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Beyond politeness between religions

18 December 2015

Faith groups need to relate with generosity and honesty, argues Richard Atkinson

THE Vicar of Luton was knocked off his bike last year, and was trapped under the car that had run into him. Two passers-by, one a professional boxer and the other a taxi-driver, rushed over and lifted the vehicle off him.

The two good Samaritans were Zulfiqar Afsar and the boxer Manny Muhammad. Mr Afsar said afterwards: “As a Muslim, it’s something I would do, regardless of faith. Our core teachings are for Muslims to help anybody and everybody.” The local Islamic radio station, in describing the rescue, reportedly headlined it: “Praise be to Allah for saving the Christian vicar!”

“Living well together” — embracing that compassion and concern for our fellow human beings that bridges difference — is something we know when we see it; despite the impression often given, it happens more frequently than is given credit for.


IT IS not the same as living comfortably together. Pleasantries and superficial generalisations are not the stuff of living well together. Talk of peace and harmony are worthless if the reality of Iraq and Syria, Israel and Palestine, caste and conversion, the persecution and deaths of Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, and others, and much else is not addressed.

I was a member of the Bishop of Leicester’s Faith Leaders’ Forum for many years. Of all the many meetings, the one I remember most was the evening we sat down to talk openly about conversion — when at last we were able to discuss one of the tougher questions with sensitivity.

The essential characteristics of living well together are about learning to live with difference in a manner that values the other person, builds bridges to the other, makes relationships with the other, is enriched by the other, and is open to the challenge from the other.

I suggest there are three essential characteristics that are at the core of living well together. First, the capacity to disagree well. At a mosque, I responded to an invitation to talk to the children about my Christian faith, and then the questions began. A girl aged six or seven asked me: “When are you going to become a Muslim?” The children listened patiently as I spoke further about my faith, and why, despite my regard for Muslims, I didn’t see it happening — at least in the foreseeable future.

Second, the courage to be self-critical. As a Christian, it is all too easy to call on others to get their house in order, and be blind to those who exercise violence in the name of Christ. Christians in parts of our world believe that people who are gay should be punished or killed; it is a Christian narrative that cloaks the violence of the Lord’s Resistance Army or haunted the massacre of Muslims at Srebrenica. It will not do to say that they are merely political events — or not true representations of the Christian faith.

The courage to be self-critical is the courage to recognise in ourselves and our faith all that has the potential to deny the humanity and value of our brother and sister.

Third, living well together is the readiness to receive from the other, because the well-being of the other person is critical to my flourishing. It is rooted in the essential belief that “I am because you are,” and I need to be in relationship with you, and receive from you.

Living well together can be a critical contribution from schools and colleges, especially at this time of genuine concern about the building of common values, and the desire for “British values”.

Even when taught well — and there is evidence that they can be — British values go only so far in building our common life. They are not the rich relationship of which I have been speaking.

Living well together is, at the very least, a complementary strand that must not be ignored. Until we genuinely learn to love our neighbours in a generous way, we will never really understand together what a British identity might look like that is inclusive of all.


The Rt Revd Richard Atkinson is the Bishop of Bedford.

This is an edited extract from a speech given at a Living Well Together conference, organised by the C of E Education Office, last week. The full text is at: www.stalbans.anglican.org/wp-content/uploads/LIVING-WELL-TOGETHER-8.12.15.pdf 

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