Wednesday, 29 August 2012

'Mercy like the Rain Keeps Falling Down' - My Greenbelt Talks

Greenbelt 2012  © Jonathon Watkins
It was great to be speaking at Greenbelt this year - my first time. It was good to connect with friends old and new and particularly encouraging to see my friend Mohammed Ali from Birmingham enjoying himself so much and receiving such a good reception - you can read his own reflections on the festival here

I was a bit nervous about my first talk in the Jerusalem venue facing the Racecourse Grandstand which seemed a large venue for me a first timer. However, I needn't have worried as the turn out was good and despite the rain I felt comfortable in the space and relished the experience and the challenge to connect with people across the tarmac - 'Preaching up a storm' as one of the Queen's students present put it. In fact the whole experience brought to mind the story of when the Nasheed Band Shaam came to perform at the local MultiCultural centre in Hyde Park Leeds when I was vicar there in 2005 and sang 'Mercy Like the Rain is Falling Down'

In my talk I outlined an approach to Christian Inter Faith encounter that emphasised what I called 'Christic Vulnerability' using personal stories and a wide range of scriptural reflection.  What was really humbling was the number of people who came up to talk afterwards with their own stories. I have also received a number of tweets and emails since Saturday giving very generous and positive feedback. These included a church  Inter Faith advisor who wrote 'A beautiful, fiery, passionate talk. Thank you',  a university chaplain who commented ' I caught the first of your talks this weekend and I thought you were great. Passionate, intelligent, convincing, and accessible... Thanks for the challenging words!' and a youth worker from London who said  'I just thought I’d drop you a line to say many thanks for the talk you presented at Greenbelt over the weekend. And this, despite the downpour that you endured with humour!! '

You can download the talk on the Greenbelt website for £3.50 here

Unfortunately my second talk was not able to be recorded. In the smaller venue of the Living Room many of those there had been to the first talk as we explored more deeply the model I had set out in the Jerusalem venue but this time in the specific context of relations and engagement with Judaism and Islam.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Birmingham Interfaith Iftar - Fasting & Feasting With The Faithful

Faeeza Vaid opens the evening with a call to seek connections
It was great to be involved in a little way in bringing together nearly 70 people from Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist communities together for the Interfaith Iftar at Zogora's Restaurant last Thursday. The evening was hosted by Faeeza Vaid of the Muslim Women's Network and Aisha Iqbal - who was the woman with the vision for the event and who put in the hard work of getting the evening together with a collection of friends and family. I asked Aisha to tell us about her motivation for organising the event and a little something about the evening itself.

Aisha Iqbal a wish to encourage dialogue
"Ramadan completely consumes my life and that of many Muslims for 30 days each year. Everything that we do is influenced by the special connection with the month; from fasting between dawn and dusk, increasing our prayer exponentially, to giving charity with an open heart and stuffing ourselves to the brim with lush food sent by friends, family and neighbours. Everything is about Ramadan. However, our experiences and sense of unity often does not successfully transcend beyond the immediate Muslim community and I feel that it is important to fill this gap - especially as we live a diverse multi-cultural/multi-faith society.

The faithful feasting!
One solution - Interfaith Iftaar: Fasting and feasting with the faithful. The core purpose of this event was to encourage a dialogue amongst the diverse guests. And so we began the formal part of the evening listening to  Dr Hany El-Banna (founder of Islamic Relief) explaining the purpose of Ramadan and closing with collective prayer led by the Dr Rizwan (ISB), thus cementing the sense of unity. And to stay true to the interfaith aspect, we also had the opportunity to hear insights of fasting traditions in Christianity (Rev Ray Gaston), Buddhism (Yann Lovelock) and Hinduism (Ravi Ladva). To cap off the night of learning and discussion, guests stomachs were tantalised by an array of Moroccan cuisine and their ears smoothed by the harmonious music from SILKROAD"


Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Friday, 22 June 2012

Jesus, Divorce and Equal Marriage - A Rabbi reflects on a Christian 'debate'

Rabbi James Baaden
The last couple of weeks has seen much debate concerning the Church of England's and to a lesser extent the Methodist Church's responses to the Government's consulation process on Same-Sex Marriage. One of the leading Christian campaigners for equality on this issue has been the radical social justice think-tank Ekklesia. On 12 June Ekklesia published its response to the Church of England's contibution to the process. 'CofE and same-sex marriage: Serving society or protecting privilege?'

