Thursday, 24 December 2009

'Stars and trees and waters stand still for an instant' :A Homily for Christmas night

'The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light’, proclaims Isaiah in our reading tonight. The messianic promise is that oppression will be lifted and peace will reign, but what kind of peace and what kind of Messiah?

There is a strong strand in religious tradition that equates darkness with evil and light with good. It’s an influential strand that some believe dates back to Persian Zoroastrianism, with its coeternal spirits of good and evil. This view was also influential in some of the heretical movements in the early church. But much of Abrahamic faith does not buy into such easy separations, such clear dualisms, for the Semitic-rooted paths proclaim One God who is Lord of all, One God who is both God of the night and of the day, of the dark and of the light. As the Psalmist proclaims: ‘the darkness and the light are both alike to you.’

And we gather here in the dark of night to worship that God; to gather around this crib and marvel at the truth of the Nativity — the truth that in the warm nurturing darkness of a woman’s womb God chose to be; that in the dark of night God became human, revealing the truth that there need be no separation between the human and the divine. As Athanasius said: ‘God became human that we might become divine.’

The images of darkness and light that do run through our scripture — the images of Christ as the light that darkness cannot extinguish— are not there to set up the dualism between light and dark but to show that the phantoms of the night, the fear of the dark, are the creations of our imagination and a demonstration of the weakness, yes the weakness of evil. For God comes in the night to claim the night from the phantoms and fantasies of our mind that give power to weak and floundering evil. God comes in the night to show us that the dark is indeed God’s place too and perhaps the night is a holy and sacred time, a time of revelation, wonder and awe. The beauty of a real night sky — breath-taking beauty such as the night skies of the Middle Eastern desert — it’s only in such real darkness away from the false modern city lights that the true beauty of the stars’ natural light can be seen. Our city lights drown out the wonder of natural darkness and its intimate relationship with true light: the desert sky is darkness and light in a partnership of beauty revealing the wonder of God’s universe.

And so monks and nuns have, down the centuries, risen in the dead of night to pray; and in the early church not only monks and nuns but all Christians were encouraged to rise in the middle of the night to pray. The Early Church Father Hippolytus said:

Around midnight, rise and wash your hands with water and pray. If you are married, pray together… For those elders who handed down the tradition to us taught us that in this hour every creature hushes for a brief moment to praise the Lord. Stars and trees and waters stand still for an instant. All the host of angels serving him, together with the souls of the righteous, praise God.

And our brothers and sisters in Islam believe this of the night too, for one of the last ten days of Ramadan is the Night of Power when Muslims believe the first words of the Qur’an were revealed to Muhammad. And on that night heaven is open wide and angels, one Muslim friend told me, descend in their thousands to the earth to hear the prayers of believers. And so many devout Muslims rise to pray at night during those last days of Ramadan in the hope of the angels hearing and taking their prayers to paradise.

And it was angels who came to those despised people of the night, the shepherds, to proclaim the birth of Jesus:

Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

… said the lone angel, to be followed by a host:

Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!

But what kind of Messiah? What kind of peace?

In a world in which dualisms of easy categorisations of good and bad, where opposites of the theories of the 'clash of civilisations' and easy dismissals and retreats from the Other abound - where in Bethlehem itself a wall of oppression, division and fear rises up - we are called to embrace this Messiah, this incarnate God who comes not to bring peace through conquest - the overcoming of the opposite — but through relationship. This God calls us not to set up easy opposites but to see our connection with the other, as light and dark work together to produce the beauty of the night sky. This new truly revolutionary Messiah, this Jesus, the God who is not a god in the way we think we know, calls us to live this Good News, to live this peace, the peace of Christmas, the peace of the night. To open our hearts to the Other, the different, and in so doing to be transformed and to transform, to become stars in the night sky, and as a human race to be what God made us to be: participants in his beauty, love and truth.

A Homily Preached at Midnight Mass St Paul's Church Balsall Heath Birmingham Christmas 2009

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Christmas - A Good Time for Abrahamic Dialogue?

Some Muslims and Jews certainly seem to think so!

I want to draw people's attention to a couple of examples of Muslims and Jews seeing Christmas as an opportunity to open up dialogue with Christians on Jesus and on our joint commitment to social justice and transformation.

An interesting post on the Christian-Muslim Forum website highlights a feature in this months Muslim Lifestyle Magazine Emel on The Muslim Jesus. The Magazine asks:

'In a world of divisions, can the man both Muslims and Christians call the Messiah, have the potential to be a bridge?'

Folks at the Forum have risen to the challenge and sought to address Emel's question with responses from Muslims and Christians. There is also a link to an interetsing article from the New Statesman by political Editor Mehdi Hasan on Jesus: The Muslim Prophet

Meanwhile over at the vibrant North American Jewish Progressive Magazine Tikkun there is an excellent reource on Advent & Christmas alongside material for Chanukah which ran from 11th -19th December. Tikkun calls itself - 'A Jewish Magazine and an interfaith movement' - in printing material on Christmas the editors of the magazine explain -what may appear an unusual move for a Jewish publication - in the following way

Tikkun was started as and remains the voice of liberal and progressive Jews. But it has also evolved to become the voice of spiritual progressives of all sorts....To make that inclusion real, we are creating an online collection at of readings and instructions on how people in each of the various spiritual and religious traditions could make their own holidays more spiritually aliveand more reflective of their highest values. We welcome your contribution to this effort—send your submissions to
The November/December issue of Tikkun also reflects this widening of our interests by presenting how committed Christians could make Christmas a deeper spiritual experience. Needless to say,we are not advocating that people become Christian, nor do we endorse the reading of the Bible that claims that Jesus is “the fulfillment”of Jewish messianic hopes, anymore than we have ever proselytized in the past forJudaism. If we proselytize for anything it is this:building a world based on love,caring, generosity,ethical and ecological sensitivity, awe, wonder, and radical amazement at the grandeur and mystery of All Being. We urge you all to infuse that consciousness in whatever spiritual, religious, or humanist practices you adopt in your life. Let’s build that love-based world now, before the global capitalist ethos of materialism, selfishness, “me-first-ism,” scarcity, and“Right Hand of God”consciousness—as well as the endless quest to accumulate and produce more— combine to destroy life on our planet.

There follows some good material written by New Monastic Christian Jonathan Wilson Hart Grove including an excellent introduction entitled A Note to Jewish Readers on How we Might wait for Messiah Together. Check it out!

