Thursday, 28 May 2009

Faith Encounter Awards Ceremony

I've been a bit quiet lately - snowed under with marking and college reports, but I am still managing to get out and about in Birmingham. One of the highlights last week was attending the awards ceremony of the Faith Encounter Programme. I use the FEP for modules I'm developing at Queen's and have recently asked to serve on its Steering Committee. It was great to see so many youthful trained guides graduating at last weeks ceremony (photo of guides and tutors above). Any initial caution I had about the FEP when I first started in post - with its emphasis on training a 'tourist' guide and all the possible negative conotations attached to that in relation to engaging with other faith traditions - have completely vanished over the year. I have experienced the power of ordinary people of faith sharing their faith and offering hospitality to students from Queen's in a way that has really enabled positive and creative engagement. What was a shame was the lack of response this year from the Christian community with no one training to be a guide. The good news is that FEP have recently received funding to develop their work in other areas of the West Midlands. I asked Ruth Tetlow Co-ordinator of the Faith Encounter Programme to pen a little piece about the ceremony and Faith Encounter generally for my blog and here it is........

'There are now 30 trained Faith Guides in Birmingham, of 7 different faiths.
The Awards Evening for the second group took place on Monday May 18th, in Small Heath. 15 Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, who had all taken part in a new 12 week evening course, received their Certificates and celebrated with a huge cream cake.
Many people in Birmingham from school children to college students are taken to visit places of worship of different faiths, as part of their Religious Education curriculum. Mosques, churches, temples and gurdwaras have always welcomed them with great hospitality, but have not always been aware of how to communicate their beliefs and way of life effectively, even to adults. So in 2007, the Faith Encounter Programme, a small independent, multifaith group of experienced local people, developed the Faith Guiding course.
The Institute of Tourist Guiding granted accreditation (Level 2), although having people of various faiths training together to be tour guides at a range of different places of worship, was an entirely new concept for the ITG at the time. The unique course consists of three parts:
first, the participants need a good grounding in their own faith and so Faith Tutors go through key points and discuss how the Faith Guide can put them across to people of other faith backgrounds and no faith. Words from different cultures and languages (like hajj or langar) cannot always be translated but do have to be explained;
second, there are ITG Blue Badge Guides who teach guiding skills, such as always repeating a question so that the whole group has heard and engages with it;
and thirdly, the Faith Guides need to be able to put themselves in the shoes of their visitors, whatever their faith, age, gender or cultural background, so there are interactive sessions in interfaith understanding.
The course includes 4 visits to places of worship and also requires 72 hours of private study and 2 practical workshops. It is assessed by both practical and written examinations. The practical exam is a very special though nerve wracking day, when the whole group travels to each person’s place of worship in turn, by minibus, and acts as the (sympathetic) visitors for each other, in the presence of the 2 examiners.

At the Awards Evening, the 15 newly trained Guides testified to how their eyes had been opened: ‘During this course, week after week with relative strangers, not only were we exposing our inner thoughts and spirituality to others of the same faith but to those of different faith.’
‘I have …always felt reluctant to enter (a strange place of worship), because I would not know how where to go, what to do or how to behave if I entered the worship place.’
‘I became aware of how what you say can be misunderstood by others.’
‘I gained greater knowledge of my own faith – something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time!’
Go to the Faith Encounter Programme website where you can see photos of Faith Guides in action, find out how to book a visit and get further news of events in which they are involved.'

Sunday, 10 May 2009

My Parish Church

I didn't have a preaching engagement in the District this morning so headed over to the local Anglican Church with Annie and Luke. Our local Parish Church is St Christopher's, Luke has begun getting involved in the Youth groups that they run. St Christopher's has a very healthy number of young teenagers and a is a very friendly and locally rooted congregation. The Vicar of the parish is Toby Howarth who is also Bishop's advisor on Inter Faith Relations and the church is seriously involved in creative engagement and dialogue in the Muslim majority area that it serves. Here is how Richard Sudworth - author of Distinctively Welcoming who is training on the Pioneer Ministry track at Queen's and also Chairs the Springfield Project at St Christopher's - described their work at Greenbelt last year:

St Christopher's, Springfield is an Anglican parish in inner city Birmingham with a Muslim majority community. The church runs a project providing nursery, family support, stay and play and childrens\' club facilities to diverse members of the parish. In serving the Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and no faith families in the area, key points in the church's calendar and in the rhythms of the project have provided opportunities for creative expressions of the Christian story. In appropriately ethical ways, the church has been exploring ways of learning from South Asian spiritualities in a Christ-centred journey that facilitates connections with our community and honours the search for God that is so real for many in our context. Over recent years, a vital relationship of dialogue has developed with the large mosque facing the church. The very nature of our environment , gives us a keen sense that we should foster a spirituality that is faithful to our texts and tradition and equally committed to be a blessing to all in our city, whatever their faith. The congregation consists of old and young, white, black, South Asian, professional and non-professional and believes that diversity within the church is part of the gospel we offer to the world.

