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Chaplains are ‘ill-prepared’ for multifaith spaces

11 April 2012

by Madleleine Davies

Multi-faith Spaces: Symptoms and agents of religious and social change, thought to be the first study of “intentionally created spaces, de­signed to house a variety of religious practices”, led by Dr Ralf Brand from the University of Manchester, estimates that there are more than 1500 MFS in the UK. Present in airports, universities, and hospitals, they are also increasingly common in businesses, football stadiums, shopping centres, and schools.

The researchers found that encounters between people of different faiths have to be “socially engineered”, and that the fostering of constructive dialogue is “an area where only the surface has been scratched”. There is no fully-formed “theology of MFS” to guide those responsible for them. This is a problem because, without “active interventions”, the space can become a single-faith space.

“Many chaplains are, through no fault of their own, often ill-prepared for the task of managing a multifaith space, as much on practical grounds as theological ones,” Dr Chris Hewson, a principal researcher, said. “Some chap­lains see it as a central plank of their min­istry, others as a necessary encumbrance. For the ‘consumer’, this leads to expectations in one setting that might not be met in another.”

Muslims, who are instructed to pray five time a day, are the main users of MFS. The re­searchers argue that the emergence of MFS is a symptom of post-9/11 thinking about the issue of ethnic and religious integration. MFS are also shaping the presence of faith in public spaces, however. The motivation is “largely economic”, as venues seek to accommodate the require­ments of customers.

Chaplains working in MFS spoke of finding fulfilment as multifaith co-ordinators. The full-time chaplain at Birmingham Airport, Major Bryan Snell, of the Salvation Army, said that the tasks of the multifaith team ranged from giving directions to helping people who are being moved to another country against their will. “We don’t ask what religion anyone is; that is the difference between Chris­tian chaplaincy and anybody else’s chaplaincy. . . Christianity has really invented chaplaincy in the way it has developed and is a support for everybody.”

Muslims who seek a place to pray use the space most, he says. “There are times when we are having a Christian service when Muslims are there also on the floor round about us, praying in the direction they want to pray. We do get asked for a separate area for men and women, but this is a multifaith area, and we have decided not to do that at present.”

Stephen Willey, who is employed by the Methodist Church as a district mission in the economy officer, is lead chaplain at the NEC Group in Birmingham. He believes that MFS are “an important first step for people into a world where faiths talk together. . . There is some reluctance from certain people to share the space, and I feel strongly that that’s where having oversight for a prayer-room is very, very important, because you can promote, to some extent, a tolerance in that kind of space.”

The prayer room at the NEC currently has a space for washing, and an area where shoes are removed. Screens can also be used if women wish to pray in an area separate from men, but an attempt from one Muslim man to put up a sign designating a prayer area for women was deemed inappropriate.

Such encounters have led to constructive and creative dialogue, Mr Willey said. A conver­sation in which a Jewish man explained to a Muslim that he only removed his shoes if he was in mourning led to “recognition dawning that this shared space can’t be defined by one particular faith”.

“To allow the room to grow organically gives it a history,” Mr Willey said. “All these inter­esting conversations with peoples of other faith have been very positive.” He believes that Christianity is important in how multifaith spaces are developing. “Without the Christians’ taking a lead, there probably would not be chaplaincy.”

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