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Focus on the Holy Land this Christmas - Resources for Worship & Reflection, ideas for action and a historic statement from Palestinian Christians

At this time of Christmas we remember Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. We remember that he was born under occupation in a land that was full of conflict – a brutal occupation force inflicting violence and terror on the people of the land, indigenous ‘terrorists’ enacting revenge with futile attacks against a much greater force - and it was into this world that Jesus came with his challenge to all. And Jesus presents us with a challenge today to not allow ourselves to forget the struggles of the people of Palestine/Israel and the conflict raging in the very places we sing about in our carols this Christmas. The ‘Holy Land’ a place of pilgrimage and deep significance for Muslims, Christians and Jews alike needs our prayers and our action. I encourage you to pray and share this prayer this Christmas from the Christian peace group Pax Christi and to consider using material from the Amos trust particularly in your services on 27th December the anniversary of the beginning of the Israeli bombing of Gaza last year.

O God, you are the source of life and peace.
Praised be your name forever.
We know it is you who turn our minds to thoughts of peace.
Hear our prayer in this time of war.
Your power changes hearts.
Muslims, Christians, and Jews remember,
and profoundly affirm, that they are followers of the one God,
children of Abraham, brothers and sisters;
enemies begin to speak to one another;
those who were estranged join hands in friendship;
nations seek the way of peace together.
Strengthen our resolve to give witness to these truths by the way we live.
Give to us: understanding that puts an end to strife;
mercy that quenches hatred; and forgiveness that overcomes vengeance.
Empower all people to live in your law of love.

Further Resources for Christmas on Palestine/Israel
Reflections and prayers from the Amos Trust at particularly focussing on the anniversary of the beginning of the aerial assault on Gaza which falls on Sunday 27th December. Please consider using some of the material in your local services that day.

Read and pray and reflect upon the stories in:

It’s Time for Peace - A Service of Reflections Featuring the voices of young Palestinians and Israelis at
And after Christmas think about putting your prayers into action …….

Find out about A Just Peace for Palestine this will be a multi agency campaign for those keen to be involved in supporting a just resolution to the Israel – Palestine crisis.
We will be asking churches, mosques, synagogues, schools, unions, to sign up to the ‘Just Peace for Palestine’ campaign. We will ask those who join to take certain actions to keep the issue at the forefront of the agenda, continuing to raise awareness and thus encouraging politicians to help bring about a just and peaceful resolution.

Just Peace for Palestine seeks an end to the ongoing conflict by calling and campaigning for:

  • The right of the Palestinian people to self determination
  • An end to Israel’s military occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories
  • The removal of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem
  • The dismantling of the Separation Wall
  • An end to the siege of the Gaza Strip
  • We are committed to a just peace for Palestine that affirms the dignity of the Palestinian people, in accordance with their civil, political and human rights under international law.
  • The current treatment of Palestinians denies their basic rights and therefore does not offer any hope of a lasting peace.
  • We affirm that a just peace for Palestinians will also mean peace and security for Israelis.
  • We reject all forms of racism that treats any group as ‘lesser’ or inferior.
  • Though religion can be a source of division and conflict, Jews, Christians and Muslims – as well as those of other faiths or none – can share a common commitment to ‘Doing unto others as you would have them do to you’. Whether from a faith group or not, we affirm this as a good foundation for going forward.
  • We recognise the history of the suffering of the Jewish community through the centuries and particularly the horror of the Holocaust. We affirm our rejection of anti-Semitism as we commit ourselves to justice for the Palestinians.

Please get in touch: To find out how the group you are a part of can join this exciting new campaign please contact: or visit or locally a group has already been set up in West Midlands the next meeting is on 27th January 2010 at Central Methodist Mission at 6.45pm. Contact me on for further details

Just Peace for Palestine, Amos Trust, 83 London Wall, London, EC2M 5ND, 020 7588 2638
Full website will be launched in early 2010
A just peace for Palestine means peace and security for Israelis

Call by Palestinian Christians for a just peace inspired by anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa


11 December 2009 is the launch of the Palestinian Kairos document, “A moment of truth: A word of faith, hope and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering”.
15 senior inter-denominational Palestinian Christian leaders co-author this historic call, 24 years after South African theologians published their Kairos Document.
Christian initiative calls the Israeli occupation a “sin”, urges Western Church to “stand alongside” the “oppressed”, including use of boycott and disinvestment.

As Christmas approaches, the Western Church looks towards Bethlehem and remembers not just the events of 2,000 years ago, but also today’s ‘little town’ and the Palestinian Christians living under Israeli occupation.

A Moment of truth: A word of faith, hope and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering

On 11 December 2009, the Palestinian Church will issue a historic call, with the launch of the Palestinian Christian Initiative document: “A moment of truth: A word of faith, hope and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering”.

Co-authored by over a dozen Palestinian church leaders and theologians from various denominations, and the result of an 18 month-drafting process, this Palestinian ‘Kairos Document’ is a “cry of hope in the absence of all hope”, addressed to Palestinians, Israelis, and “Christian brothers and sisters in the Churches around the world”.

The ceremony marking the official publication of the Palestine Kairos Document will be introduced by His Beatitude Patriarch Emeritus Michel Sabbah, one of the document’s co-authors. Other contributors to the initiative include Lutherans Bishop Dr. Munib Younan and Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, Greek Orthodox Archbishop Atallah Hanna, the Anglican Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, and the Baptist Rev. Dr. Yohana Katanacho.

The document declares “that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is a sin against God and humanity because it deprives the Palestinians of their basic human rights, bestowed by God”, distorting “the image of God in the Israeli who has become an occupier just as it distorts this image in the Palestinian living under occupation”.

As well as addressing Palestinian Christians, Palestinian Muslims, and Israeli Jews, a key part of the Palestinian Kairos call is to the Church in the West. The document criticises those “who use the Bible to threaten our existence as Christian and Muslim Palestinians”, trying to “attach a biblical and theological legitimacy to the infringement of our rights”.

At the same time as calling for “repentance”, the declaration affirms and celebrates the “prophetic” mission of the Church; “to speak the Word of God courageously, honestly and lovingly in the local context and in the midst of daily events”, and to “stand alongside” the “oppressed”.

The Palestinian Kairos Document asks a question to Christians internationally: “Are you able to help us get our freedom back, for this is the only way you can help the two peoples attain justice, peace, security and love?” They urge Christians to “take a position of truth with regard to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land”, including the use of “boycott and disinvestment as tools of non violence for justice, peace and security for all”.