In a guest post  Rabbi James Baaden of Wolfson College,Oxford and  Sha'areiTsedek Synagogue in north London offers a critique to some of the arguments employed in Ekklesia's piece and that social justice Christians often employ when debating these issues - setting up Jesus over and against the Judaism of his time.

In the process James attempts to point the way to some alternative methodologies for reading Biblical texts which may help open up new spaces for innovation, study and dialogue, and likewise advance the cause  of  both same-sex marriage and gender equality.

I have read with interest Ekklesia's response to the Church of England statement opposing same-sex marriage.

Whilst I support the cause which Ekklesia seeks to advance, I am intrigued and rather disturbed by the emphasis on Jesus as a reformer who "redefined" the "legalism" of marriage as understood in the "Old Testament". As in so many areas, the implication is that the religion of the Old Testament was something rather nasty and was replaced by something thoroughly nice in the form of the changes introduced by Jesus. This is a very common model and maybe it helps advance Ekklesia's cause and its concerns, but I don't like it - and I don' t think it's accurate.

The truth is that the "Old Testament", whether legalistic or not, says nothing about marriage or weddings. There are no words in Biblical Hebrew for "marriage", "to marry", "wedding", etc. No weddings as such are described. Instead, men simply "take" (or sometimes "lift", "pick up") women - often more than one (consider the example of Jacob - or Abraham). Accordingly, a man was also able to "dismiss" or "send away" a woman. This is what we encounter at least in the Pentateuch. To my mind it sounds rather far away from what we call marriage. And frankly, I think it's a pity that we forget this. On both sides of the current debate (if that's what it is), Christians eagerly cite the Bible and Biblical teaching - but sometimes I wonder how much they actually read it. At any rate, I think that it would be quite helpful and quite liberating if people accepted that the Hebrew Bible simply doesn't know "marriage" and doesn't even have a word for it. This creates a blank space - a space in which people had to and have to respond to the needs of their times and create new institutions, new possibilities, new practices.

Additionally, I am not sure it is very helpful or very truthful to tell people additionally - as Ekklesia does - that the "Old Testament" view of "marriage" was marked by "power and legalism". Really? Legalism? Where are there laws about marriage in the "Old Testament"? I will gladly accept that there are plenty of laws, precepts, rules, judgments - but not in connection with marriage.  Secondly, why the emphasis on power? We have a number of interesting man-woman relationships, indeed partnerships in the Hebrew Bible: Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Tizippora, Hannah and Elkanah, David and Bathsheba. They are described in different ways. And of course, they often existed in the context of arrangements which we would call polygamous. But the women are full characters and powerful agents. Deborah, after all, is a judge, a prophet, and a military leader - her husband Lapidoth scarcely registers. Was Deborah subject to some sort of "legalism" or "power" which was then radically reformed by Jesus? I'm not so sure.

With regard to what's seen as the "religion of the Old Testament" as known today, namely Judaism, please note that Liberal synagogues in this country - i.e. the Union of Liberal & Progressive Synagogues dating back to 1902 - have been fully in favour of same-sex marriage for quite a number of years and already responded very positively to the government's most recent proposals.  The Reform Synagogues (the "Movement for Reform Judaism") likewise support same-sex commitment ceremonies and indeed marriage equality in law.

Personally, I do not see Judaism of the past 2000 years as the successor to the Israelite religion of the Hebrew Bible, but that's another issue. Ekklesia in its statements clearly seeks to depict history in this way - with Jesus as a reformer who rejected the "legalism" and "power" of the "Old Testament". I am not comfortable with this characterisation - and I do not think it serves this particular cause very well.

There are times, perhaps, when it is in order to speak of "legalism" or extreme "power" imbalances in the Hebrew Bible, and Jews do not shy away from them, I would say. However, I often find that when Jesus is brought into the picture, the emphasis is placed in some startlingly odd places - which seem wrong to me.
Above all, I feel that there is a notable gap in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament), an absence, around the subject of what we now call "marriage".

And we may contemplate this gap as something positive:  We have an important open space before us - a space where Jews and Christians who really love and really read the Bible can meet and arrive at some, well, new insights.

