a low ebb as it is at the moment. I say that whilst trying not to make value judgements about it. It just doesn’t seem to have much energy nor a huge amount of relevance to the life of the churches. This is partly because there have been competing visions of what ecumenism would lead to. The most passionate advocates of ecumenism hoped very greatly that there would be a move towards the organic unity of at least some of the denominations involved. The last great attempt was something called SCIFU which was an attempt to bring several of the churches into one new denomination that would have been distinguished by retaining all the buildings (“worship centres”) of the former churches and also importing every different flavour of church governance that was known to Christendom. It was a madcap scheme (and here I do start to make gentle value judgements) that deserved to fail because of its insanity. (And here I depart from being gentle and pretending to be objective). It would have left us drowning in governance structures and magnifying our problems with buildings forever more.

There have been some noble attempts to find something to build on from the ashes of the SCIFU experiment, not least the EMU efforts between the Episcopal, Methodist and United Reformed Churches. These are successful in that they would be entirely unknown by most of our church members but give those who like that sort of thing something to have a passion about. I’m convinced that here will be no further attempt at organic unity that affects my own church within my lifetime even if life on our own becomes terribly difficult. Better well hung than ill wed – as Kierkegaard’s rather vivid translation of Shakespeare would have it.

People are making their own ecumenism anyway. My own congregation is made up of people from all kinds of traditions very happily worshipping together. Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Methodists, Cradle Anglicans and Anglican Converts, Baptists, the odd atheist or agnostic and those on the run from the Brethren all happily receive communion together and sing God’s praises with laldy and I don’t think I ever hear any arguments or trouble about where we all come from – we just get on with it. The governance of St Mary’s falls within the Scottish Episcopal Church and my own sense of identity as an Episcopalian is something I care about hugely but I have to recognise that a lot of people are happy simply to receive their formation from one church and then live in an entirely different one, which may have quite distinct doctrines, without caring a bean about it nor even moving their membership formally from one to another. Others within the community do care and do need ceremonies and ways of marking their decision to pitch their tent under the Episcopalian umbrella, to mangle a metaphor into a rather glorious image of togetherness. I have to care both for people who do care about denominations and those who don’t.

There’s a big contrast when we start to deal with the interfaith movement. The best thing about the interfaith movement is that we are at the discovery level in most of our engagement at the moment. We are going through a period where we are literally getting to know one another and even better, there’s far less expectation than within the ecumenical movement that we all think the same things.

Within the ecumenical movement the basic presumption for many people is that we all agree and we discover when we get to know one another that we don’t. Within the interfaith movement the base principle is that we are different and don’t agree and then when we get to know one another we are often surprised by how much we recognise and how much we do actually agree on in the end. This actually makes interfaith work easier in some respects. There are fewer expectations and fewer ways in which you can fail.

Now, I think that ecumenism and the interfaith movement could benefit from talking about some hard topics.

A little while ago I was at a banquet that some Muslim folk had invited Christian leaders to in order to celebrate one of their festivals. I found myself sitting with a Sheikh and a Roman Catholic archbishop. All of a sudden in the middle of the dinner, things go interesting when the Sheikh leaned across and said to the Archbishop and me, “Tell me about how the Christians are dealing with homosexuality”.

All of a sudden, ecumenical and interfaith became completely entwined. It was a good setting for a conversation and I know that each of us learned something whilst eating our onion bhajis. It was a grace filled conversation because it took place over food in an atmosphere of friendship where no-one’s reputation was at stake. Was sodomy the same as homosexuality? Was homosexuality amongst women different to homosexuality amongst men? What was our attitude to changes in the law? How did different age groups within our communities deal with these questions differently? How had our communities been taken by surprise by changing social attitudes?

My hunch is that the interfaith movement may yet prove to be the salvation of the ecumenical movement. As Christianity encounters other faiths, its practitioners encounter one another. And I think that we’ll find that both informal conversations and formal ones need to go alongside one another. It could well be that we need more of the informal if we are going to deal with any of the real questions that matter to us. In such contexts we will may be able more easily to deal with the things that clearly matter to us all – poverty, LGBT issues, ways in which women and men relate to each other, God and society, safety on the streets, immigration, globalisation and so on. One thing is clear to me and that is that if ecumenism is only about ecumenism and interfaith dialogue is simply about interfaith dialogue then each has failed utterly.

Throwing a banquet or two for our interfaith friends may well the best way for Christians to get on. Is not extravagant hospitality not one of the hallmarks of what it means to be an authentic faith community in the first place?

Anyone want to establish the Banqueting Committee of ACTS?

If so, I’m in.

Called or Collared

A new and interesting development locally is a monthly inter-faith coffee morning. A few of us from different faith traditions go and have coffee together in a local cafe. No agenda. Very relaxed. It is a meeting which includes RC, Presbyterian and Episcopal Christians, the local Immam and someone from a Tibetan Buddhist centre. We are in touch with someone from the local synagogue too, but so far I’ve not met him.

This week was a particularly good meeting. Someone had invited two liaison officers from the local police force – two individuals who work on diversity issues including race, gender, religion etc. One of the most interesting things to come out of the conversation on Tuesday was that of five of us sitting around a table, three of us had had trouble in the streets which had to do with wearing particular clothing associated with religion. In my case, the number of times I’ve had aggressive comments about my collar has meant that I now remove it before walking home.

It does not feel comfortable to have to modify one’s dress in the street in order to avoid trouble, and the police were very keen to point out to all of us that hassling someone because of the way they are dressed is a crime and should be reported every time. It was the fact that this is something that we had in common across faith boundaries which struck me most.

I’m aware of some people who think that the right thing to do is to carry on wearing clerical dress proudly at all times and to take one’s place in the streetscape. In theory I agree with this. In practise, I slip off my collar before I get past one of the local pubs, where there have been drinkers out on the street late at night since the smoking ban came in.

What would you do and what would you have a priest do?