Attending an Interfaith Forum

Attending an Interfaith Forum

This is the third of three articles for Interfaith Week, written by PCN members. The author, Nicola Phelan, offers some reflections on her local interfaith forum in Rugby.

I came to live in Rugby in 1997 but worked elsewhere. Having met Christians of a progressive frame of mind a PCN group started. When an interfaith forum was formed in 1999 I began attending meetings and linked events when possible. This seemed a natural thing to do from my faith perspective.

The 2011 census data states the population in Rugby borough was 100,075. Religious affiliation was

  • 74.8% Christian,
  • 2% Hindu,
  • 0.6%. Muslim,
  • 0.6% Sikh,
  • 0.2% Buddhist,
  • 0.2% other religion,
  • 13.1% no Religion,
  • 7.7% Religion not stated.

Integration in Rugby would appear to be good.  The charity sector and council have fostered this with different multicultural initiatives. 

The interfaith forum was formed not out of an obvious expressed need for dialogue but as a suggestion that faith communities might like to do something special to celebrate the millennium.  Following discussion two ideas emerged, to plant a tree to mark the millennium and our common hope for the future and to meet together regularly to share our faith and understand one another better.  In 2001 an oak tree was planted next to the Library and a plaque bearing the Millennium Resolution was placed close by. The words of which are:

Let there be Respect for the earth,   Peace for its people, Love in our lives, Delight in the good, Forgiveness for past wrongs, and from now on a new start.

These words are read out at the start of our annual Peace Walk which has happened most years since 2001. The walk usually includes a Christian church, Hindu Temple, Sikh Gurdwara and Mosque. There's also a reading from the Baha’i faith.  Such events attract more people and a wider age range than the forum meetings.  There were about 100 on the first one. Faith communities are welcoming and informative and most walks end at the Gurdwara with delicious and much appreciated refreshments. 

A committed core group facilitate the monthly meetings and events. Topics discussed relate to faith and practice as well as views on moral issues such as poverty and climate change. The format tends to be a short period of silent reflection after which one person introduces the topic, followed by discussion.  Those attending have included Baha’i, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Jewish liberal, Christian, Spiritual/not religious/Buddhist people. Given the range of understandings within any faith group it was recently noted that none of us can fully represent our particular group but can only speak from our own understanding of the tradition or path we are on. The benefit is that links have been forged and friendships formed but most regular attendees are retired so we have to ask the younger generations what they feel the way forward should be.

The stated aims of the forum, as written in our information leaflet are

  1. To recognise and respect each other as fellow creatures of God.
  2. To grow in sympathetic awareness, understanding and respect for the beliefs, values and forms of worship of other faiths.
  3. To heal the results of past religious bigotry and intolerance and attempt to create new experiences of peace, harmony and understanding.   

It is also emphasises that Interfaith dialogue involves sharing one’s faith with honesty and good will and the purpose of the forum is not to convert anyone from their beliefs, or to show them where their views are ‘wrong’, or even to arrive at a common position - although often we discover we have one.  Members of the forum recognise that while agreeing on many things, on others they will differ. This is a fine line to tread when past history might bubble under the surface and be reflected in present conflicts around the world. Misunderstandings can arise at times and honesty be suppressed for fear of leading to this. I have been aware of such tensions in the past.

I see the meetings as one engine driving connections between communities but they do not attract large numbers. This could be partly explained by the pressure of other commitments but exploring matters of belief is a challenge and does not engage everyone. As a progressive I have found it both frustrating and stimulating. We sometimes strive to arrive at common ground rather than sit with the differences. On our latest peace walk via a Quaker meeting house questions arose from other Christians and a Sikh about what goes on in the silence. Is it worship or prayer? Further conversation gave me insight into the Sikh and Eastern Orthodox perspective of the need to focus on God by chanting a prayer or scripture when in silence. This to me is what interfaith encounter is about, listening to the experience of others and journeying together with the differences.

Those whose faith embraces diversity appear to find it easier to engage with the aims of the forum. Those whose faith includes the strong belief that a particular revelation is the only way to salvation tend to have more difficulty. I have encountered this from some Muslims but by no means all. There are Christians who do not promote the forum as they seem suspicious and fearful of interfaith encounters especially where prayer is concerned, even though this only involves silence.  A Richard Dawkins figure may not appreciate the idea of respect for others' beliefs, but I could see members of the ‘Sunday Assembly’, the so called atheist church, being comfortable with engagement in the forum.  But would they encounter puzzlement?  There have been times when I have found it a challenge to explain my progressive views about God and worship.  A friend with a non-theist Buddhist perspective ran into the same difficulty.  In PCN we will hopefully continue to Live the Questions with a spectrum of perspectives from theist to non-theist, and maybe we can encourage this in interfaith circles as well.

Nicola Phelan, is convenor of a group in Rugby which is affiliated to PCN Britain

Comments

1 On 17/11/2016 Chris in Ledbury wrote:

Thanks for a thoughtful and interesting article. I was slightly surprised by the Rugby census statistics, as the published overview for 2011UK Census shows a rather smaller proportion of Christians, and increased proportion of Muslims and those of No Religion. The discrepancy may be accounted for by the use of the older 2001 Census data in Rugby’s Diversity Profile, as published by Warwickshire County Council (see note below)

It is heartening that you feel members of the so-called ‘Atheist Church’ would feel comfortable with your interfaith work. In my experience, progressives, agnostics and atheists are sometimes excluded by faith communities.

I found your reflection ‘We sometimes strive to arrive at common ground rather than sit with the differences’ particularly helpful. It reminded me of my studies under Henry Tajfel and John Turner in Bristol, learning about Social Identity Theory. In essence, humans have a psychological tendency to construct in-groups and out-groups to increase self-esteem. Religious categorisation is a very obvious aspect of that tendency. Interfaith work such as your own is invaluable for its deconstruction of the barriers we all tend to create.

Note: The National Archives have a very helpful graphical presentation of the 2011 UK Census statistics at this link:

https://goo.gl/6qX4rV

The 2011 UK Census recorded 59% Christian, 25% No Religion and 5% Muslim. The drop in recorded Christians obviously correlates with declining Church attendance. The equally significant corollary is the increase in the proportion of 0-24 and 25-49 declaring as No Religion and Muslim.

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