The Palestinian Christian leaders describe a message of “love and living together” to the Muslims and Jews of the Holy Land, condemning “all forms of racism”. The Palestine Kairos call is for a “common vision, built on equality and sharing, not on superiority, negation of the other or aggression, using the pretext of fear and security”. It is thus that “justice and security will be attained for all”.

Rifat Kassis, coordinator of the initiative and President of Defence for Children International (DCI)’s International Executive Council, says he hopes that this document will be “a turning point in the relations between the churches worldwide and the Palestinian people”. Kassis affirmed that “apathy and silence will not help bring a resolution and a just peace”.

In the UK, the Palestinian Kairos Document is endorsed by the Amos Trust and its new initiative ‘A Just Peace for Palestine’. Rev. Canon Garth Hewitt hailed the Palestinian Christian document as “a call for the world and particularly the worldwide Christian community to wake up to what is happening in Palestine”. Hewitt said that “this document demands a response especially from Christian leaders” and “brings the challenge ‘now is the time to speak up’”.

Read the full document A Moment of Truth at

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Remembrance & the Prince of Peace

I was a little taken aback this week when rung by the Steward of the church I'm preaching at on Sunday and informed that they expected a two minute silence at 11am just the time when the service I had planned would be in the middle of the sermon and the breaking of the Word. I was heartened and encouraged in my keeness to renegotiate such an intrusion into the Preaching Service when I read Angela Sheir Jones' blog later that day and her reflection on Poppys and Peace, which is well worth a read.

I would want to go further than Angela though as I have never been keen to wear a red poppy in or out of church and have for several years supported the Peace Pledge Union's White Poppy Appeal. However, I am even more averse to the symbol of the Red Poppy as we see it recruited to muster support for the outrageous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq with current military misadventures being equated by Gordon Brown with 'the fight for freedom' in the second World War!

I notice that this week that excellent Christian 'think tank' Ekklesia have published an interesting looking report questioning Rememberance Day culture and making positive proposals as to how it might be revised. Reimagining Remembrance can be downloaded from the Ekklesia website.

I will hold a two minute silence at the beginning of the service on Sunday, a silence that will be prefaced by three stories - the first was told to me by an elderly member of Droitwich Spa Methodist Church about his experience as a soldier in the 'second world war', a war, he believed was necessary to rid the world of the evil of Nazism. His story was of fighting alongside Muslim soldiers from what is now India and Pakistan and how he was moved by their devotion and commitment to prayer five times a day. The second is a story from my wife Annies'' family. The story is of her paternal Grandfather and Great Uncle who chose because of their Christian faith to carry stretchers and not guns and were two of hundreds of young working class Methodist Concientious Objectors, in that futile and murderous war of 1914-18. The third will be of my experience of recently living for a year close to a hospital in Birmingham that treats the wounded soldiers from Afghanistan. I wear my white poppy not out of any disrespect to them but as a reminder of the frequent sight of their bandaged amputated legs as relatives or friends pushed these young people up the street passed my window, the reminder of that sight calls me not to stay in silence but to renew my opposition to these latest futile and murderous military ventures, in the name of the Prince of Peace.

Monday, 19 October 2009

'We Celebrate the God-given Diversity of our City!'

Below is a press release about a statement that I was involved in writing issued today by a coalition of Church leaders in Birmingham.

It has been published and reported on by
The Sunday Telegraph
The Birmingham Post
The Birmingham Mail
The Stirrer
The Methodist Recorder

Church leaders from across the city of Birmingham have come together to give a clear message that the divisive policies of the BNP are counter to the gospel of Jesus Christ, as the BBC prepares to include the party's leader Nick Griffin on their premier political programme, Question Time.

The leading clergy, pastors and ministers include Bishops from the Catholic, Anglican and Pentecostal churches, free-church leaders, tutors from the city's theological college, The Queens Foundation, and the Chair of the Council of Black-led Churches, which represents over 200 churces in the Midlands.

In their statement the church leaders distance themselves from claims made during the European Elections that the British National Party stand for a Christian Britain and are defenders of the Christian Heritage of this country.

They say: "The The BNP has nothing to do with Christianity and many of its hate filled, fear generating messages are completely counter to the loving challenge of the Christian gospel.The gospel of Jesus Christ is for all people, and celebrating the international, multi racial, multi ethnic nature of our churches we feel our faith in Jesus calls us to positively engage and work with our neighbours of other faith traditions."

The full text of the statement and a list of signatories follow:

"As representatives of Christian Churches in Birmingham we wish to express our real concern at the invitation given by the BBC to BNP leader Nick Griffin to the popular programme Question Time due to take place next Thursday. The BNP sometimes claims it is standing for 'Christian Britain.' We refute that wholeheartedly and would like to point out that some churches have stated that BNP membership is incompatible with Christian discipleship. The gospel of Jesus Christ is for all people, and celebrating the international, multi racial, multi ethnic nature of our churches we feel our faith in Jesus calls us to positively engage and work with our neighbours of other faith traditions. The BNP has nothing to do with Christianity and many of its hate filled, fear generating messages are completely counter to the loving challenge of the Christian gospel. We celebrate the wonderful God-given diversity of our city, region and nation."

The Revd Bill Anderson - Birmingham District Chair, Methodist Church
The Revd Lorraine Dixon - Deanery Missioner, Anglican Diocese of Birmingham
Major Sam Edgar - Divisional Commander, Salvation Army
The Revd Julian Francis - Centre for Black Ministries and Leadership, Queen's Foundation for Theological Education, Birmingham
The Revd Ray Gaston - Inter Faith Enabler, Birmingham District Methodist Church
The Revd Dr Toby Howarth - Inter Faith Advisor to the Bishop of Birmingham
The Rt Revd William Kenny - Administrator, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham
The Revd Roy Lowes - West Midlands Moderator, United Reformed Church
Dr Andy Mackie - Leader, Riverside Church Birmingham
The Revd Lynnette Mullings - Centre for Black Ministries and Leadership, Queen's Foundation for Theological Education, Birmingham
Dr Anthony Reddie - Research Fellow in Black Theological Studies for The British Methodist Church
Bishop Basil Richards - Church of God of Prophecy
The Rt Revd David Urquhart - Anglican Bishop of Birmingham
Pastor Calvin Young - Chair of the Council of Black-led Churches

