WHEN I was a country priest, the sound of a gathering multifaith
meeting was guaranteed to lead to an attempt to duck or declare
myself otherwise engaged for the foreseeable future.
I could (just about) see the importance of spending time being
polite to our (almost exclusively urban) ecumenical brothers and
sisters - gospel imperative and all that - but multifaith work,
especially in a rural environment, which had few examples of
anything so exotic, seemed a monumental waste of time.
That was then. Now, I work in a multifaith chaplaincy in a
prison. I eat, breathe, and sleep the gentle negotiations that need
to take place when you are trying to fit Muslim Jum'ah prayers and
Good Friday into the same chapel (aka multifaith room).
I have staggered across the prison with armfuls of prayer mats
to take to the laundry. I have watched the Muslims decant without a
murmur to the gym, when Eid fell on a Sunday. I have locked horns
with the pagans over whether they ought to gather in the chapel at
all; and the Hindu chaplain and I have argued cyclical, versus
linear, definitions of the universe.
I have sat in a chaplains' conference surrounded by
representatives of almost every religion I could name, knowing that
we were all there to do the same thing, and felt all warm and
THERE are obvious examples of the practical advantages of
multifaith work: it is a simple method of getting more hands to the
pump. There is much that is done by the chaplaincy that depends not
so much on the specific demands of any religion, but on the drive
to serve that comes out of most of the world religions.
Visiting the sick, the bereaved, and the isolated are consistent
commands, and, between us, we can visit more people, while leaving
all of us more time to attend to our particular flocks.
Together, too, we are more convincing. Again and again, I have
seen both prisoners and staff convinced on points of principle by
the agreement of chaplains across the faith spectrum. When we walk
through the prison together, are seen working together, and eating
together, it sets us apart, and says something about what religion
More than this, however, I found to my surprise that multifaith
cooperation - and dialogue - is not only pragmatic in a diverse
world: it is invigorating and good fun. It is enriching.
MY FIRST educational lesson was that there is a great deal of
wisdom and good practice in other religions which is eminently
stealable. The discipline of the other Abrahamic faiths, the
"earthed" nature of much of the pagan spectrum, and the enormous
perspective of the Hindu religion all stand as examples that we can
learn from as Christians.
For example, I confess that Lenten fasting acquires a whole new
perspective when you are next to a man who, when he fasts, stoutly
refuses to let anything pass his lips during daylight hours (and,
note, Ramadan is falling during the summer at the moment). I have
had to look more deeply at what fasting is for, what I am trying to
achieve, and how my spiritual disciplines match my physical ones.
Simply giving up chocolate does not cut it.
The Hindu perception that we are all lights in a chain, lit by
the One Light, illuminated (if you'll forgive the pun) my
understanding of the body of Christ. I was able to feed into it
Christ's command not to hide our light under a bushel: the ancient
nature of the Hindu faith somehow gave me a new vision of human
spiritual endeavour over the millennia.
We, the body of Christ, now hold that light - for me - most
clearly. Passing the light of Christ on from one generation to the
next, we have a responsibility to keep it alight.
AS OUR multifaith chaplaincy team has grown in confidence and
familiarity, the lunch-time conversations that began: "How do you .
. ." or "What do you teach about . . ." have become more common. We
have all looked over the fence and discovered that the grass on the
other side was, well, grass: recognisably the same stuff as we
Not only have I found my faith broadened by multifaith
encounters, and by the new things that I have "stolen", it has also
been deepened, as I have reflected on why I believe this, and not
that. The differences become fertile ground for reflecting on, and
rejoicing in, the particularities of Christianity, the things
distinct to us. This, as we say, is the faith of the Church.
Listening to the practical and detailed account of the
Apocalypse, for example, recounted to me by the imam, gave me a
whole new perspective on the Revelation of St John. Suddenly, the
obscure incomprehensibility of his description of the End somehow
became more, well, plausible.
The Sikh insistence that there could be no worship without
table-fellowship made me think long and hard about the meaning of
fasting, and about non-eucharistic liturgy. When the pagan chaplain
describes prayer as a spell, I am startled into reflecting on the
importance of prayer as relationship.
We are different, and our difference is never glossed over. Our
team does not pray together. We are none of us comfortable with the
idea that, if only you look hard enough, there is some sort of
Platonic "god-ideal" that lies behind our different understandings
of the divine. We know our gods do not match up, but we do not
mind, and, on one level, it does not matter. We are people of faith
We are united by our desire to know the truth, and by our belief
in our accountability. The business of the care of souls is one
that we share, a little uncomfortably at times, a little
competitively sometimes, but willingly, because, together, we can
get a hell of a lot more done.
The Revd Lindsay Llewellyn-MacDuff is a prison