Anyhow, the next part of my reflections: with regard to what we call "homosexuality", there is again no such word in the Hebrew Bible - nothing even close to it. And this is not splitting hairs - we all use the term "homosexuality" (and "gay sexuality", "lesbianism" etc) to speak of identity, orientation, relationships, community allegiance, love, desire, and yes, certain sexual acts. And therefore it is vitally important to accept that the Hebrew Bible knows nothing about this complex combination of elements which we call "homosexuality". Instead, two verses in Leviticus, in the midst of a text focusing on the duty of the ancient priests of Biblical/Israelite religion and the threat posed by the idolatrous cult of Baal, specify that an individual male should not "lie" with another male mishkavei isha - literally "in the places where a woman lies", "in the lying-places of a woman".

Our Judaism of these past 2000 years is of course not the Israelite religion of the Bible - we have no priests, no Temple, no altar, no rite of sacrifice, no pilgrimages, no incense. For two millennia, Rabbinic Judaism has been built around rabbis, synagogues and prayers - the first two never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, the third little touched upon. Thus Rabbinic Judaism, the Judaism of these past 2000 years, is in not the "religion of the Old Testament"; it is far more the creation of the rabbis of antiquity, the sources quoted in later (post-Biblical) foundational texts such as Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash.  These rabbis who created Rabbinic Judaism were very intrigued by this explicit qualification in the verses in Leviticus. Clearly, the two verses did not simply say "you must not lie with another male" - that would have been adequate, the obvious way to prohibit male-male sexual activity.

So what did the additional words mean? Some thought that they described real places where a woman has actually lain with a man; others thought that they related to the hermaphrodite, the tumtum, a person with two sets of genitalia, two sets of sexual "places [or ways] to lie". Additionally, we could say that half of what we now understand by "homosexuality" is female homosexuality, lesbianism, and there is absolutely no Hebrew Bible text which can be construed as even mentioning it. Again, we have a void, an empty space.

Yes, the rabbis (and here I am thinking principally of the sources named in the Talmud) did take a dim view specifically of male-male sexual acts leading to orgasm, but they seem to have related this to the story of Onan and their more general opposition to non-procreative sexual acts. They did not cite Leviticus 18:22 as their proof-text. Across its 30 to 40 volumes, the Talmud makes very little mention of Leviticus 18:22 - and the ancient Midrashic text accompanying the book of Leviticus, Sifra, completely ignores the verse.
Again, my point is to say that there is a gap, an empty space, a silence here; and to refute the ubiquitous claim that "homosexuality" has been condemned and forbidden in all our sources since - well, Since Time Immemorial.

Once we see that there was this absence in the text, this gap, this free and open space, we can see that various inspired figures with questions in their minds - and I believe, driven by a desire to help real human beings - stepped into it and began to create and innovate. One was Jesus. The others were the early "Sages" before the era of the rabbis, and then those subsequent rabbis of the ancient world - the "Tannaim" of the Mishnah and the "Amoraim" of the Talmud.

Here I think the example of "divorce" is a good one. But I feel the decisions of Rabbi Jesus and of the founders of Rabbinic Judaism went in rather different directions. However, their concern was the same: they wanted to help women - and they knew that Biblical Scripture authorised a man to send away or dismiss a female companion. As I see it, Jesus dealt with the dilemma by appearing to abolish this "right" of men, insisting that the union of man and woman must be permanent. The other rabbis, however, addressed the issue by creating a new "right" for women: they did not give a woman the right to dismiss her male partner, no - because this was not explicitly allowed for in the Bible - but they did give a woman the right to demand and secure a "divorce" from her "husband": that is, the woman acquired the absolute right to be freed from the union, and though the man was the one doing the severing of the bond, releasing the woman, he was required in certain circumstances to carry out her demand. They saw that there was a gap here in the Biblical text - the situation of the woman, her needs and her welfare, were simply not addressed - and they created something new - something new which in no sense ran against the existing Biblical text: they added to it.

And to support them in their efforts, they had the clear evidence from their Hebrew Bible that women, however much they appeared to be treated as the property of men, transferred from father to husband, were nevertheless powerful independent agents, in numerous cases possessed of a strength equal to that of a man - able to be queens, judges, military commanders, and prophets. As I say, Debora embodied several of these roles - whilst her husband Lapidoth was a bit of a cipher. Thus it was clearly in order to enable women to obtain their release from unsatisfactory unions.

Personally, I prefer a "legal" view and indeed perhaps a "legalistic" view which allows for divorce - and this is based utterly on my own knowledge of life and my dealings with my fellow human beings and the reality of relationships. But I think that Jesus was offering a "counsel of perfection", maybe - his own way of being helpful and dealing with the difficulties which many women faced. But in this case, I prefer the decisions of the rabbis in favour of divorce, rather than the perfect vision of permanent marriage.

