THE General Synod on Saturday debated the work and future vision of the Church of England’s Presence and Engagement programme (with people of other faiths), and noted the need for “solidarity and friendship in times of tension, condemning the attempts of extremists to divide us, and challenging all hatred”.
Introducing the debate, the Bishop of Huddersfield, the Rt Revd Dr Jonathan Gibbs, said that the events of the past few weeks had highlighted the importance of this programme. He said that he had been privileged to confirm 16 Iranians and Iraqis in Halifax, and to join in the iftar with hundreds of Muslims and Christians in memory of Jo Cox, in Batley.
Christians were working up and down the country, as part of the Presence and Engagement (P&E) programme, to build relationship across faiths, and not just in areas of significant minority-ethnic populations or faith communities. Its work was recognised by the Government, which funded the Church Urban Fund Near Neighbours interfaith programme.
“In our post-Brexit world and with the apparent rise in so-called Islamist extremism, we need to recognise the fears and tensions that exist in many of our communities — of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds — and do all we can to address these.”
The report sets out four priorities: maintaining a Christian presence in every community; building bridges; discussing the Christian faith; and equipping people for ministry. Dr Gibbs welcomed an amendment from Peter Adams (St Albans), which, he said, sought to give “sharper focus” to the motion given recent events: terrorist attacks, and the tragedy of Grenfell Tower.
In some of his parishes, Dr Gibbs said, 90 per cent of the population were from rural Pakistan, and some of the church schools were “virtually 100 per cent” attended by Muslim children.
P&E was “deeply rooted” in the gospel, “coming alongside others, joyfully demonstrating the love of Christ in our actions, humbly sharing the riches of Christ in our words, and finding ourselves enriched and renewed in our own faith through our conversation with those from other traditions. . . It is rightly part of our DNA, fulfilling our calling to be a Church for our whole nation and for everyone in it.”
Moving her amendment to the motion, Susie Leafe (Truro) described her amendment as “very simple and uncontroversial”. She was seeking to add reference to the report Uniqueness of Christ in Multi-Faith Britain as the theological work on which the report Sharing the Gospel of Salvation was based.
“In the past, both documents have been warmly welcomed by Synod. Both documents are mentioned in the report, and so it seems right that we affirm both.” She said that passing the motion would “draw people’s attention to a report that could quite easily be lost in a Zip-file in Church House”.
Dr Gibbs said that everybody on the table was “fully committed to the uniqueness of Christ”, but he was concerned that Synod members were being asked to affirm a report when they “haven’t had the chance to read that document carefully”.
The amendment was lost by 153 to 168 with 17 recorded abstentions.
Moving an amendment that called on churches and Christian people to “reach out to neighbours and colleagues of other faiths to offer solidarity and friendship in times of tension, condemning the attempts by extremists to divide us”, Mr Adams said that there had been four terrorist attacks in 2017. “At times like this, the normative work of P&E needs to be supplemented and extended.”
His amendment sought to “recognise the importance of voices and Christian people throughout our nation in reaching out in friendship and support to people of other faiths. . .
“By learning to confidently, gently, reach out as neighbours, colleagues, and dare I say friends, to people of other faiths, our solidarity and calm words will be a gentle balm for many. It will also challenge the narrative of inevitable conflict.”
Dr Gibbs welcomed the amendment, and it was carried.
The Archdeacon of Aston, the Ven. Simon Heathfield (Birmingham), said that P&E relationships happened everywhere, in a globalised world. Eighty parishes in his diocese were designated as P&E parishes. “Young, male, and Muslim” was “the new norm” for parishes in the diocese. Research showed that it was much easier to cross divides of ethnicity than class. In poorer dioceses like Birmingham strategic development funding was welcome, “but sustained financial capacity was even better”. It was important to challenge clerical bias and empower all people. “The common good cries out for our engagement.” There were no “no-go areas” for Jesus.
The Revd Lisa Battye (Manchester) was in a parish in an orthodox Jewish area, and P&E had given her a steer to work in interfaith dialogue, and helped her in many areas, including co-leading civil services with rabbis. She thanked God for it.
Heather Black (York) read out the final words of the report, which resonated with her own experience in an urban parish in Middlesbrough where she had seen a large influx of people of other faiths. Her experience had been that families of other faiths had been “so delighted that the local church has provided a safe place for their children to join in local activities in a place where faith is respected”.
She had never had so many hugs from Muslim mothers as in recent weeks. The tragic events had “called us to reach out to each other and find our common humanity”. The Church had found “renewed confidence in the gospel”, and her own was welcoming an increasingly diverse congregation.
