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Multifaith ministry has taught me about Jesus

by
13 June 2014

Religions working together can have greater impact, while strengthening their own traditions, says Lindsay Llewellyn-MacDuff

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 fuzzy.
 

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 is for.

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 grew.

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 together.

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 chaplain.

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