At any rate, I feel strongly that when we look back to the time when both Christianity and our form of Judaism, namely Rabbinic Judaism, came into being - roughly 2000 years ago - we find this open space, this place where wise and inspired teachers were grappling with ways to deal with the real problems and real needs of real human beings - and confronting a text which did not "legislate" for all cases or answer all questions. Instead, that text left gaps, gaps for others to fill in - in their different ways. 

To my mind, this is a very freeing and empowering way to look at the Biblical text and to understand our own situations in relation to it today. Plenty may disagree with me on that - but I feel that what I have just offered is a very neutral and accurate summary of what is in the Hebrew Bible: no one can jump in and tell me that there really is a discussion of "homosexuality" in the Bible - or that there really are "laws about marriage". There is simply silence. Jesus and the rabbis tried to fill that silence with some helpful and innovative opinions and decisions - as do we today.

Friday, 1 June 2012

A Spirit of Peace at The Friendship Cafe

Last Monday I returned to my hometown of Gloucester to speak at the fantastic  Friendship Cafe in Barton Street at an event organised by the Gloucester and Stroud activists of the Spirit of Peace Network.

Jane Ozanne Director of Spirit of Peace introduces the evening

The Friendship Cafe is a community centre run by a group of local Muslims alongside social enterprise initiatives in partnership with others in the community.

Regularly the Friendship Cafe hosts a Bring and Share meal and discussion with a speaker invited by their partners in these events, Spirit of Peace.

 Telling stories of encounter to explore the spirituality of inter faith engagement.

Participants discuss together  the issues raised in my stories

It was a great evening with 70 or so folk present Muslims, Christians, Jews and seekers. Spirit of Peace who had organised the meeting had asked me to speak on Muslim - Christian relations and my book A Heart Broken Open - Radical Faith in an Age of Fear.

Selling & signing books at the end of the evening

Speaking at this meeting was part of my developing relationship with Spirit of Peace particularly in the work they seek to support in Israel and Palestine. In July I hope to be helping to organise events with different faith communities in Birmingham to hear of the work of one of Spirit of Peace's partners Sheikh Ghassan Manasra from Nazareth who will be visiting the UK.

Watch out for further details.

Thanks to Reyaz Limilia and David Bennett for photos

Thursday, 26 April 2012

New PG Courses in Inter Faith Engagement at Queens

Find out about the new Post Graduate Certificate in Inter Faith Engagement available at Queens Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education beginning this Autumn. You can take it as a stand alone PG Certificate or go on to develop it into a Post Graduate Diploma or  MA in Theology and Transformative Practice concentrating on Inter Faith Engagement.

For details download leaflets about Post Graduate Certificate in Inter Faith Engagement and see how it fits into the MA in Theology and Transformative Practice.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Engaging Buddhism

Vietnamese Zen Monk Thich Nhat Hanh a leading teacher in the Engaged Buddhist Movement
Some of my first inter faith engagement was through an interest in Buddhist Meditation as a spiritual practice. In 1989 as a relatively fresh Christian I undertook as part of my Lenten Discipline that year, a course in Buddhist Meditation run by the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order ( now known as the Triratna Buddhist Order)  in Leeds. When later I was at Theological College my interest in Christian engagement with other faiths had developed and I was able to attend inter faith courses in Birmingham run at the old College of Ascension by it's then Prinicipal Andrew Wingate. One of those I attended was a three day programme on Christian - Buddhist relations. My interest in Christian - Buddhist engagement was also encouraged as I entered parish ministry, my own Vicar during my curacy practisced Buddhist meditation and we incorporated times of meditation alongside our reading of the Daily Office and I encountered congregants in my first incumbancy who had Buddhist interests or were partners of Buddhists.

Throughout this exploration - which became a little eclipsed post 9/11 with my engagement with Islam and also Judaism -  the work of Thich Nhat Hanh (known as Thay to his followers) a Vietnamese monk who had been friends with Thomas Merton was an inspiration and challenge to me. I remember reading his beautiful little book Living Buddha, Living Christ on one of my ordination retreats. More recently I have felt an urge to return to Thay's work and  to engage once again in more regular meditation practice as a part of my own spiritual discipline, particularly as a way of maintaining and developing compassion and awareness in my work.