Monday, 12 October 2009

A Pluralist/Evangelical Debate and Dialogue

I have been doing a little research lately on evangelical theologies of religions and in my exploring came across the following link to a transcript of an excellent debate and dialogue between leading Christian Pluralist Paul Knitter and Christian Evangelical Harold Netland. It is an example of the intra Christian debate and dialogue that I believe we need more of if we are to all become more faithful, hoping, loving Christians in our multi faith world. Its over a year old now but worth a read. Unfortunately the promised audio version of the discussion has not appeared to have been posted on the host site.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Gandhi & Jesus

Today is the anniversasry of Gandhi's birthday. In honour of this I provide links below to three reviews of a recent book that looked at Gandhi's influence on late 20th Century theologians consideration of Jesus' call to nonviolence and theologies of the atonement. The first one is from the National Catholic Reporter in USA and the second, a little more critical, from the International Review of Mission published by the World Council of Churches. The third which includes a link to a section of the book, is from Spirituality & Practice website. Gandhi and Jesus The Saving Power of Nonviolence is in the Queen's Foundation library.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The Sound of Prayer

This is a beautiful post from Angela Shier Jones' excellent blog The Kneeler
Good morning God,
I woke to a familiar sound today, even though the language was foreign, the voice unknown, there was no mistaking the sound of prayer. The muslim daughter of the woman in the bed opposite was saying her prayers, her mother joining in, as and how she was able.
They included me into this small intimate circle and so I was able to meet with you in the company of friends, understanding for the first time ever, what speaking in tongues really means.
As the daughter prayed, it was obvious when she was using old familiar words, gifted words from saints long since passed. These she wrapped around us like a winter blanket, their undulating cadences being like the folds of a cloth which she absentmindedly rearranged so that they fell comfortably, snugly around us. I could hear the words of the Lord's prayer as she prayed her morning prayers and the words of the psalms as she recited her morning Suras.
And when the familiar words had lulled us into warm, safe and secure spaces, she spoke from the heart - her words losing nothing of their rhythm, but now taking on an almost musical quality , a sweet lullaby for those she loved.
And you were there, and I heard and understood, her prayer for me, for her mother, for herself, for the hospital staff, and for the wider world. Her language universal, even though her vocabulary was foreign to me.
She called you Allah, and I heard it as Abba - and I swear they were the same, for you were with us. And your gift of tongues enabled me to utter my Amen, in the space you made sacred beside a hospital bed.
Thank you God.

Black Muslims in Britain

A very interesting book written by Richard Reddie brother of Anthony a colleague here at Queens. Below is a link to a recent interview with Richard in The Voice about the book and his research into Black converts/reverts to Islam

'THE INCREASING number of black people from Christian backgrounds becoming Muslims led Richard Reddie to investigate the phenomenon, and turn his findings into a book.
He spoke with Soul Stirrings about this development in Britain’s black religious culture. more'

Monday, 21 September 2009

Christians Reading the Qur'an

The Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan has now finished. I'm still not rooted enough in Birmingham and Sparkhill to enjoy the levels of participation in the month that I particularly experienced in my parish in Leeds between 2004 and 2006 and reflect upon in my forthcoming book.

However, I was invited by Birmingham Young Citizens and Islamic Help to engage in a sponsored fast towards the end of Ramadan to raise money for projects in Tanzania, and went to an enjoyable inter faith Iftar organised by the group with Muslims, Christians and Sikhs in attendance.

It was during the Ramadan fast of 2005 that I first seriously engaged with the Qur'an and haven't put it down for long since. Annie and I try to read something from the Qur'an daily after we have said the Morning Office prayers and readings. And I have received much spiritual insight from reading the Qur'an.

What is the nature of the Qur'an for Christians willing to openly engage with it?

It has been argued that in the latter years of the last century three lines of explanation developed amongst Christian readers of the Qur'an - beyond the negative dismissals of simplistic Christian apologetics - on its value to Christians (1)

The first position recognises that the Qur'an is of spiritual benefit to Muslims but tends not to explore its possible spiritual benefit for Christians. It emphasisesthe differences between Qur'anic statements and Christian conviction. Jacques Jomier in The Bible and the Qur'an has said 'According to Islam, God's message has not been incarnated in a man, Jesus Christ, but rather delivered in a book, in the Qur'an. This book gives guidence to Muslims to follow the path of obedience to God's law, which they believe, leads to salvation. For Christians, public revelation is full. complete and concluded in Jesus Christ. And because the Incarnation and Redemption are denied in Islam, the whole idea of salvation is different in this religion'. For Jomier the benefit of reading the Qur'an for Christians is simply to help them better understand their Muslim neighbour.

The second position argues that the text is divinely inspired and can be read with spiritual benefit by Christians but tends to recruit the Qur'an as a Christian text. its proponents argue that Islamic tradition has misunderstood the Qur'anic revelation and emphasises a Christian influenced interpretation or appeals to a 'higher' level of truth/reading in which the differences between the Qur'anic and Christian revelation are overcome. Franciscan, Giulio Basetti - Sani's The Koran in the Light of Christ - Islam in the plan of History of Salvation (1977) is an example of such an approach.

The third and to my mind most interesting position takes a mediating path between these two, trying to respect the Qur'an as Islamic scripture and to respect Islamic traditions of interpretation, whilst showing how it might also function as spiritually beneficial to Christians.

Hans Kung has argued that the Qur'an can act as a 'prophetic corrective' for Christians to the overly 'high christology' of concilliar Christianity and aid the recovery of an earlier Jewish Christianity with a lower Christological perspective. Although I think there is some merit in this argument the way Kung goes about it appears a little too much like recruiting the Qur'an to his modernist Christian theological project.

On the other hand Kenneth Cragg seeks to work in the other direction to Kung. Whilst being steeped in a deeply appreciative understanding of the Islamic interpretation of the Qur'an Cragg argues that Christians can interpret the Qur'an from within the perspective of Christic revelation. Cragg arguesthat certain Quranic themes can be illuminated more fully through an engagement with the Christian gospel. Whilst Islamic scholar Fazlur Rahman was very appreciative of Cragg's encounter with the Qur'an, if not uncritical, other Muslims have argued more forcefully that he reveals an overly Christianizing and indeed orientalizing tendency in his approach.

