Church of England Inter-Faith Relations: a response to Melanie Phillips's article in The Spectator

Church of England Inter-Faith Relations:

a Response to Melanie Phillips’s article in The Spectator

by Guy Wilkinson

National Inter-Faith Relations Adviser

and Secretary for Inter-Faith Relations to the Archbishop of Canterbury

copublished with the Spectator, 18 March 2009

We have seen in recent days in Northern Ireland just how deep antagonisms go and how long their poisonous roots remain in the ground, ready to spring to life like nettles to sting. And to continue the metaphor, we have seen in Luton how some kinds of words can be the means by which such roots are strengthened and enabled to spread.

Anything that matters deeply to people – religion, politics, football, patriotism – gives rise to passion and to passionate words. And passionate words can make for good or for ill, for peace or for violence. The words which tend to ill are those which are generalised, accusatory and inaccurate because they wound and lead to indignant responses which confirm everyone in their pre existing views of the other.

Melanie Phillips, in her recent article (The Spectator, 7 March 2009) brought together a very personalised attack on three Anglican clergy with a very generalised criticism of the Church of England for a combination of ‘extreme hostility towards Israel’, ‘appeasement of Islam’ and “with Christians around the world suffering forced conversion, ethnic cleansing and murder at Islamist hands, the church utters not a word of protest”; and finally that: “the church is truly supping with the devil and setting the stage for a repeat of an ancient tragedy.”

These are remarkably hurtful words for the very many in the Church of England who have worked for years in parishes and dioceses, at home and abroad precisely to find ways in which religious communities can live together peaceably and fruitfully in our neighbourhoods for the common good. This may be a naïve aspiration but it remains one which we believe to be not only worthwhile, but directly inspired by the Christian gospel. To be open to one religious community is not automatically to be hostile to another; to seek to live at peace is not necessarily to agree with the religious other; to speak softly is not to be fainthearted about our own faith nor to fail to witness to it in the hope that others might want to share it; not to grandstand in blogs and in the media when fellow Christians are under persecution is not to be taken to mean that nothing is done.

The Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion can be proud of the role that they have played over many decades where relations with other religions are concerned.

In relation to Judaism the record is clear. The earliest of its formal approaches goes back to 1942 with the formation of the Council of Christians and Jews at the instigation of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple and every Archbishop since then has been the Chair of the Presidents of the Council. In 1988 the Lambeth Conference set out its approach to relations with Judaism and Islam in its document: “The Way of Dialogue” and the Church of England followed this is with a serious study of relations with Judaism in 2001: “Sharing one Hope?”. In 2006 the present Archbishop signed a joint declaration with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel which included the words: We reaffirm our belief in the rights of the state of Israel to live within recognised and secure borders and to defend itself by all legal means against those who threaten its peace and security. We condemn without reserve those who deny a place for Israel and especially those who engage in the evil work of seeking to bring about its destruction.” Since then the Church of England has made a major submission to the All Party Committee on anti Semitism and the Archbishop has hosted at Lambeth the inter Parliamentary Conference on anti Semitism earlier this year.

In recent years the Church of England and Archbishop Williams have made many initiatives towards Islam, building on the work of Archbishop Carey. These include the dialogue with Al Azhar University, the formation of the Christian Muslim Forum and the Building Bridges Seminars of Christian and Muslim scholars. And in case it should be thought that these two streams of relationship with Judaism and Islam never come together, the Archbishop with the Chief Rabbi led a visit of the leadership of all religions in this country – including representatives of the Muslim Council of Britain - to Auschwitz – Birkenau last October. Can this really be ‘supping with the devil’?

Lest it be thought that this work is limited to the Church’s national leadership, the Presence and Engagement programme of the past four years, affirmed in the General Synod debate on it in February and alongside the debate and resolution on the uniqueness of Christ, highlighted the work of the thousand parish churches across the country whose parishioners include substantial numbers of Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and other faiths.

As for the comment that the Church is indifferent to the suffering of Christians around the world, suffice it to say in a short article such as this, that nothing could be further from the truth.

Last year the Church published an important document: “Generous Love – the truth of the Gospel and the call to dialogue”. The ‘generous love’ referred to is the generous love of God which embraces those who are persecuted for their faith, which encompasses all people of all faiths and which calls us to witness to the truth of the gospel and as part of that, to engage in dialogue with others.

Canon Guy Wilkinson is the National Inter-Faith Relations Adviser and Secretary for Inter-Faith Relations to the Archbishop of Canterbury

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