Coming from within the evangelical tradition of the Anglican Church, St Christopher's, with its fresh and creative approach to ministry in a Muslim majority parish, is a challenge to both the wider evangelical tradition and the traditionally more liberal theologically influenced Christian Inter Faith movement - its work challenges stereotypes and questions long held assumptions.

One of the creative initiatives at St Christopher's is the Youth Encounter Programme headed up by Andrew Smith . He did a very good session on YE for a course at Queen's that I ran recently and was preaching this morning. He didn't disappoint with a cracking sermon on John 15 1-8, the service was led by Andrew's wife Sarah who is the Head Teacher at the local C of E Primary School.

We also heard this morning the latest about a new development coming out of Youth Encounter called The Feast. This initiative is hoping to deepen and develop some of the work begun by Youth Encounter. It will be seeking to foster deeper dialogue and friendship between Muslim and Christian young people in Sparkhill and Birmingham - check out the aims and objectives of the project and the interesting Guidelines for Dialogue used in Youth Encounter and The Feast's work with young people.

Although I'm not traditionally identified with the evangelical tradition, I am really glad that St Christopher's is my Parish Church and I am thankful that in the likes of Richard, Toby and Andrew I have excellent inter Christian dialogue partners in the exploration of what it means to live Christian discipleship in a multi faith world.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Eagles and Bears Proclaim the Wonder.....

Today is my birthday! And so after a good meeting this afternoon with the Asbury Circuit leadership team about working in the circuit in the Autumn, I decided to head home to be with Annie and Luke. We are going to go out for a walk with Nellie our dog and then we are having a special birthday tea - with my favourite Nut Roast with all the trimings and Apple Crumble and Vegan Ice Cream!

We had a great Birthday breakie too and I got some lovely pressies. Luke has compiled a little prayer book for me by searching for prayers from other faith traditions on the internet and putting them in a special little brochure with a lovely picture on the front. Here's one that I particularly liked from African Traditions....

O Lord, O God, creator Of Our land, our earth, the trees, the animals and humans, all is for your honor The drums beat it out, and people sing about it, and they dance with noisy joy that you are the Lord. You also have pulled the other continents out of the sea. What a wonderful world you have made out of the wet mud, and what beautiful men and women! We thank you for the beauty of this earth. The grace of your creation is like a cool day between rainy seasons. We drink in your creation with our eyes. We listen to the birds' jubilee with our ears. How strong and good and sure your earth smells, and everything that grows there.

Annie has painted me an amazing picture (above) based on a reflection I wrote whilst on an 8 Day silent retreat in North Wales at St Buenos Ignatian Spirituality Centre in May 2006. The grounds of the retreat house includes a small chapel on the top of a tree covered mound. The following reflection was inspired by what I found when I explored the chapel ....

I sit in this chapel facing not the altar
But the open door.
I look out to the sanctuary of creation:
Lush, green growth bathed in sunlight.
Behind me a white crucifix tells
Of an institution’s bland presentation
Of the awesome story,
Whilst around me on the walls
Is the same story told in vibrant colour
And pulling into this space of cold white austerity
The beauty and power of the insights gained
Through looking closely at nature;
But not the forensic stare of modern science
But the creative and imaginative watch
Of our medieval brothers and sisters
Who found the story of God’s love
With the aid of the companions he gave us to share this earth.
And so peacocks and panthers,
Eagles and bears proclaim the wonder
Of God’s redeeming love
And mulberry and cherry trees,
Lilies and reeds join in the song
And a goldfinch whose neck our ancestors imagined
Was forever stained with blood when,
flying down to Christ on the cross,
it plucked a thorn from his bleeding brow.
Our winged friend tells also in the glory of
Her yellow golden flight
The hope of resurrection.
If only it was her
Perched above the altar
I would turn and kneel
In adoration.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Beyond Ed Hussein - Welcoming Islamism, Traditionalism and Renewal in British Islam