Perhaps the most interesting mediating perspective is found with the long term Muslim-Christian Research group - a European- North African initiative of the 1980s that brought together Christian and Islamic scholars to read the Qur'an and the Bible together over a number of years. The small but richly engaging book The Challenge of the Scriptures - The Bible and the Qur'an was one of the results of this dialogue. The Christians in the group, at the end of the process, when asked to reflect on the meaning of the Qur'an said:

'We see the Qur'an as an authentic Word of God, but one in part essentially different from the Word in Jesus Christ'

Peter Ford argues that ' these Christians have thus been willing to be drawn in into a certain spiritual tension, to live with a measure of paradox. it cannot be denied that their approach, at once honest and respectful, holds an excellent prospect for constructive dialogue with Muslims, and not least because such statements are formulated within such dialogue.'

The first decade of the 21st century has seen a new phenomenon the Scriptural Reasoning movement developing amongst Jews, Christians and Muslims. This movement may be said to share the same spirit as the earlier Muslim-Christian Research Group but this time including Jews. A very interesting film showing one such scriptural reasoning group in process can be found here.

Reading the Qur'an as a Christian and listening to and reading about how Muslims understand and interpret the Qur'an has been a challenging and enriching spiritual experience. I find myself drawn to the tension ridden paradoxical position of the Christians in the European - North African initiated dialogue of the 1980s.

Below I recommend some resources for any Christians who would also like to step out on a journey of their own into the Qur'an

(1) See F. Peter Ford Jnr 'The Qur'an as Sacred Scripture: An Assessment of Contemporary Christian Perspectives' in The Muslim World April 1993

Some resources for engaging with the Qur’an written by Muslims or taking an approach that is sensitive and knowledgeable about how Muslims engage with the Qur’anic revelation, that I have found helpful.

Books on the Qur’an by Muslims

Farid Esack, The Qur’an – A Users Guide (One World 2005)
A very good all round introduction from a Muslim committed to a faith activist and liberationist perspective but who also undertook traditionalist Islamic studies. Esack was a leading Muslim activist in the anti Apartheid struggle in South Africa and has been involved in activism on war, imperialism and Aids. Esack’s more academic earlier work based on his PhD thesis at Birmingham University and drawing particularly on his involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle is Qur’an, Liberation and Pluralism (One World 1997) and very much worth the effort.

Mona Siddiqui, How to Read the Qur’an (Granta 2007)
Muslim academic’s accessible introduction to the Qur’an. An interfaith practitioner who has featured in recent years as one of the main speakers at the Greenbelt Arts Festival

Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes of the Qur'an, (1989)
A modern classic probably better read after some time of engagement with the Qur'an.

Asma Barlas, Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an (University of Texas Press 2002)
A brilliant reading of the Qur’an from a woman’s perspective emphasising the radically egalitarian and anti-patriarchal nature of its teachings. Asma Barlas is amongst a leading group of women scholars challenging readings of Islam based on western media stereotypes and cultural patriarchy.

Reading/Hearing the Qur’an

Approaching the Qur’an – The Early Revelations Michael Sells (White Cloud Press 2007)
This is an excellent starting place. The book goes through each of the Surahs - the shorter Meccan surahs of early Qur’anic revelation - that a young Muslim would learn as they first became familiar with the Qur’an. Sells translates these surahs and has a scholarly but accessible commentary on each. The book also contains a CD with recitations of some of surahs by world renowned reciters.

The Book of Revelations: A Sourcebook of Themes from the Holy Qur'an edited by Kabir Helminski (The Book Foundation 2005)
A good next step with commentaries by respected modern commentators on a large number of selected passages .

The Qur’an translated by M A S Abdel Haleem (Oxford World Classics 2008)
A good modern accessible translation of the whole Qur'an

The Message of the Qur'an (Book Foundation 2008)
The Arabic text with transliteration, translation and commentary by modern scholar Muhammad Asad - for deeper engagement.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Come September

Seven years ago today Arundhati Roy gave her 'Come September' speech at the Lannan Foundation in USA, a year after the attack on the twin towers in New York. Roy presents in her writing and speeches an articulate, moving, powerful and compassionate spirituality of resistance to empire, war and corporate globalisation. Watch her deliver the speech or listen to it set to relevant news and documentary clips and music in the film 'We'. You can also watch her excellent speech Instant Mix Imperial Democracy (Buy One Get One Free) delivered at Riverside Church New York after the invasion of Iraq. Also she spoke out vociferously against the Sri Lankan governments atrocities against the Tamils earlier this year in This is not a war on terror, it is a racist war on all Tamils

To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget.

Friday, 18 September 2009

The Pilgrimage and Rosh Hashanah

Alison a candidate for the Presbyteral ministry in the Methodist Church at Queens recently went to Palestine with the Amos Trust as part of her Independant Study Module, here is a short reflection on the experience that she kindly wrote for this blog (pictures to follow) I have also added a challenge from Jewish Voices for Peace at this time of Rosh Hashanah - the Jewish new year.

Sitting on the steps of the main stand at Cheltenham Racecourse, overlooking the Cotswold Hills, listening to Sami Awad (Director of The Holy Land Trust[1]) speak at the Greenbelt Festival this August Bank Holiday weekend, I was transported back in time to three months previously when I had sat in a room in Bethlehem, in the West Bank listening to Sami speak about non-violence.

Under occupation, Palestinians face discrimination, humiliation and injustice on a daily basis[2]. Since the Separation Wall was built in 2002, life has become increasingly difficult, with restrictions on movement, trade, health care and education, to the point where high unemployment, the collapse of tourism, limited access to water, to their families and their agricultural land and also house demolitions is now making life intolerable for many people. “It is like living in a big jail…we are dying a slow death here in Bethlehem,” said one Palestinian.

Yet amongst the suffering, there are seeds of hope. There are people, both Israelis and Palestinians, who choose to walk the way of non-violent resistance, to make a difference in their communities, working for justice, peace and reconciliation. For students beginning education in non-violence, “the first lesson they have to learn is not to come with their guns!”

“To exist is to resist” is the slogan written on the nine metre high wall and however hard Israel tries to create an apartheid system with Palestinian enclaves and illegal Israelis settlements, many hold fast to the hope of a future where all are equally recognised and valued as human beings.

