IF CHRISTIANS could learn to disagree well, then anyone could do it, the Archbishop of Canterbury said in a video message to an online global conference on Tuesday, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the United Nations.
The conference, “Faith in the UN”, was convened by the UN Multi-Faith Advisory Council, and sought to emphasise the part that religious leaders and organisations could play in bringing civil society together. Archbishop Welby, one of several religious leaders greeting and blessing the conference, described the UN as “the icon of the hopes and dreams of a world that wants to live at peace — at least, the vast majority of the world.
“And if that is to happen, it has to happen in partnership with faith communities around the world. Let’s be straightforward — many faith communities have acted badly in the past, and Christians have a pretty grim history.” Pointing to a portrait behind him, he said, “One of my predecessors as Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Pole, actually ensured that his predecessor, Archbishop Cranmer, was burnt at the stake for what Pole considered his heretical views.
“We have persecuted each other, we have fought each other. And it is in our capacity to change, to be new in the way we deal with each other; to disagree, but to disagree well, that we may contribute to that vision of a peaceful world. Because if we can show that we can change, if we can show that we’re deeply committed to supporting and upholding peace and reconciliation around the world, then anyone can do it.”
Speakers acknowledged that, while the UN had sometimes been criticised for being cumbersome and ineffective, it had a unique part to play in looking again at issues of globalisation, solidarity, and co-operation, especially in the light of the current pandemic — something requiring “re-globalisation” at a time when many countries were putting national interests first, and xenophobia was rife.
A particular challenge came from the German Ambassador to the UN, Christoph Heusgen, who spoke frankly of his country’s own history, and expressed his concern at rising signs of anti-Semitism in the world at present.
“This is a challenge not just to Jews, but to all religions,” he said. “The role of religion is very important, and it must be a tool for peace. With the questioning of the international order, the UN is being challenged as never before. There is no alternative but to tackle the present challenges together. We have to strive together to strengthen and reform the UN.”
Speakers of all faiths warned of complacency, “assuming we can work together just by coming together once or twice a year”. Religions were called on to lead the push against the breakdown of civil society. The executive director of UNICEF, Henrietta Fore, said that partnership was more important than ever in the face of the pandemic; this offered the opportunity to “help communities respond, recover, and build better communities for the future”.
The conference sought to give a voice to children and young people, and to articulate their hopes for a greener, fairer future. The deputy executive director of UN Women, Asa Regnér, spoke about the rights of women and girls, more of whom were living in poverty than ever before.
“The Covid-19 crisis has made it clearer that gender equality has not been achieved,” she said, highlighting that stay-at-home orders had increased domestic violence all over the world.
“As faith leaders, your voice matters, and your influence is important,” she told the conference. She urged the promotion of shared care-work and equal pay, and for “the invisible and unpaid lives of women and girls” to be highlighted. Covid-19, she said, had further extended the institutional practices that gave an advantage to men and boys.