Archbishop of Canterbury: Remarks at a reception to mark the inaugural meeting of the Christian-Muslim Forum 24th January 2006
Prime Minister, friends it’s a very great delight to be able to welcome you here on this, I hope, historic occasion.
Although today is overshadowed very seriously for all of us by our great loss in the death of Zaki Badawi earlier today, this event also helps to focus something of what we might hope for in the work of this forum. Because one thing that certainly could be said of Zaki was that he managed to make Islam ordinary and expected, a part of the British scene. Someone who was a spokesman for an important and recognised element in the British community overall. Someone who spoke, you might say, for Muslims as citizens of this country.
And in a way that is part of the agenda of the forum, as it evolves. We’re looking for conversation and co-operation between two communities of faith that will remind the whole of our society that faith is a perfectly normal activity for human beings, indeed those of us who are committed would say that it’s the most normal activity you could possibly imagine. And instead of being an eccentricity, practised by slightly weird British people and very very strange foreigners, it’s just something that belongs in the fabric of civic life in this country and which makes, I dare to say, an irreplaceable contribution to the civic life of this country.
We are not people of faith because we want to make a contribution to civic life; we are people of faith because we believe that what we believe is true. Nonetheless, we need to say in a society that’s both sceptical and chaotic at the moment, that the commitments of faith to human dignity and liberty are essential to the life of a healthy society. I think that the presence of the Prime Minister with us here tonight is testimony to the fact that this is something increasingly recognised in our public life. What we do here in terms of Christian Muslim co-operation and conversation, is part of two wider pictures. One of them, as you’ve been reminded, is the picture of interfaith co-operation overall. The new forum takes its place alongside other more established networks which seek to promote understanding and co-operation. But the other wider picture is the international one, and it’s very interesting to look back at the last decade or more in which this forum has been growing to maturity, and see how it takes its place alongside a whole international programme, working for understanding and co-operation.
My predecessor put in place a number of vitally important initiatives in this respect, it was he who began the work which has led to the establishment of this forum. It was he who oversaw the beginnings of the dialogue that we continue between the Church of England and al-Azhar in Cairo. It was he who, of course, saw through the formation of the Alexandria declaration with the hopes that that provided of religious communities in the Holy Land contributing to reconciliation there.
And that international situation is something which becomes more and more evident and immediate to us in this country, day by day. As our whole world evolves the old idea of nation states with impervious boundaries becomes more and more improbable and unreal. We are all involved like it or not, in global conversations and exchanges. Our political habits, our religious convictions are no longer to be seen as local peculiarities, they are part of one story across the world.
Just before Christmas, my wife and I spent a week in Pakistan. A very eventful week where I think it is fair to say we were worked to our limits and almost beyond, but a week, which opened up any number of conversations, opened any number of doors, with repercussions here. Before we went we asked both Christian and Muslim Pakistani communities in this country what they might want to hear from Pakistan when we visited there. When we were in Pakistan, we were repeatedly questioned about what was happening in Christian Muslim dialogue in this country. And that was a very vivid reminder at all sorts of levels, of the interlocking world we live in. And one phrase which sticks with me from that encounter in Pakistan was something which came out in one of the several meetings we had with Ijaz ul-Haq, the minister for ethnic minorities and religious affairs in Pakistan. He spoke of how easy it was to pursue dialogue and friendship at the level of elites, ‘Now,’ he said, ‘now we must take this to the villages’. Well, we may not have villages in the United Kingdom that are quite like villages in Pakistan, but the principle is the same.
This is not about elites, this is about ordinary people talking to each other in ordinary circumstances and working together on the needs and the challenges that face us all. The challenges that are represented by an educational system which is not always easy for minorities. The challenges represented by international affairs, the challenges by the gulfs that open up between young people and their elders in all areas of our community, the challenges of sustaining our commitment to family life and its values in a culture that again doesn’t always seem to affirm them very clearly.
But all that, of course, is to present a rather negative picture, and in taking it to the villages, I wouldn’t want us to think that we were primarily concerned about damage limitation and reacting to crises. We want to uncover for one another, and in one another, and for the wider world; that richness of humanity which faith contains, and that, too, was something affirmed very powerfully in many of our encounters in Pakistan before Christmas. In spite of the very deep tensions there are there, in spite of the sufferings endured by a Christian minority there, often harassed and persecuted by ignorant neighbours, in spite of the sense of vulnerability that Pakistan, like the rest of the Muslim world feels, in our world generally today, the willingness of people to engage with one another, take risks with one another, even there, was hugely impressive and inspiring. And we came back from that visit with a real sense of enormous possibilities in Pakistan, barely yet beginning to be realised.
Well, our challenges and our possibilities are both extreme in the world as it is, but the other thing which was said to me in Pakistan more than once and which I am happy to repeat here, is that we have to get out of any remnants of a mindset which thinks in terms of a clash of civilisations. That rhetoric does the rounds every so often, it depends on indifferent history, over bold projection and, generally, mutual ignorance. We can do better than that, and the Muslim Christian Forum here in Britain is designed to help us do better than that, to think not of a clash of civilisations, but of a shared religious humanism in the proper sense of the word ‘humanism’, a commitment to the dignity and the liberty of human beings made to serve God. Human beings who find their fullest freedom and the deepest joy in the service of God, and who in sharing that together, have something to offer to society around which nothing else can offer. It’s a very ambitious vision with which to begin the work of the Forum, but I think that is where all those involved want to start. And they would see it as I’ve said not only as something for this country, but as something which ought to be making a contribution to a global challenge.
It’s easy to talk about these things abstractly so I’ll end by quoting to you a story I came across recently from a most unlikely quarter. The book I’m reading from is an excellent book by Brian McClaren, an American Evangelical, pastor of a large independent church in the Washington DC area. The sort of Christian pastor who arouses a certain amount of anxiety in the breasts both of Muslims and of more liberal Christians, not to say columnists in some of our newspapers. The book is entitled, though, ‘A Generous Orthodoxy’ and it ahs a long and extraordinarily moving chapter on his approach to people of other faiths. Towards the end of this chapter McClaren quotes from another writer from the same background telling a little story about an encounter in the Washington DC area not long after September 11th. One day my daughter saw a woman walking towards us covered in a veil and asked the inevitable ‘What’s that, Mummy?’ ‘Emma,’ I answered, ‘that lady is a Muslim from a faraway place and she dresses like that and covers her head with a veil because she loves God. That is how their people show they love God’. My daughter considered these words, she stared at the woman who passed us, she pointed at the woman and then pointed at my hair and further quizzed ‘Mummy, do you love God?’ ‘Yes’, I said, ‘I do; you and I are Christians and Christian ladies show their love for God by going to church, eating the bread and drinking the wine, serving the poor and giving to those in need. We don’t wear veils but we do love God’.
After this Emma took every opportunity to point to Muslim women during our shopping trips and telling me ‘Mummy, she loves God’. One day we were getting out of our car in our driveway at the same time as our Pakistani neighbours. Emma saw the mother beautifully veiled and pointed at her and shouted ‘Look Mummy – she loves God’. My neighbour was surprised, I told her what I had told her what I had taught Emma about Muslim ladies loving God, while she held back tears this near stranger hugged me saying, ‘I wish all Americans would teach their children so, the world would be better’.
That perhaps is – as simply as that – what we have to teach; that, perhaps, is what the Muslim Christian Forum by the Grace of God can achieve, thank you for being with us this evening.
© Rowan Williams 2006