Pilgrimage to the Holy Land is an opportunity to visit the sacred sites of our faith traditions, but do not leave without listening to the stories of a people who are the ‘living stones’ in the Holy Land.[3] Pilgrimage and story are entwined like the threads of a cord that strengthen each other in their coming together, sharing time and place. As pilgrims we journey along that spiralling route, where story speaks and the way calls the pilgrim forwards towards revolution.
We become witnesses to the lives of a suffering, yet incredibly hopeful people, in the face of persecution. “Out of a disaster comes one hundred opportunities”, says a young Palestinian woman living in Bethlehem, committed to working with women and young adults, encouraging them in positive thinking and non-violent resistance.

As I journeyed home, I realised that I will always hold these people and this land as part of my story, now more than I ever did before – so how can I make a difference?[4]

[1] The Holy Land Trust: Greenbelt Festival adopts “Just Peace” Campaign for the Holy Land Aug 2009
[2] The Arab Association for Human Rights
[3] Amos Trust Trip to Palestine/Israel May 2010
[4] Greenbelt Worship Booklet: Take an Olive seed – Resources Aug 2009-09-16

Meanwhile Jewish Voices for Peace write:

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins on Friday night. It is the start of a ten day period of reflection ending on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when we contemplate the year that has passed, and make commitments for the year to come.

We at Jewish Voice for Peace are using these ten days to reflect on our work over the past year, and to re-commit ourselves to work even more effectively to bring about a world in which Israeli and Palestinian lives both matter, equally. Especially now, when Richard Goldstone's UN report has just been released highlighting war crimes commited during the assault on Gaza.

We invite you to take this moment to join us and Jews all around the world in this process of tshuvah, repenting for what has been, and turning toward a new hope and a new world.
What will you do to create a more just world for all people? What vision do you hope for in the coming year?

Please go to our website to share your own commitments and be inspired by others:

Tell the world what you hope for, and how you will commit to bringing into being the world of justice we all seek.

L'Shana Tova u'Metuka

A peaceful, just and sweet New Year - for everyone. May you and your loved ones be written in the book of life, and may our efforts to end the occupation and bring about justice for all bear fruit in the coming year.

In solidarity and hope,

Rebecca Vilkomerson
Jewish Voice for Peace

The alternative TV station 'Democracy Now!' carried this report on the Goldstone report featuring Norman Finkelstein

Monday, 7 September 2009

Open Letter to West Midlands Police concerning EDL disruption 5th September

Dear Mr Levack

Thank you for your response to our open letter of 3rd September (1). Following the events of yesterday I feel it necessary to respond and for reasons of transparency and openness - publicly.
I was personally present in the city centre yesterday afternoon in order to witness for myself what happened and to evaluate how the EDL behaved.

In your response to our original letter you said that the police had received no notification of a march from the EDL and I therefore presume that the march they undertook from Broad Street to the city centre was illegal. I was wondering if anyone had been charged in relation to this. There is plenty of photographic evidence of EDL supporters with banners and placards clearly undertaking an illegal march, some banners proclaiming 'no more mosques'- surely a case of 'religious aggravation.' I also presume - following your comments - that now there is a history of them attempting such marches in our city you will, if they attempt to return, be more willing to follow the Bedfordshire Police example in banning them.

Secondly you stated that West Midlands Police would arrest and prosecute wherever there is evidence of racially or religiously aggravated offenses taking place in our city. Apart from the incident mentioned above I personally witnessed such offenses taking place yesterday in the area of Bennett’s Hill and New Street when members of the EDL broke out of Bennett’s Bar where they were being corralled by the police. They came down a backstreet throwing bottles and taunting, with Islamophobic and racist abuse, a group of Muslim youths present on New Street. The officers who were present - in the immediate vicinity - took no immediate action and when I later, twice, approached an officer who had described himself to the groups of youths as 'the officer in charge of the area' - saying I was happy to make a statement as to what I had seen - he seemed disinterested to say the least.

I notice also that The Sunday Mercury carries a report that corroborates my experience of hearing EDL supporters chanting racist and Islamophobic chants when it says that earlier in Broad Street they 'yelled insults against Allah and Islam.' I wonder if anyone has been charged in relation to these incidents. I was also personally handed a leaflet by EDL supporters when I was earlier in the area of Bennett’s Bar which stated ' “Islam is a threat to us all. Don’t let this oppressive religion go unchallenged. Time to make stand”, putting paid to the claim that the EDL are merely against what they call 'Islamic Extremism' and again, surely running close to religious aggravation. I was also witness later in the afternoon to Muslim citizens of Birmingham being told to move in an aggressive manner by your own officers in order not to 'aggravate' the EDL as they were being shipped away from Lancaster Circus. I have also seen evidence of said EDL supporters making offensive gestures of an extreme nature out of the windows of the buses as they passed by Muslim citizens on the street.

It is apparent that the police were unable to restrict the EDL in the way you claimed confidently that you would and the lack of decisive action to seek a banning order in the first place led to citizens of Birmingham being racially and religiously abused, frightened in their own city centre when many of them were simply out for an afternoon's Saturday shopping. I also noticed that things got so out of your control, that it appears, the only option was to hold the EDL in Bennett’s bar where they were able to drink, surely a recipe for further trouble. Furthermore when police put them on some of our local buses to ship them elsewhere in the city I have personally seen evidence showing that they proceeded to seriously vandalise these buses and so again because of the police authority’s insistence on 'upholding their right to protest' the people of Birmingham suffer the consequences.

I hope you can now agree with us that the EDL are not a legitimate political group deserving their right to protest but a racist group attempting to whip up religious hatred and animosity and should not be allowed to come and further disrupt and jeopardise the good community relations of our multi cultural city

I await your reply forthwith

Yours sincerely

Revd Ray Gaston
Inter Faith Tutor & Enabler
Queens Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education
Birmingham District of The Methodist Church
Somerset Road
Birmingham B13 2QJH

(1)For a copy of the original Open Letter from The Birmingham District of The Methodist Church visit

The Stirrer published the letter on 9th September and the Birmingham Post on 10th, as of Tuesday 15th September still no comment from the police to me directly but again the Stirrer carries a response from the West Midlands Police to critics here

Thursday, 3 September 2009


Today we issued the open letter below from the Birmingham Methodist Church to the Home Secretary and The West Midlands Police Authority adding our voices to the campaign to ban the so called 'English Defence League' from marching in Birmingham. Carrs Lane Baptist Church and St Martin's in The Bull Ring along with Central Methodist Mission issued a similar joint ecumenical statement.