Last month Thich Nhat Hanh was visiting Ireland and Britain on a speaking tour details of the talks with some recordings can be found here. An excellent resource  on Thich Nhat Hanh  and his teachings on what has become known as Engaged Buddhism can be found at  the On Being website Brother Thay: A Radio Pilgimage with Thich Nhat Hanh and links to Shambhala Sun's many articles on Thich Nhat Hanh can be found here. A wealth of resources on the wider Engaged Buddhist movement can be found at The Network of Engaged Buddhists not least of all the informative and comprehensive booklet What is Engaged Buddhism?

Monday, 16 April 2012

A Word in Time - Biblical Reflections

The Methodist Church Web Site runs a daily Bible study reflection called A Word in Time  based on a reading of the day from the Methodist Prayer Handbook. This week the commentaries are provided by myself and Annie working together looking at Sunday's reading from John 20:19-31 and then working our way through Exodus 14.21 -17.13. There is a space to post comments and responses.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Greenbelt 2012 - Saving Paradise

I was invited to submit 2 or three talks for the Greenbelt Festival talks programme this year. I decided to submit the two below and learnt some weeks ago that they have been accepted just had to wait until my name was officially announced on the festival website before publishing details here. This years theme is Saving Paradise.

Maybe see you there.

'Talk of other faiths by Christians often ends up in arguments about who gets into heaven! In two talks Ray will explore a different route to paradise - how opening ourselves to the treasures and challenges of other faith traditions can help us deepen our relationship with God and enhance our spirituality as Christians. Drawing upon personal stories, theological reflection, the bible and the scriptures of other traditions he will argue for a path of radical humility in our engagement with other faiths rooted in the practice of Christic vulnerability.

For now we see in a mirror, dimly.....

Learning about humility from Muslims through experiencing Jihad, about Communion from Sikhs after visiting a Gurdwara,......through these and other personal stories, stories from the Christian tradition and scriptural reflection, Ray will explore how, challenged and inspired by our neighbours of other faiths, we can grow in radical humility, experience personal transformation and deepen our practice of the virtues of faith, hope and love.

But then we shall see face to face.....

Fasting with Muslims at Ramadan, joining Jews in synagogue and home as they welcome and celebrate Shabbat. How does opening to relationship with Judaism and Islam affect how we understand ourselves and our hopes for God's future? In this talk drawing upon personal stories and theological reflection Ray will explore the possibilities for developing our faith if we engage creatively with the continued vibrancy of Judaism and the flourishing of Islam.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Honouring Jesus, Honouring Jews - Keeping this week Holy

Revd Stephen Barton Secretary of the Birmingham Branch of the Council of Christians and Jews gave an excellent sermon on the title above this morning at St George's Edgbaston and is running workshops on the same theme at 6.30pm Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday this week at the church.

The following is an extract from the beginning of the sermon you can download the full sermon in PDF document here
It is good to be with you for today and the first half of Holy Week. I offer some reflections on the meaning of these days, which I hope will provoke further thinking and discussion.

This year Passover and Easter coincide. Holy Saturday will be the first day of Passover. Last year I attended part of the celebration of Passover at the Progressive Synagogue – there is a communal meal, the seder, on the second night of Passover. This was a week before Holy Week. On taking my leave, Jean, a Jewish friend wished me well for Easter and added, “I hope you will give us an easier time than most.”

Jean was of course referring to the history of Christian “contempt” of Judaism and the Jewish people, especially as expressed in Holy Week prayers and hymns and sermons.

Jean reminds us that when we talk about Jews we are talking about a living people. The Church has often caricatured Jews as essentially a people of the past. But these are our neighbours. 
Some of you will have people in your lives who are Jewish: friends, colleagues, family. Their Jewishness may or may not be expressed in a form that we would call religious, but all belong to a people who have for centuries been aware of Christian attitudes towards Jews. Christian congregations no longer leave Friday prayers to go attack the local synagogue, but it is still easy to meet Jewish people who remember school playground accusations that they had killed Jesus.

I wish to begin this Holy Week by welcoming Jean and all our Jewish friends and acquaintances among us. Let us walk along the road of this week, as it were, in their company. Let us see what happens, what we notice, not about them, but about ourselves. If I had a title for these few days with you, it would be Honouring Jesus, Honouring Jews: Keeping this week holy.

