June 2018

On the last Friday of April the children from  North and South Cowton School came to Melsonby Methodist School to share a day learning about Islam with a Muslim man, Imran. Afterwards Ben said he’d been particularly interested in the different ways in which Muslims pray and the ritual washing (Wudhu) before prayer, washing the right hand and then the left hand three times in the name of God. He liked the idea of being clean and wearing good clothes before meeting with Allah in the same way that he puts his choir robes on at Mary’s, Richmond.

Earlier that same week I spent a day down in Bradford at the first part of the ‘Presence and Engagement’ course which all clergy entering the diocese or changing post are required to attend. Throughout the day we were considering how engagement with people from other faith traditions can deepen our own discipleship of Jesus Christ.  Some of the clergy attending the course were serving in city parishes with very high Muslim populations, but I wasn’t alone in coming from a rural Benefice, and we were reminded that dialogue and engagement with other faiths is important whatever our context.

At one point we were invited to position ourselves in a line across the room in response to how we felt about certain statements – if we strongly agreed we stood at one end of the room, if we strongly disagreed, we stood at the opposite end. The first statement: ‘there is truth in all religions’, resulted in a pretty even spread across the room. We then began dialogue, defending our position, but listening to others, and then moving if we felt our position had changed. When we were given the statement ‘Islam is a blessing to this country’, no-one strongly disagreed, and most were bunched in the middle. Interestingly, the clergy who were working in amongst large Muslim populations (and who were incidentally mainly of a conservative evangelical tradition) all agreed strongly with this statement. They were passionate about the positive impact of Islam in their communities and they were convincing in their arguments. Many of us moved further up the line after this dialogue.

I was particularly moved by one vicar who spoke of knocking on a parishioner’s door. The Muslim lady greeted him with a broad smile and welcomed him in. ‘Oh vicar’, she said, ‘I’m so pleased to see you. I love Jesus so much.’ The vicar described thinking to himself: ‘if only my own church members told me how much they loved Jesus!’ The vicar went on to quote the 20th century Bishop, theologian, and missionary Lesslie Newbigin: ‘Our approach to people of other faiths, in fact our first delight must be to search out, to acknowledge, to rejoice in all the signs of the goodness of God that we find in our fellow human beings, be they secularist, humanist, Buddhist, Marxist, Muslim or whatever.’

This vicar’s experience echoes an experience my parents have had recently in Halifax as a Muslim couple have spoken at their ‘You, me and God’ home group. The Muslim couple have shown far more knowledge of the Old Testament than most of the groups attendees and a great knowledge of and respect for Jesus. My dad is also a school governor at a Church of England primary in which more than 80 % of the children are Muslim. Most of the local Muslim families particularly choose this school because of the Christian ethos and strong values, and because they want their children to learn about Jesus and the Christian faith. My dad told me how impressed he’d been by the strong moral and spiritual attitude of the children when observing an English writing class one day. The children had been asked the question: ‘What is the most important thing in life?’. He was particularly struck by one Muslim girl’s beautiful piece of writing: ‘The family is the most important thing in life because it is here that the seeds of love first grow.’

As I write Muslims are just beginning the month of Ramadan, a time of prayer and spiritual renewal, with fasting during the long hours of daylight. By mid June Muslims will be looking forward to the end of the fasting with the first sight of the new moon beginning the festival of Eid ul Fitr, and there will no doubt be many Muslims who will be sharing their celebrations with neighbouring Christians. Meanwhile, as I write,  we are about to celebrate Pentecost and the outpouring of  God’s spirit among people of all different nations, each hearing the spirit speak in their own language.   

The season ahead of us is a growing season, and a time to celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit made known through the fruit of the Spirit. As we encounter people of different faiths, cultures and traditions, it is ‘not for us to set limits to the work of God, for the energy of the Holy Spirit cannot be confined. “The tree is known by its fruits”, and “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”’ When we meet these qualities in our encounter with other people I pray that we may ‘engage joyfully with the Spirit’s work in their lives and in their communities.’

 (Quotations from ‘Generous Love: the truth of the Gospel and the call to dialogue’, a report from the Anglican Communion Network for Inter Faith Concerns)

 

God bless,

Camilla

 


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