An Open Letter to Home Secretary and West Midlands Police Authority from The Birmingham Methodist Church

Dear Sirs

As representatives of the Methodist Church in the city of Birmingham we wish to express our concern over the proposed presence of the so-called ‘English Defence League’ in the city centre on 5th September. Following their provocative presence in the city on August 8th we feel strongly that the relevant authorities should do their utmost to prevent this group coming into the city again. Their sole aim is to create tension and to intimidate and provoke the people of Birmingham with racist and Islamophobic abuse.

The EDL has been banned from congregating in Luton by the Bedfordshire Police and we see no reason why the West Midlands Police authority cannot take similar powers to protect our city from attempts to undermine community relations and promote hatred against our city’s Muslim citizens.

We call on the West Midlands Police Authority to ban the EDL from Birmingham on 5th September

Revd Bill Anderson
Birmingham District of Methodist Church
t:: 0121 449 0131

Revd Ray Gaston
Inter Faith Enabler
Birmingham District of Methodist Church
t: 0121 452 2623

Revd Neil Johnson
District Minister
Birmingham Central Mission
t:: 0121 233 1915

The 'English Defence League' claims to be protesting against 'Islamic extremism' but they have been exposed as deeply Islamophobic and racist and with close links to the BNP. The film below was made when they last came to Birmingham at the beginning of August and shows you the real aim of the EDL is to hurl racist and Islamophobic abuse at the citizens of Birmingham and to seek to promote community tension.

So far (Friday Morning the following have published reports on the open letter

The Stirrer

The Birmingham Post

Thursday, 9 July 2009

In Memory of Her

I have been to a couple of Ordinations this month where the majority of candidates were women. Its a long time since I was at an ordination ceremony and as I sat in Worcester and Gloucester Cathedrals I remembered the times I stood outside Ripon Cathedral in vigils as a member of the Movement for the Ordination of Women in the late eighties as the campaign for Women priests entered its final phase. I also reflected on that amazing day on 11 November 1992 when the vote went through General Synod and the great feeling of being in the crowd of women deacons and their supporters outside Church house as the vote was announced and cheers and tears of joy were shared in the crowd ( you can see the BBC video report of the vote here). Roll on Women bishops - Check out the WATCH website for current campaigns on Women and The Church of England. Good news from the Methodist conference (who were ordaining women long before the CofE) yesterday as for the second time in recent years two women were elected as Chair and Vice Chair of the conference for 2010/11

I am still amazed by the objections to women's ordination and women's leadership in the church, especially when one looks at the practice of Jesus. Not only did he let women fund him and resource his ministry, but he accepted - to the horror of his immediate circle of men - the priestly ministrations of a woman who annointed him for burial while the in crowd of 'apostles' were failing to understand what he was saying about what was about to befall him. In Mark's orginal and powerful telling of this story the faithful woman disciple remains anonymous. Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza comments on this in her wonderful book In Memory of Her:

In the passion account of Mark's gospel three disciples figure prominantly: on the one hand, two of the twelve - Judas who betrays Jesus and Peter who denies him - and on the other, the unnamed woman who annoints Jesus. But while stories of Judas and Peter are engraved in the memory of Christians, the story of the woman is virtually forgotten. Although Jesus pronounces in Mark: 'And truly I say to you, whereever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her' (14:9), the woman's prophetic sign- action did not become part of the gospel knowledge of Christians. Even her name is lost to us. Wherever the gospel is proclaimed and the eucharist celebrated another story is told: the story of the apostle who betrayed Jesus. The name of the betrayer is remembered, but the name of the faithful disciple is forgotten because she was a woman.

You can read a reflecton on this story, based on Fiorenza's approach, here.

Faith traditions often have an egalitarian gender dynamic at their roots that has often been betrayed by later capitualtion to patriarchal culture. Islamic Scholar Asma Barlas points to the radical message about women in the Qur'an and the Sikh religion at its roots has a strong demand for equal treatment of women in education and society. I reflected upon this as Amra Bone a Muslim and Gopinder Kaur Sagoo a Sikh spoke passionately about their faith and work at the Inter Faith fringe event at The Methodist conference in Wolverhampton on Monday evening. The event, with an all women panel that also included Deidre Burke a Jewish woman and Ramona Kauth a Buddhist, was orginally concieved by a small group of us at a meeting in London last February. My own thinking for suggesting the all woman panel was the need to acknowledge the leading role played by women of all faith communities in the Inter Faith movement and in community activism in the West Midlands - it was unfortunate that so few people from the conference came to hear the quality of what was shared.

Amra Bone (with Diane Burke in the backgound) and Gopinder Kaur Sagoo(top) at Monday's Meeting

Another local example of a woman of faith playing a leading role in community politics and social change is Birmingham City Councillor and Muslim Salma Yaqoob. Recently she was interviewed for television about the increasing problem of drugs and gangs in local communities of the West Midlands drawing on her experience as a woman, person of faith and community activist the interview can be seen below

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Commandments for Mission & Spirituality for Dialogue

An interesting development over at the Christian-Muslim Forum. Today sees the launch of a joint Muslim - Christian document 'The 10 Commandments of Mission'. This is a very good initiative that I wholeheartedly support. I especially like:

We bear witness to, and proclaim our faith not only through words but through our attitudes, actions and lifestyles.

As Christians we need to consider what REAL Christian witness is, so often much of our understanding of witness seems to be rooted in a model of mission that can lead to a betrayal of Christ rather than a witnessing to Christ. A model of mission that is about encountering the religious other in the hope of converting them to the church (however nice we are about it) rather than hoping for mutual transformation in the furtherence of the Kingdom of God. It is an understanding of encounter that presumes our primary task is the verbal sharing of OUR faith, but maybe the best way we share our faith, we witness to Christ is in the willingness to listen and in being prepared to stand in solidarity with others in our 'actions, attitudes and lifestyles.'

Contemporary witness to Christ especially to our Muslim neighbours can be rooted in a confident Christ centred spirituality like that displayed in this quote by the late CMS missionary Roger Hooker, even in the face of the obvious non compliance of our neighbours of other faiths to such thoughtful guidelines as those mentioned above:

Everybody wants to defend something, for most men (sic) today suffer from a deep inward fear and insecurity as the world becomes more and more an unfamiliar place. Very often the more frightened a man is the more aggressive he becomes and the more noise he makes. This attitude is very natural, very human, but is it Christian…..