Today we mark the beginning of this week. I have two questions: Who was there? And Why does it matter? READ MORE

Friday, 30 March 2012

The Last Week - Reflections and Resources for Holy Week

Annie and I are off to St George's Edgbaston on Palm Sunday. Revd Stephen Barton who is secretary of the local Council of Christians and Jews and my colleague Mukti Barton's husband is preaching. He is also delivering a series of reflections for Holy Week at the church on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings based on Marcus Borg's and John Dominic Crossan's book The Last Week. Revd Julian Francis the vicar and one time colleague here at Queen's recently wrote about their plans for Holy Week in the Parish Magazine.

One of the key areas in which anti-Jewish Christian attitudes to Judaism can surface, is, of course, in the storytelling and liturgies associated with the passion of Christ i.e. in Holy Week and on Good Friday. Specifically, this often revolves around perceptions of Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus. Despite the obvious historical fact of the Roman occupation of Judea and Roman responsibility for Jesus’ execution, still the gospel accounts leave room first for other conclusions, and secondly, thereby, for the expression of anti-Jewish sentiment. There are complicated, multiple dynamics at issue in the death of Jesus. Yet this issue is one that returns year on year for us to think about and reflect on humbly. Every year we have the opportunity to revise our thinking, and take fresh steps to try and ensure that cherished Christian devotion does not have to be at the expense of causing further hurt and driving a deeper wedge between Christians and Jews in the contemporary world.

In response to some of these matters, I have asked the Rev Stephen Barton, a retired priest in the diocese, to come and share some thinking on Jewish-Christian issues in the passion story, both on Palm Sunday, and on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings of Holy Week. Stephen has a real desire to scrutinise Christian attitudes to Judaism in the interests of achieving more secure and respectful relationships in the present. As part of preparing for his visits to us, we have selected as one of our Lent books ‘The Last Week’ by Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan published by SPCK © 2006. I commend it as a very good introduction to these issues. Stephen will draw on material from the book in what he brings to us.

You can read a review of The Last Week here and a reflection for everyday of  Holy Week based on a reading of the book here

Often during Holy Week Christian Churches consider having a 'Christianised' Passover meal on Maundy Thursday and I notice that the Iona Community has one such litugy on offer this year  - a very good article by Revd Ann Fontaine at Epicopal Cafe argues strongly against such practice as an insult to our Jewish neighbours in Say No to Christian Seders and Rabbi Bruce Kadden takes a similar line in A Christian's Guide to Passover. Both articles refer to a piece in Biblical Archaeolgy Review which argues against the consensus in the Church that the last supper was a Passover Meal.
On wider issues related to the Celebration of Holy Week and inter faith relations check out the many resources and links  at Etz Hayim/Tree of Life Website

Previous postings on Holy Week on this site which might be useful include Good Friday Reflection from last year and Good Friday Intercessions from 2009

Thursday, 15 March 2012

ISLAM AWARENESS WEEK - In Conversation with Julie Siddiqi of Islamic Society of Britain

A version of the following article appeared in this weeks Methodist Recorder
Julie Siddiqi Executive Director of the Islamic Society of Britain

As a local Minister in Leeds in an area that included four mosques within easy walking distance and more recently as a resident in an area of Birmingham my wife likes to call ‘Islamically rich’, I have for over 13 years experienced living alongside Muslims and have experienced ordinary folk witnessing to their faith. One instance of this witness is the practice of the holy month of Ramadan (the month of fasting). When living alongside Muslims you notice Ramadan, as people take on a different pace of life that is very appealing and counter cultural to our need to be busy. Other times, friends have gently and unconsciously shared their experiences of the simple rhythm of five times a day prayer that punctuate a Muslims daily life with an awareness of God. Recently however; it has been the experiences of generosity and hospitality of neighbours who love to share their food with us and who, in our first Christmas in or new home in Birmingham, welcomed us with presents and greetings, that have most humbled and touched us as a family.

It was drawing close to Muslims, who shared such simple practices of fasting, prayer and hospitality, whilst working in Health Care, that drew the Home Counties born and secularly raised Julie Siddiqi to embrace Islam 17 years ago. She didn’t rush into things though: ‘It took me a long time to realise that Islam was the way of life for me but in 1995 I converted’. Marrying Nav a year later, they now have four children and Julie has long been involved in community work which for the last 8 years has centred on the work of the Islamic Society of Britain (ISB) and she is currently Executive Director. ISB runs Islam Awareness Week (IAW) which is taking place for the nineteenth time this week. Julie is regularly interviewed for newspapers, Radio and TV, and says ‘All this is a blessing from God and I feel very lucky to be given so many opportunities every day and to work with so many great people from all backgrounds’

So what is IAW? Julie says that it is rooted in ISB’s original commitment to express a ‘British Islam’. ‘We encourage and help our members to understand their faith in the context of Britain. The ISB has played an important and positive role for British Muslims and some of our innovative projects have broken new ground and generated much needed intra-community dialogue and debate.’

