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Dance together to build community

01 November 2013

Different faiths need to form relationships for the Common good, says Paul Vallely

A FRIEND had a party the other day to mark her 50th birthday, and invited people from every decade of her life. She found a great way of bringing together guests from across the years who did not know one another. She hired a ceilidh band and a barn-dance caller, who swept us all into several of those traditional country dances where you constantly have to change partners.

It was a reminder of something lost. Dancing has long been a two-person activity, and indeed, many grumble, has even become a solipsistic solo self-indulgence in recent times. But a dance in which everyone changed partners with one another, from small children to stooping granddads, was an extraordinarily effective way of building a sense of community. We get to know one another best by doing things together.

As we danced, I thought back to a dinner to which I had been invited by the Lord Mayor of London a few days before. It was a grand and glittering occasion in the Mansion House, with some 200 guests from all the main world religions, sponsored by the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Inner Temple, the Coexist Foundation, and the City of London Corporation.

As globalisation outpaces mutual understanding, there is a crisis of misinformation and prejudice around the world, often with dangerous consequences, the guests were told by David Ford, Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. At the heart of the problem is religious illiteracy. The way to rectify this is to bring religions together to "do new good things that serve the flourishing of our world".

The secret, he said, is to have a definite place, a fine landmark London building in which there are things that are attractive to people. He suggested exhibitions of fascinating, meaning-laden objects around which there is "reverential space". A Coexist House - "part exhibition centre, media hub, sacred space, museum, place for meeting, and, above all, learning" - would be somewhere where visitors of all faiths and none might leave "challenged, changed, and inspired".

The crucial question, however, is what would get people to enter in the first place. Because my wife is a Methodist, I worship regularly in a church that is not of my inherited denomination. Because I have friends who are Jewish, I go to synagogues for bat and bar mitzvahs. Because I have worked with Muslims, I have been to prayers in a mosque. Relationships, it seems to me, come before buildings.

The key factor at the Corrymeela Community in County Antrim, which I visited several times at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, was not the innovative design of the buildings, but the fact that they were used to bring together people with common experiences from divided communities: battered wives from either side of the divide, or Catholic and Protestant children who had had a parent murdered, or exhausted paramilitaries from both sides.

People doing things together is the software without which the hardware of a building is secondary. The Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking before the dinner, quoted a verse from Proverbs about "iron sharpening iron". The image, he said, speaks of people and communities whose strong commitment to their beliefs sharpens up, in a good way, those of people of other faiths. Reaching out to each other in dialogue and witness, Archbishop Welby said, will increase the willingness of all sides to work "not just for their own narrow interests, but together for the common good of their neighbourhoods". Perhaps we all need to dance together, too.


Paul Vallely is a policy and communications consultant on religion, ethics, and international development (paulvallely.com).

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