WHEN the British Museum was created in 1753, the chairman of the
trustees was the Archbishop of Canterbury. The purpose of the
British Museum was to provide a place in London - the biggest city
in Europe without a university, since Oxford and Cambridge would
allow no competition - where the public could come, free of charge,
to think about the world.
One of the things the public wanted to think about, of course,
was religion. From the beginning, part of the purpose of the
British Museum was to make available to all people evidence of
different ways of thinking about God. And presiding over this
permanent interfaith exhibition was the Primate of All England.
In British interfaith history, 1753 was a very important year,
because, for the first time, Parliament tried to give civil rights
to a non-Christian body, by the passing of the Jew Act. One of the
leaders of the campaign to bring in the Act was another prominent
Anglican cleric, the Bishop of Durham, Richard Trevor. He was so
committed to a deeper understanding of Judaism that he bought, for
his palace in Bishop Auckland, the great series by Zurbarán of
full-length figures representing the 12 tribes of Israel. They
still hang there today.
This statutory defence of the dignity of other faiths was a
remarkable moment in the religious life of our country: a leader of
the Established Church's championing the rights of another faith
group, in the face of great public hostility.
This is, I believe, one of the noblest traditions of the Church
of England: it is a continuing strand today, and it shapes one of
our greatest churches. In St Paul's Cathedral, we have what is
undoubtedly the best-known Protestant image - one might almost say
Protestant icon: the third version of Holman Hunt's The Light
of the World.
It was the first picture to travel round the world, sent round
the Empire after the Boer War as a gesture of contrition and
reconciliation. It was shown in South Africa, Australia, New
Zealand, and Canada, and was seen by millions of people as an
emblem of Christian faith; but it shows a very remarkable kind of
HUNT, having spent a long time in the Holy Land, became
increasingly convinced that he wanted his The Light of the
World to speak not only to Christians. So, the lantern held by
Christ in the The Light of the World in St Paul's is
different from his earlier versions of the picture. Hunt added the
star, a reference to the Jewish tradition, and the crescent, a
reference to the Islamic. In this painting, the artist suggests
that Jesus is seen by Hebrews as a teacher, and by Muslims as a
But in St Paul's Cathedral there are also, remarkably, prominent
references to the Hindu tradition. At the crossing stands the
monument to the great administrator and scholar Sir William Jones,
a judge in Bengal in the 1780s, who established the underlying
unity of the languages of India and Europe. It was he who
established that Sanskrit was connected to Greek and Latin, and
demonstrated the continuity of an Indo-European tradition. As a
judge, administering both Muslim and Hindu law, he became
fascinated by the Hindu religion.
He wrote his own hymn to the goddess Durga, and he published
extensively on Hinduism. And on his monument, under the dome of St
Paul's - at the very heart of what you might imagine as
conventional Anglicanism - is a representation of parts of the
Hindu pantheon, including one of the avatars of Vishnu as a
tortoise. St Paul's is indeed a house of prayer for many
Jones's monument in St Paul's demonstrates a key aspect of faith
dialogue in this country: it was the experience of Empire that
forced the British establishment, and the public at large, to
consider religion's proper place in society. Empire showed the need
to understand other faith structures, and to document their
practices. And, unsurprisingly, there are many objects in the
British Museum that illustrate this attempt to explore other views
of the divine. I have brought nine of them to Lambeth this
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LET'S start with the beginnings of Christianity: the birth of
Christ. We are immediately confronted with the reality of
interfaith dialogue, with the story of the three Wise Men from the
1 At the British Museum is this gold
medal from Constantinople of about AD 600, showing the
wise men as Zoroastrians, wearing Persian costume, coming to make
their gifts to the newborn child. They come as representatives of
their own faith, Zoroastrianism, to honour with gifts, to look at,
and to dialogue with, another faith. Then they go home. There is no
hint of conversion, simply respectful acknowledgement.
It is a foundation story for Christians. But I would like to
argue that the three Wise Men bring not only the three gifts that
we know - gold, frankincense, and myrrh - they bring a fourth gift,
the great Persian tradition of dialogues between faiths and
tolerance of many faiths.
They bring, in fact, the tradition of King Cyrus, the great King
of Persia, who, when he conquered Babylon in 539 BC, decreed that
he would allow the conquered peoples to go home; to take their
temple goods with them, and to worship their own gods in their own
faith in their own language.
This is what allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem, and
rebuild the Temple.
2 And this small clay
cylinder, now in the British Museum, is the decree itself.
It is the first record we have of a state trying to accommodate
different religions, acknowledging them all, and enabling them to
live peacefully together.
The Persian Empire ran from China to the Balkans. Jesus was born
in what had been, for many centuries, Persian territory - born in
lands familiar with this tradition of free dialogue and respect for
all faiths. The British Empire was ultimately to follow the Persian
example, and the British Museum was part of an 18th-century attempt
to build that sort of tolerance - to find a way of allowing a
state, which has one established faith, to acknowledge, and
accommodate other faiths within it.
3 THE oldest object I have brought from
the British Museum, is a Roman feasting spoon from
East Anglia. When the Roman Empire in Britain collapsed, it
happened so fast that the rich in East Anglia buried their silver,
and ran away, hoping to come back. Many of them never did.
