IN THE present climate of suspicion and fear of Islam, this short work offers an altogether more hopeful picture of the possibility of Christian-Muslim relations in the UK.
Ray Gaston’s practical theology is grounded in actual relationships with Muslims (the book’s focus) — his own, that of his congregation as a parish priest in Leeds for eight years, and, subsequently, those of his students as a lecturer at Queen’s Foundation for Theological Education in Birmingham until 2017.
Along with Richard Sudworth’s pioneering and complementary work — Encountering Islam Christian-Muslim relations in the public square (Books, 16 June 2017) — it should be considered indispensable to any theological educator, priest, or Christian interfaith practitioner engaging with Muslims.
Gaston builds on an insight of the Jesuit theologian, Michael Barnes, for whom the familiar theology of religions’ typology of pluralist, exclusivist, and inclusivist is more fruitfully understood as belonging to a theology of dialogue: “‘Exclusivism’ witnesses to that faith which speaks of what it knows through the specificity of tradition. ‘Inclusivism’ looks forward in hope to the fulfilment of all authentically religious truths and values. ‘Pluralism’ expresses that love which seeks always to affirm those values in the present” (Barnes, cited on page 9).
Gaston helpfully illustrates a threefold pattern of relationship central to any authentic Christian dialogue: interfaith, intra-Christian, and inner-self. The third of these dimensions entails that we bring before God the gifts, challenges, and questions integral to encounter of that kind. In short, all such dialogue has missional, theological, and spiritual aspects.
His method is able to affirm the insights and practices of Evangelical and Catholics alike while showing how each can learn from the other. Time and again, he resists being trapped within binaries — for example, evangelism versus dialogue. His practical theology draws on the insights of the Peace Church Tradition and a Wesleyan understanding of “the way of salvation” in conversation with the five marks of mission developed by the Anglican Communion.
Two chapters exemplify his radical witness. One showcases varied Christian practice in Tower Hamlets, Bradford, and Luton to challenge English Defence League activity that targeted Muslims; the other is a robust defence of “multiculturalism”. While I agree with much of his argument, I have one serious caveat. Gaston is aware that any faithful and radically open stance to the religious other requires discernment — and not everything can be affirmed.
I do not think, however, that Gaston takes the measure of the multiple crises in contemporary Islam — whether the toxic sectarianism or the irrelevant and out-of-context religious formation of a majority of Muslim religious leaders in Britain, to which Baroness Warsi draws attention in her monograph The Enemy Within: A tale of Muslim Britain (Books, 19 May 2017).
Christian-Muslim dialogue will remain peripheral to mainstream Islam without intra-Muslim dialogue.
Dr Philip Lewis is Consultant on Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations to the Bishop of Leeds.
Faith, Hope and Love: Interfaith engagement as practical theology
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