The Revd Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani (Peterborough) spoke as an Iranian-born Christian who had come to the UK as a refugee, aged 14. She had been brought up a second-generation Anglican in the diocese of Iran, and in 1980 had been forced into exile.
Despite having church and family connections, “Thirty-seven years later I am still exploring questions about my identity, and have a desire to belong, to be British, and fully integrated within the C of E; yet I continue to be shaped by my Persian roots, the influence of Islam, and ties to the Church in Iran. These things do not always sit comfortably together.”
She praised a recent gathering exploring the “joys and challenges” of having Persian immigrants and asylum-seekers in congregations. There was, she sensed, “great potential” for strengthening bonds across the Anglican Communion and connecting more intentionally with the Church in Iran.
This would “give a sense of history and continuity for those seeking to belong here and provide reassurance that conversion to Christianity does not need to sever them from their Persian roots.” It would also let the persecuted community in Iran know that they were being prayed for, and were part of a bigger family. On Monday, Dr Francis-Dehqani was announced as the new Bishop of Loughborough.
Bishop Anba Angaelos (Coptic Orthodox Church) said that, despite “many prophets of doom saying that the Church is weakening and becoming less significant”, it was “present and vibrant and active and incredibly necessary”, from its work with refugees to its response at Grenfell Tower. P&E was “essential” if churches were to continue to be “salt and light”.
Interreligious work was also important, and he “felt pain from both directions”, having seen Christians in Egypt killed in bombings and shootings, and stood by the bed of Andreea Cristea, a young Romanian Orthodox woman who fell from Westminster Bridge and died, after the terrorist attack.
It was also important to cultivate relationships with the “breadth of the Christian Church in this nation”, he said: “We must send a clear message that we are not, and not perceived to be, inwardly focused and excusive, or only about issues of sexuality, although that also needs to be addressed. . . We must continue to work together and be present and engaged if we are to be light and hope in the world.”
The debate was adjourned for timed business. When it resumed, the Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn (Southern Deans), thanked everyone who had sent greetings and prayers after the recent attacks. He welcomed the report and motion as amended.
A really powerful part of the experience after the London Bridge attack was the relationship with the Muslim community, he said. A Muslim man, chair of the residents’ association, had come to the Deanery because he had had nowhere else to go, and “just wept, because everything he had been working for in terms of cohesion . . ., he felt, was under attack and being destroyed”.
They had been working through this together. He described being on London Bridge with imams and scholars, speaking during Friday prayers at the local mosque (he spoke of the shared inheritance in Adam), and a large community iftar in the cathedral which “came at just the right moment”. All of this had come about “because the groundwork had been done”.
The Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Julian Henderson, described a recent meeting of the Anglican Muslim Forum at his house. They had heard from a speaker employed to promote the Prevent agenda. Points that had emerged during the discussion supported both P&E and the recent Casey review on integration. There had been “considerable disquiet and opposition to the Prevent agenda for the way it often targets [Muslims] in a biased and prejudiced way”.
While there was agreement that something had to be done to prevent extremism, Prevent did not work. A referral from a school on a minor matter “gets escalated”, and it “criminalised entirely innocent people”. There was a need to discriminate between “sincere convictions that would never lead to hatred, and which are to be commended”, and those that led to acts of terrorism and destruction.
“Freedom of speech and the right to believe the tenets of faith must not be clamped down on in an attempt to be rid of violent extremism.” Sharing a meal was a way of “breaking down barriers of mistrust”. He gave thanks for those committed to ministering in P&E parishes and prayed for more. A quarter of those ordained deacon in the diocese the previous week had been of Iranian or Pakistani background.
The amended motion was carried. It read:
That this Synod, recognising the Church’s continued presence and engagement in parishes, chaplaincies and new missional communities in multi-religious contexts:
(a) commend the national Presence and Engagement (P&E) programme and offer prayerful support for its work over the next five years, requesting that the fruit of this be made available to the whole Church through the P&E Centres and that the programme report back to Synod at the end of this period.
(b) recognise the cultivation of relationships with other faith communities as a vital component of the Church’s mission in today’s society, and encourage dioceses to incorporate this into their mission plans;
(c) re-affirm the Synod report “Sharing the Gospel of Salvation” (GS Misc 956) and call on the P&E Task Group to continue supporting parishes in bearing faithful witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ with sensitivity and confidence among people of other faiths; and
(d) noting the importance of relationships between churches and people of other faiths in maintaining community peace and solidarity in many P&E parishes, encourage churches and Christian people throughout the nation to reach out to neighbours and colleagues of other faiths to offer solidarity and friendship in times of tension, condemning the attempts of extremists to divide us, and challenging all hatred.