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Ten objects are used in a dialogue

25 October 2013

by Rachel Boulding

marc gascoigne/lambeth palace

"Beyond a draughty church": Lady Warsi at Lambeth Palace

"Beyond a draughty church": Lady Warsi at Lambeth Palace

"WE ARE not a disappearing minority who are still fool enough to believe in God," the Archbishop of Canterbury told leaders from ten faiths at a gathering in Lambeth Palace on Thursday of last week.

He was addressing about 100 invited representatives from the main religious traditions in Britain - Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jain, Baha'i, Zoroastrianism, and Christian. The reception was the initiative of the Lambeth Palace interfaith office. It was one of the first engagements for the new Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis.

Archbishop Welby spoke of the way that "many people who think that, like the 13th strike of the clock, a person who believes in a spirituality of some kind consequently must be mad about everything else as well". But he also praised spiritual traditions' "deep commitment . . . to the common good".

Speaking of the challenges to faith in the modern world, he emphasised how "the common view is that religion leads to violence", and the way, in "the secular West, that we are encouraged to downplay any particularity in order to blend in". He contrasted this with "the fact that faith is specific, is distinct, is particular. That it catches us in a way, and catches us up in a powerful way, and leads us to things that we wouldn't do.

"If it wasn't for faith, I certainly wouldn't be standing here; I'd probably be a recently made redundant, middle-ranking oil executive, if I was lucky."

From this, he developed a point about interfaith dialogue: "Because of the particularity of our faith, it is when we are most true to our faith that we are best able to engage with others. When we're most passionately caught up in what matters to us, with a hospitable generosity, we are most able to engage with those around."

He ended by encouraging the various faith communities to commit themselves to "sharing the objects of our daily lives. . . May our lives show that, rather than faith being the problem, it does in fact put us in the best time and place for understanding, respect, and becoming the answer in a world that is wondering."

The Archbishop's address followed a brief welcome from the Minister for Faith and Communi-ties, Baroness Warsi. She spoke of the Government's wish to take interfaith work "beyond a cup of tea and a samosa in a draughty church", and highlighted the Near Neighbours Programme, which has "been able to use the network of the Church of England as a basis for reaching out and doing interfaith work together".

She said that "one of the things that's been most powerful, has been . . . when people of a different faith speak for a faith. . . When, I think, as a Muslim, I can speak out for Christians and Jewish [people] and other minorities around the world who sometimes don't have a voice."

The main presentation of the evening was given by the Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor. He sketched the history of tolerance and dialogue between faiths, using ten objects from the museum's collections.

These included a Sikh temple token from Amritsar, made in about 1898, which showed "Guru Nanakh, the first great teacher of the Sikh tradition; and on his left, the Muslim Mardana; and on his right, Bala the Hindu. It is a dialogue between three faith traditions," Mr MacGregor said.

He also recalled the foundation of the British Museum in 1753, when the chairman of the trustees was the Archbishop of Canterbury. In that same year, the Bishop of Durham, Bishop Trevor, led a campaign to pass the Jew Act, giving civil rights to a non-Christian body for the first time.

Mr MacGregor emphasised the way that the clergy of the Established Church fought "for the rights of another faith group" in 1753. There was, however, a public outcry, and some of the clergy who had supported the Act were stoned in public. Parliament repealed the Act in that same year.

Mr MacGregor concluded: "This fight for toleration of different religions in the same political space is something that every generation has to fight. . . The collection here of objects that belong to all of you are part of a great resource to enable everybody in this country to consider how their traditions fit into the bigger story."

An illustrated version of Neil MacGregor's address will be published in a forthcoming edition of the Church Times.

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