Two Jews, three opinions. So put together two Jews, two Muslims and two Christians, and you’re looking at closer to 10 opinions. And that’s just members of the Abrahamic faiths, who share core concepts and revere many of the same Biblical personalities. So why is interfaith activity so popular now? And how can potential difficulties be overcome?
No meaningful relationship is ever without difficulties. This week’s report on Imam Shakeel Begg’s participation at the Three Faiths Forum event hosted by Catford and Bromley Synagogue illustrates how difficult the challenges can be when communities reach outside themselves.
I was privileged this year to be a participant in the Senior Faith Leadership Programme, a unique programme that brings together Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders for a series of retreats, focusing on developing aspects of communal leadership.
A fascinating dynamic developed within our group, based on respect for each other’s point of view, while acknowledging that some people’s deeply-held beliefs were diametrically opposed to our own.
On the final night of the programme when we sat in a circle and sang together, there was a real feeling of bonding, for a shared purpose – bettering the world in which we live, which we carried away with us into our regular lives.
Of course, interfaith activity is not always successful and happy-clappy. It is not all about meeting neutral groups with no political leanings. Some of the more significant engagement can be with less likely allies and there can be real challenges around particular issues or groups. Sometimes there are significant mismatches of expectations, or breakdowns in communication.
When this happens, as in any relationship, the only thing to do is apologise, regroup and move on. But just as most people don’t swear off any relationship after breaking up with a partner, so too, a setback in interfaith work doesn’t mean that we should retreat into our own corner and disengage from society.
There are difficult conversations to be had, and they happen best on the foundation of a trusting and warm relationship.
If we rarely have a meaningful conversation with someone outside our comfortable bubble, we tend to resort to stereotypes.
Genuine interfaith activity: getting to know people as people rather than as labels, or participating in activities such as social action projects together, breaks down barriers and enables us all to live in a more cohesive, functional and pleasant society.
On a pragmatic level, there are practical issues that affect religious groups, such as faith schools or religious slaughter.
Organisations have been working together in these fields for many years, well before the current popularity of interfaith engagement, often with positive results and a spin-off of personal relationships.
I’m proud to share friendships with people of other faiths and to say that I’m a firm believer in interfaith.