Islam Awareness Week is about taking this vision of a ‘British Islam’ into the wider community to challenge misconceptions and prejudices. She adds ‘It is a great platform for bringing people together and, where necessary, helping people understand what the faith is about. But our focus is much broader than maybe the name itself initially suggests. Islam has a rich heritage of helping others, being good to neighbours, charity work, sharing, equality and justice. We like to find projects that bring out those qualities and many of our members are involved in food sharing, supporting homeless people, interfaith events and lots more.’

In local areas, members of ISB work with partners from other faith communities and community groups to put on events to raise awareness. In Birmingham this year events include a dialogue with Christians on Islamic understandings of the love of God, a discussion on Islamic understandings of the Universe, an opportunity to experience a traditional form of Sufi devotion, but also several occasions of free food distribution sometimes in partnership with local churches.

The importance of Islam Awareness Week can be seen in the recent launch of ‘Tell MAMA’, an initiative supported by Police and promoted by the group Faith Matters. It seeks to record and challenge the rising phenomenon of anti – Muslim hate crime. Julie says ‘Sadly, we hear stories of so many Muslims being the target of attacks, whether they are verbal or physical. We hear about Mosques being attacked too and when planning permission is submitted it usually faces hostility and backlash.’ 'Tell MAMA' is an attempt to raise awareness about these attacks and prejudice and to record the incidents. Julie adds ‘This country has a good record of dealing with prejudice and we need to make sure people come together on this issue more and more.’

This year’s theme of IAW is Love, the official website says:

In Islam, love is the basis of our relationship with God. Love is to care, to be kind, to be gentle, to help, to respond, to bring happiness, to relieve suffering, to be patient, to forgive, and the Quran teaches us that God is the best in all these things and more.

As Christians we can engage with IAW as a witness to our experience of the love of God and sharing that love with our Muslim neighbours at a time of growing intolerance and prejudice.

Ray Gaston is Inter Faith Tutor and Enabler for Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education and The Birmingham District of the Methodist Church. He was in conversation with Julie Siddiqi Executive Director of the Islamic Society of Britain.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Freed to Love One's Neighbour - Who is Anyone and Everyone

Today was John Hick's funeral. At lunch at Queen's, in the announcements, our Principal David Hewlett referred to this and my colleague John Hull a long standing friend of Hick  attended his funeral this afternoon. I wrote my Master of Theology dissertation on Hick back in 1996 critically comparing his Philosophy of Religious Pluralism to Raimundo Panikkar's.

As David said at lunchtime whilst many in the Christian theological world may have disagreed with Hick, the truth is that he was a truly remarkable human being.

It is perhaps fitting on this day of his funeral to quote the following passage from one of his later books The Fifth Dimension : An Exploration of the Spritual Realm.

The world religions all report that, as it affects humanity, the Real or Ultimate is benign and that we live in what is finally, from our point of view, a serendipitous universe. To become conscious in some degree of the eternally Real, through one of its humanly experiencable manifestations, is in that degree to be liberated from the anxious, grasping ego, and freed to love one's neighbour, who is anyone and everyone. We see something of the extraordinary possibilities of our own nature, when it becomes open to the Transcendent, in the lives of the saints or mahatmas of every tradition.....

The metaphysical dogmas about which the different religions differ so strongly, and sometimes violently, are legitimate speculations, but should not be absolutised, as infallible dogmas. In each religious and non - religious worldview, in so far as it is in alignment with the Real, we live within a true myth - a cosmic story which is not literally true but which nevertheless evokes an appropriate life response to the Real.

Because we experience the Real in benign forms we can be confident that the human potential is destined to be fulfilled and that this present life is therefore an episode within a much longer process. A series of further finite lives awaits us in which our deeper self, living through a series of concious egos, is formed in response to the contingencies of finite existence. In all that we do we are affecting, positively or negatively, our own future selves. Perhaps ultimately, with the fulfilment of the creative process, finite personality will have served its purpose and become one with eternal Reality, but we do not at present need to know the final future.