This spoon was used by an English family somewhere before AD
410. They marked their silver with Alpha and Omega, and the chi-rho
of Christ; so every time they ate, they affirmed their faith. It is
part of the earliest evidence for Christianity in Britain.
From the late 13th century, after the expulsion of the Jews,
England was a one-religion state. It was only under Cromwell that
Jews were able to return: at first, mostly from the Netherlands,
then from the rest of Europe.
4 A later document of this remarkable return is
this yad, a pointer for reading the Torah, from
the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in the English-speaking world, in
Plymouth. On the handle are the names of the people who createdthe
synagogue; the yad datesto 1762, shortly after Bishop Trevor's Bill
to give Jews civil rights, and the synagogue in Plymouth was an
important step in the establishment of Judaism outside London.
Among the first attempts to present the teachings and ethics of
Hinduism to a British, Christian, public was Edward Moor's The
Hindu Pantheon, published in 1810. Moor also collected small
statues of the Indian gods, a collection he left ultimately to the
British Museum, hoping that they would help the visitor to engage
with the Hindu faith.
5 Among them was this small statue of
Ganesha, the patron deity of new beginnings, the lifter of
This kind of didactic collecting is characteristic of this early
imperial moment. Around 1810, during the Napoleonic Wars, Sir
Stamford Raffles, who was later to found Singapore, was Governor of
Java. He became convinced that Javan civilisation was the equal of
Greece and Rome. To demonstrate this, he, like Moor, published a
book and collected sculpture to illustrate in England something of
the teachings of the Buddha, and the achievements of Buddhist
THESE are not just beautiful objects: they are also evidence of
an attempt to understand different ways of believing; part of an
endeavour to create a state, and an empire, which could accommodate
them all in peace.
6 In the same way the beautiful, small
Jain statue of Suparshva, the seventh of the 24 great
teachers, probably made around 1540, demonstrated to the people of
the UK the Jain tradition.
The Islamic population in India, and elsewhere in the Empire,
was enormous, and Islam was, from the beginning, part of the
British Museum's collection.
7 This qibla - a compass that
enables you to pray in the direction of Mecca - was made
in Iran in the early 18th century. It was one of the key exhibits
in the British Museum's 2012 exhibition on the Hajj, the latest
stage in the Museum's attempts over 250 years to present to the
public in London the different beliefs of the people of the world -
in this case, of those who were once subjects of the Empire, and
who are now fellow citizens, an integral part of our city and our
8 The same is true of this beautiful
Baha'i calligraphy, made in the 1890s by Muhammad
'Ali, somewhere in what is now the area of Israel/Palestine/Syria.
The Arabic inscription reads: "O glory to the most glorious."
9 The final object I have chosen is the
Sikh temple token from the Golden Temple of
Amritsar. This is a small medallion (to be worn around the neck),
made in about 1898. Seated in the middle, on one side of the
medallion, is Guru Nanak, the first great teacher of the Sikh
tradition. On his left is the Muslim Mardana, and on his right,
Bala the Hindu. It is a dialogue between three faith
Such a dialogue is, of course, in the continuing tradition of
Cyrus. It is a pattern of tolerant rule taken up in India by
Ashoka, the Buddhist who none the less supported all faiths, and by
Akbar, the Muslim ruler who did the same. It is a tradition that
surprised and impressed the British when they later encountered it.
And the Cyrus declaration is, of course, its earliest known
THIS object, known as the Cyrus Cylinder, provides physical
evidence in support of the texts in the Hebrew Bible about the
return of the Jewish people from Babylon. It is a key document in
the history of Israel and Iran. At the moment, the Cylinderis
touring the world. Wherever it goes, it provokes a discussion about
the proper relationship between state and faith; and, above all,
aboutthe role of several religions in one society.
Two years ago, the Cylinder went to Tehran. There it was seen by
nearly one million people, and provoked a profound debate about the
enduring significance in modern Iran of this pre-Islamic ideal of
tolerance. President Ahmadinejad argued persuasively that the
tradition of Cyrus informs the Islamic Republic's constitution,
which reserves seats in its parliament for a Jewish, a Zoroastrian,
and a Christian member. The tradition of Cyrus is still very much
In spring 2013, the Cylinder went to Washington, where it had a
particular resonance. Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers
of the American Constitution, greatly admired Cyrus, whom he knew
from the Bible, and from Greek literature. The idea that the state
should permit and defend all religions was central to 18th-century
American political thought. Was an Iranian vision of religious
tolerance a shaping force behind the US Constitution? The debate
The Cylinder is currently in Mumbai, where the World Zoroastrian
Congress is being held. The Parsees of Mumbai - for whom Cyrus, as
a great Zoroastrian, has a special part to play - will again find
in this object something different and significant.
The Jew Act of 1753, which heralded a new, multi-faith legal
order for Britain, was in force for only a few months. Later that
year, public opposition forced its repeal. And scurrilous cartoons
mocked the Bishop of Durham, shown wearing his mitre, and with a
speech bubble saying: "Thou mitred fool! Thou hast forgot thy
The clergy who had campaigned for the rights of the Jews were
vilified. Parliament caved in. Jewish rights were revoked. The need
for inter-faith dialogue remained - as it still does this
It is what Parliament intended when it created the British
Museum. The collection, which belongs to all of us, is part of a
great resource to enable everybody in this country to consider how
their traditions fit into the bigger story.