And so Jesus goes forth defenceless and alone. In the end his very clothes are stripped off him and he hangs on the cross, naked and vulnerable to all abuse and cruelty men want to heap on him. Yet we believe that there and in that way he did his greatest work.

This is of quite fundamental importance for the way in which we approach other men. All our unwillingness to get hurt, all our attempts to argue in defence of our Lord stand condemned. So often, when I have allowed myself to be drawn in an argument, especially with Muslims, I have found that these words of Jesus have come into my mind. ‘Sheathe your sword’. We must be open and vulnerable to the other, even as Christ on the cross was open and vulnerable. Part of being vulnerable is to listen – to expose our hearts and our minds to the full force of what the other is saying even when he challenges our most precious and deeply held convictions, putting faith itself at risk. To close our minds at this point, to refuse the pain of listening, is unbelief.

Dialogue is our primary mission in relation to other faiths and in that dialogue, in the building of relationship, true witness can occur. Drawing on the spirituality of the Sermon on the Mount Raimon Panikkar wrote these wonderfully playful guidelines for dialogue that I love.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Iran - What Is Going On?

I was speaking last Saturday at the Manchester Islamic Institute sharing a platform with Sheikh Arif Abdul Hussein from Al Mahdi Institute in Birmingham at an event organised by Mohebban Youth Foundation to celebrate the Birthday of Fatima, Muhammad's youngest daughter and Mother of Imam Hussein. A lot of the talk at the meal after the official programme was about the Iranian Elections with the vote having just been announced that day. A week later and things have moved fast and developed considerably.

To get some background on the events and to go beyond the simplistic presentations of the dynamics within Iranian politics and the Islamic Republic that is often presented in our news media it is worth watching the clip below from an alternative US news network Grit TV. The clip includes an interview with Hamid Dabashi an interesting Iranian born intellectual who has written extensively on Islam, Iran and the Iranian Revolution and the Islamic Republic including Iran - a People Interrupted, Islamic Liberation Theology - Resisting the Empire and Theology of Discontent -The Ideological Foundations of the Islamic Revolution in Iran

Meanwhile the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran has a page on their website devoted to presenting a range of opinions on the elections from mainline and other sources. See also the interesting Tehran Bureau

Another clip from an interview with Hamid Dabashi below from 20th June

Monday, 15 June 2009

A Heart Broken Open

It's on it's way ! Wild Goose Publications are getting closer to publishing my book. Below is the blurb for an initial flyer advertising the book and above is the proposed cover - nice innit.

ISBN 978 1 905010 61 5
RRP 13.50
Pub Date August 2009

'A Heart Broken Open' is the moving and insightful reflection by an Anglican Priest of his grassroots engagement with Islam through relationships built from inner-city parish ministry in Leeds to the streets of Karbala in Iraq at a time of rising Islamophobia and the ’war on terror’.

The author offers a way of witnessing to Christ’s peace whilst entering into the faith of ‘the other’with humility and love, allowing the way of Islamand the practice of Muslims to touch, challenge and inspire his Christian faith and feed his hunger for God. In so doing he offers us inspiration in finding our own ways to walk with confidence in Christ’s love amongst neighbours of many faiths and none.

‘This book is deeply personal and moving … I recommend it as of real value at grassroots level where the real action lies. It counters Islamophobia on behalf of radical Christianity’
Frank Whaling, emeritus Professor in Religious Studies, Edinburgh University

‘A tour de force of radical spirituality’
Revd Donald Reeves,Director, Soul of Europe

‘Ray’s story is a profound and uplifting one … By acting as an agent of change and at the sametime being open to change himself, Ray exemplifies a powerful alternative to thepolarizing discourse which views difference as a threat’
Salma Yaqoob, Chair, Birmingham Stop The War Coalition and Birmingham City Councillor.

For further information, or to request a review copy please e-mail

To pre-order a copy of A Heart Broken Open please e-mail

Alternatively, call Wild Goose Publications on
0141 332 6292.

Monday, 8 June 2009

The Obama Speech

Okay on the positive side - it was an extremely impressive and engaging piece of oratory, if a little patronising at times !

I'm trying not to be cynical about this and have been checking out responses on the web over the last few days. Here are some of the most interesting I've come across trying to give a balance between intelligent positive and negative responses:

European Muslim Scholar and activist Tariq Ramadan was cautiously open and positive about Obama's Cairo speech.

Robert Fisk cut through the pre-speech hype in the Independent the day before. His passionately felt arguments obviously struck a chord at the Muslim Association of Britain who posted his article on their web page. But the day after, again in The Independent he was a little more positive

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz had this interesting take on the Obama speech.
Whilst Jennifer Lowenstein a member of the US sister organisation of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions takes a different approach in How Much Really Separates Obama and Netanyahu?
The Inter Press Service also took a more critical approach and Noam Chomsky questions if anything has really changed.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Week of Prayer for Peace in Palestine - Israel and 'The Elephant in the Room'

Last Friday Annie and I joined a small group of Christians and Jews (the former associated with Pax Christi, Friends of Sabeel and the Ecumenical Accompanier Programme and the latter associated with Jews for Justice for Palestinians) in an act of witness outside the UAV Ltd engine factory in Shenstone nr Litchfield. The witness was part of the World Council of Churches Week of Prayer for Palestine Israel. The Israeli owned factory produces the engines for the Unmanned Aircraft Vehicles or Drones that were used according to Amnesty International in surveilance and targeting missions over Gaza at the turn of the year. The simple act of witness was followed by a church service based on the World Council of Churches service for the week that can be downloaded here.

It was good to come together with Jewish friends in this witness, often though Israel Palestine can be a point of divergence between some Christians and some Jews. Palestine-Israel is often the 'elephant in the room' of Christian - Jewish dialogue, as this article by Rabbi Tony Bayfield at the time of the recent Gaza atrocities articulates.

Many of the issues facing Christians involved in dialogue with both Jews and Muslims, and in campaigning for a Just Peace in Israel Palestine are explored in this recent piece by Jane Clements at the time of the Popes visit to the 'Holy Land'.

Although a little older another article of interest is this one by Paul Oestreicher called Loving Israel, Loving Palestine - Is it Possible?

I welcome and have agreed to participate in plans that are afoot in Birmingham for a facilitated dialogue between an invited group of local Christians and Jews on Israel/Palestine in the autumn. I also look forward to the broadening of such a dialogue into one that eventually includes Muslim sisters and brothers.

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?