Alexander Malik, moderator of the Church of Pakistan and bishop of Lahore, speaks at a press conference. In the background is Bishop Thomas Butler of the diocese of Southwark.
The world changed dramatically after 9-11. So, too, have the relationships between churches of the Anglican Communion and other faiths, with inter-faith dialogue now figuring in their agenda like never before. That was the conclusion of the world’s Anglican bishops gathered here on Monday.
When bishops gathered for the Lambeth Conference in 1998, inter-faith dialogue was “kind of a theoretical and interesting question,” said Thomas Butler, diocesan bishop of Southwark, a borough of southeast London. “But now it really is very high on the agenda of virtually every nation in the world because we mostly now live in multi-faith environments.” Matters of faith and religion are now “very high” on the agenda of both politicians and bishops, he noted.
As bishop of Southwark, “I’m living cheek-by-jowl in a multicultural, multi-faith environment,” said Bishop Butler. “My next door neighbours are people of other faiths.”
He said that interfaith dialogue has enabled him and other faith groups to become “allies in trying to rebuild our community through all the tensions that may have (arisen) from 9-11, the war on Iraq, etc.”
He added: “It’s because we know each other well as faith leaders that we can play our part in being the glue that holds our community together for the common good.”
(Racial tension has been on the rise in Britain, not just in the wake of 9-11, but in the wake of the July 2005 bombing in London by Muslim extremist groups.)
Bishop Butler, who lives in one of the most ethnically-diverse parts of London, said he has not personally experienced what one Church of England bishop characterized as restrictions on non-Muslims visiting Muslim-dominated areas of the city. Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, the bishop of Rochester, had said earlier that Islamic extremists have created “no-go” areas across Britain that are dangerous for non-Muslims to enter.
“It’s hasn’t been my experience at all,” said Bishop Butler, who said he has lived in a multi-ethnic neighbourhood in the last 20 years. “I’ve never felt any no-go areas.”
Bishop Butler underscored the importance of interfaith co-operation, citing the presence of leaders from other faith communities at the Walk to Witness event last week where the world’s Anglican bishops took to the streets of central London to pressure governments to tackle global poverty. “We’re stronger in pressing our case when we’re together,” he said.
Alexander Malik, the bishop of Lahore and moderator of the Church of Pakistan, meanwhile stressed the importance of churches and faith communities engaging in a dialogue with “the secularist West,” noting that they have been the source of some ethnic tensions and “misconceptions.” He cited the controversy over the publication of Muhammad cartoons by a Danish publication in 2005 which inflamed Muslims in many parts of the world and gave rise to some riots. “It’s freedom of the press in your context, but it’s different in Pakistan,” he said.
Bishop Malik also urged churches to support the campaign by Christian leaders in Pakistan against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, saying, “It’s like a hanging sword on minorities.”
In a press conference, Bishop Malik said that religious extremism has made dialogue “difficult but not impossible.” He underscored the importance of tearing down misconceptions, stressing that “all Muslims are not terrorists nor are all Christians Westerners.” He said that 9-11 gave rise to both “difficulties and opportunities” for dialogue.
Bishop Malik also said that inter-faith relations are hampered for the most part by a misunderstanding of what dialogue means. “Many Christians think dialogue is a betrayal of mission and evangelism, which it’s not. Others feel that dialogue is a debate about those positions. Some feel that dialogue is a compromise, watering down your own religious commitments,” he said. “Interfaith dialogue is an excellent way of communicating the love of God.”
Bishop Butler said in their discussions bishops also discussed the “fruits” of interfaith dialogue, citing the work that Anglicans and Muslims are doing to address HIV-AIDS in Zambia.
In their discussions, bishops were given copies of Generous Love: The Truth of the Gospel and the Call to Dialogue, a document prepared by the Anglican Communion Network for Inter Faith Concerns, which provides “an Anglican theology of interfaith relations.”
Meanwhile, Richard Carter, an English Anglican priest who lived through the murders of seven of his fellow Melanesian brothers on the Guadalcanal in 2003, talked about this experience at the spouses’ conference.
Mr. Carter, who was also at the press conference, said the church had been “a source of hope” for people during that harrowing experience.