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An object lesson in faithful conversation

by
20 December 2013

In October, the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, brought a collection of objects to show a gathering of faith leaders at Lambeth Palace. The collection revealed a history of dialogue and respect between the world's main faiths. This is a summary of his remarks on the occasion

THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM

1. Gold medallion with the adoration of the Magi, early Byzantine, c.600

1. Gold medallion with the adoration of the Magi, early Byzantine, c.600

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 faith.

 

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 prophet.

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 faiths.

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 evening.

CLICK THROUGH SLIDESHOW ABOVE TO SEE IMAGES 

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 East.

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.

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 obstacles.

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 art.

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.

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 country.

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 traditions.

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 manifestation.

 

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 alive.

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 was lively.

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 God."

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 evening.

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.

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