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Interview: Simon Keyes, Professor of reconciliation and peacebuilding

23 March 2018

‘Many of my friends call themselves spiritual, not religious. Perhaps I’m the reverse’

Reconciliation asks big questions: how can the truth of past conflict be acknowledged in a way that frees people from its grip? How can a shared vision of a new interdependent society be created? What judi­cial, social, and economic structures are needed to address the underlying injustices that gave rise to the conflict? How can wounds be healed? Each situation requires its own answers.

Reconciliation always deals with the perceptions, created in conflict, that people have of their adversaries. We asked Sudanese refugees to talk about their own identities: “I’m a Dinka.” “I’m from South Sudan.” Then: “I’m a father,” “I’m a football-player,” “I’m a musician.” We got the fathers to talk to each other about bringing up children [and] the foot­ballers to play with each other. We all have multiple identities, and have potential connections which are broken by conflict.

I led St Ethelburga’s, in the City of London, for nine years, establishing its peacebuilding and interreligious activities, and installing its well-known Tent of Meeting. We were in the advance guard of interreligious activity, experimenting with a range of approaches.

Making friends with people of other faiths hugely enriched my life, though I worried, sometimes, that I saw in their faiths things I dislike about my own: literalism, patriarchy, exclusivity. I soon recognised the limits of processes which rely on com­mon ground. I wanted to explore difference safely, and disagree successfully.

We drew on the experiences of exiles and refugees in London, who raised some powerful questions about what reconciliation means in the aftermath of violent political conflict. We needed to look critically at the as­­sumptions that underlie dialogue and reconciliation practice.

Scriptural reasoning offers a clear process for interreligious conversa­tion, but the conditions for it to flourish are rare. Participants need equivalent levels of scriptural literacy and openness to critical interpretation of sacred texts, which is demanding, particularly for Muslims. I prefer to root dialogue in people’s life experiences — includ­ing, of course, the story of their faith, and their own relationship with scrip­ture.

Reconciling divided Britain requires a new culture of curiosity and compassion, to counter the opinionated and dismissive tone of much public conversation. I think this’ll happen from the grassroots, as people rediscover the power of local connection.

It will happen faster if we can create local spaces, real or virtual, where difference can be explored through honest conversation. Perhaps we need a new social role: the community facilitator? I’m lucky to live in Frome, where there are new expressions of community and democracy. The town’s rejection of party politics has been a good start, encouraging lots of new local initia­tives to help its people.

Christians ought to be in the van­guard of this. Our scriptures and history say all you need to know about division, conflict, and its transformation. Matthew 5-7 is the definitive activist’s manual; and Paul charges us to work for the interests of others rather than ourselves. If we really did this, we’d trigger a revolution.

This is what Justin Welby’s been saying: that the Church could be a miracle of unity in diversity. We shouldn’t be communities of the like-minded. We could be revolu­tionary if we could demonstrate to the world how to live with difference and disagreement.

I’m now at the University of Winchester teaching an MA pro­gramme in Reconciliation Theory and Practice by online distance learning. Half of our students — who will have important roles to play in the future — live in areas of conflict, such as Sudan and Afghanistan. We learn from their experi­ence, and help them to develop critical ideas about their own situations. Four Somali students are involved in creating a new national reconciliation framework in their own country.

Most of my career has been with voluntary organisations worrying about failures of the social fabric: homelessness, mental health, crime. Being part of the Cyrenians was formative. We lived alongside people on the margins of society, treating each other as equals. It was utopian and flawed, but it achieved more for lonely and vulnerable people than treating them as consumers of ser­vices. I really admire organisations such as Emmaus and Pilsdon which keep this ethos alive.

I was lucky to be in London when it was still possible to live there cheaply. Not being driven by having to earn a lot of money is a great liberator and very biblical. It’s a massive mistake to burden people with lifelong debt through student loans and large mortgages.

As a child, I loved taking things to pieces and rebuilding them, and I’m surprised that I didn’t become an engineer. Working out how systems fail people, and how they could be different, is creative in the same way. But co-creating the Kingdom isn’t about managing external conditions: it emerges silently from millions of determined acts of love and humility.

I’ve been blessed to meet many inspiring people, from visionary activists such as Fr Michael Lapsley to Clif Greenwood, a dear friend whom I met when he was homeless.

Good friends, an adventurous cultural life, and the sheer interest of my work give me resilience. I love the sacred darkness of cinema: I make an annual pilgrimage to the London Film Festival, which opens many windows on the world for me. Music has been a lifelong delight.

My childhood in a rambling North Yorkshire rectory was full of love and wonder. My father was equally a priest, a poet, and a musician, who inspired in me a love of the Church. I loved singing my heart out to Stanford in C. My biggest regret is that I turned down the opportunity to be a cathedral lay clerk. I should have immersed myself in the liturgical seasons for a year.

I took all this happiness as God-given. I had an Evangelical phase at school, but, as I read scripture more deeply, I pondered its paradoxes and ambiguities, and needed less certainty. Gregory of Nyssa’s warning that “every thought of God is an idol” had a big influence on me. R. S. Thomas’s notion of God as “that great absence” remains helpful. Jean Vanier, Richard Rohr, and Cynthia Bourgeault repeatedly inspired me.

Many of my friends call themselves “spiritual, not religious”; but perhaps I’m the reverse. What I value is listening to scripture, the psychological qualities of worship, and being part of a church community. I try to heed Merton’s warn­ing about the dangers of pursuing a “personal holiness project”; yet, for all my caution, there’s still that unbidden moment when I sense the Holy Ghost in my sails.

My life took an unexpected turn a few years ago, when I woke up one day to find myself in intensive care, having been in a coma for five weeks, and lucky to be alive. Realising that Alison, my wife, had saved my life by being with me all that time and orchestrating myriad forms of support is the most gen­erous and humbling thing I’ve experienced of my life.

Encephalitis damaged my hearing, but, six years on, amazingly, it’s returning; so all sounds are welcome to me. Some days, I think an E major chord played by the young Barenboim might be enough.

I pray most to let go and open my heart to God. I like R. S. Thomas’s image of prayer as “like gravel flung at the sky’s window”. Very occasionally, we might detect “a movement of the curtain”.

Once, I thought that righteous anger was justified; but now I think anger always corrupts our motiva­tion. I’m not convinced Jesus ever showed anger: the episode in the Temple could have been a high-spirited act of subversion?

I love to be alone in a church, but if Laurence Sterne popped in to distract me from becoming too pious, he’d be most welcome.

Professor Simon Keyes was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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