Annie and I have just returned from a lovely 3 days away in our camper van; walking on moors and in bluebell covered woods in West Yorkshire and visiting friends. On Monday we spent a lovely 3 hours with a dear friend Firdaws Khan. Firdaws who is a Muslim ran workshops on Christian and Muslim attitudes to spirituality, dialogue, war and peace with me for the Peace School for two years and she chose this poem by Rumi to recite at our wedding last November. Yesterday she was particularly enthusiastic to tell me about the work of the Radical Middle Way project and keen to point me in the direction of their website and some of the work of her spiritual mentor Shaykha Halima Krausen who has recently participated in the latest RMW speaking tour. I first came across RMW when I was Vicar of All Hallows in Hyde Park Leeds when the local Makkah Masjid hosted one of its first events in 2005. RMW sees itself as an attempt to articulate what might be termed 'Traditionalist' Islam in contemporary ways they say on their web site

The Radical Middle Way (RMW) is a revolutionary grassroots initiative aimed at articulating a relevant mainstream understanding of Islam that is dynamic, proactive and relevant to young British Muslims.

Through public lectures, seminars, workshops and cultural programs, we engage with real issues through legitimate orthodox scholarship. The RMW is about erasing the schism between public and private discourse over issues affecting Islam and Muslims in the modern world – we believe in open debate and meaningful discussion.

As I searched the website yesterday evening on our return home I came across a very interesting article by playwright David Edgar exploring a different strand within contemporary Islam - 'Islamism'. His article draws attention to an excellent paper published in Race and Class by Arun Kundani entiltled Islamism and the Roots of Liberal Rage. An abstract for the paper states:

As the neoconservative idea of a clash of civilisations is increasingly challenged, a number of liberal writers — Paul Berman, Nick Cohen, Martin Amis, Andrew Anthony, Bernard Henry-Lévy and Christopher Hitchens — are rethinking the `war on terror' as a cold war against Islamism, defined as a totalitarian political movement analogous to fascism or Stalinism. Europe is the new front line in this battle for the `hearts and minds' of Muslims and, it is argued, violations of certain human rights are necessary in the name of defending liberal freedoms. Yet such an analysis fails to comprehend the complex dynamics of Islamism in Europe. Members of a new generation of European Muslims are creating a globalised Islamic identity that is distanced from the ethnic cultures of their parents — a process that is more likely to lead to new forms of democratic activism than to political violence unless diverted from this course by counter-productive policies.

This is a very different and more sophisticated analysis of Islamism to the one presented by Ed Hussein in his popular and widely read and often quoted book The Islamist and by the Quilliam Foundation founded on the books success.

Kundani's analysis echoes my own experience of the creative involvement of Muslims - who have often been influenced by Islamist interpretations of the tradition - in political and community activism in Leeds and Birmingham, be that in the anti-war and Palestinian solidarity movements with organisations like Muslim Association of Britain, locally rooted community politics like that practiced by the councillors of Respect in Sparkbrook Birmingham, or the openness to inter faith encounter I've experienced from organisations like the Islamic Society of Britain.

What I have experienced is an ability for creative coalition building and an openness to dialogue that crosses and challenges boundaries both within Islam and beyond.

The problem for the secular liberal commentators is that this new Islamic engagment -Traditionalist or Islamist - is articulated through the language of faith, bringing God back into the public arena, and the problem for the government is that it is an activism - particularly where Islamism is concerned - rooted in resistance to its foreign and domestic policies. The aborted attempts to foster division between engaged Traditionalist and Islamist tendancies in British Islam through organisations like Quilliam, are clearly not working if examples of recent cooperation is anything to go by. My friend Firdaws told me of the coming together of the Traditionalist RMV and the Islamist ISB to host events in Bradford. The truth is that vibrant, challenging and engaged forms of Islam in Britain are on the rise and deserve acknowledgement as a constructive contributor to the democratic process in a truly multicultural society. As Edgar says in the last paragraph of his article

Ziauddin Sardar has argued that the problem with the ex-Islamist Quilliam Foundation is not that it is anti-fundamentalist or anti-segregationist, but that it is anti-political; it wants Muslims to keep quiet. In fact, as Kundnani argues, a whole generation of British Muslims (are) search of new ways of being Muslim, in public, in contemporary Europe. What could be more welcome?