What we do need to know is how to live now. This is the way of love, witnessed to by the saints and mystics of all the great traditions.
John Hick The Fifth Dimension : An Exploration of the Spritual Realm (One World 2004) p 260

Undertsanding Islam: Love of God and Humanity - An Event for Islam Awareness Week

I blogged a few days ago about Islam Awareness Week next month. One particular event that may be of special interest to Christians is one organised by Ruth Tetlow of The Faith Encounter Programme. The event involves Muslims talking about their understanding of 'The Love of God and Humanity' with a response by a Christian. The details are in the poster above.  Ruth says of the event 'Do come and contribute your thoughts and experience'

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Addition to Resources for Reflecting Upon 'Justice for Palestine and Israel' Report

I have added a recent interview with Norman Finkelstein that has caused a bit of a stir in the BDS movement to the Debating Boycotts section of my post RESOURCES FOR REFLECTING UPON 'JUSTICE FOR PALESTINE & ISRAEL' REPORT & INTER FAITH RELATIONS

A good summary of the argument with some sensible commentary can be found at Judaism Without Borders

UPDATE More interesting perhaps is this video, a few days before where he argues fully and presents what might be seen from a 'pro Palestinian' perspective as a reasoned, principled and moral case for a two state solution based on 67 borders. If you don't have time to listen to the whole thing start about an hour in that's when he really gets going.

Norman Finkelstein in Edinburgh from Stuart Platt on Vimeo.

Islam Awareness Week March 12th -18th 2012

Coming up soon is this years' Islam Awareness Week. This year the theme is LOVE, a theme that will interest Christians no doubt. The official IAW website states

Every year, during Islam Awareness Week, we take the opportunity to try to bring to light various aspects of Islam that are misunderstood or unknown to most people. In the times that we live, we often find ourselves explaining that Islam is a religion of justice and peace. Many are increasingly curious about what Muslims stand for and what is important to them. The theme of IAW in 2012 is one that is perhaps overlooked by many, it is the concept of Love.

More on the theme can be read here

There is an interesting array of events in Birmingham  details of which can be found here

Monday, 13 February 2012

One Voice Visit to Birmingham

Last month I was involved in hosting a meeting at Queen's with two speakers from the OneVoice Movement to End the Israeli/Palestinian conflict - Daniel Moran from OneVoice Israel and Mohammad Asideh from OneVoice Palestine. The meeting at Queens was part of a wider tour that included meetings with interfaith groups, youth groups and schools, as well as with groups from Churches, Mosques and Synagogues. Daniel and Mohammad met with Muslim and Christian youth at The Feast project in Springfield and with older Christian activists at the Friends of Sabeel prayer group in Moseley. They met with  a Jewish youth group at the  Progressive Synagogue and school groups in Handsworth and elsewhere in the city.

Sharon Alsoodani of OneVoice Europe has written a report of the whole visit to Birmingham and Manchester including the meeting at Queens which can be viewed and downloaded here

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Faith, Hope & Love - A Sermon

This coming Lent I am running a course at Selly Oak Methodist Church called 'Walking God's Paths' looking particularly at Christian - Jewish Relations. As a preliminary to the course I am preaching twice at Selly Oak in February. Last Sunday was the first sermon on Faith Hope & Love looking generally at Christianity and Inter Faith relations. They record the sermons at Selly Oak and if you want to hear it you can download all 30 minutes!!! here. I am again Preaching at the 10.30 service on  Sunday 26th February

Friday, 10 February 2012

JOHN HICK (1922-2012)

Perhaps one of the greatest Philosophers of Religion of the late 20th Century John Hick died yesterday. Probably best known for his controversial Philosophy of Religious Pluralism his work covered many other areas of philosophy and theology from Theodicy to Christology. This interview with his personal friend and theological adversary Gavin D'Costa, given at a recent event celebrating Hick's work at Birmingham University summarises his contribution well.
UPDATE an interesting and friendly reflection on John Hick from an Evangelical perspective here

Friday, 27 January 2012

Fackenheim on the Holocaust

Today was Holocaust Memorial Day. Last Sunday I attended the Birmingham Memorial Event at the Town Hall. Particularly moving was survivor  Mindu Hornick's reflections upon Father Dubios' book Holocaust by Bullets. On Thursday I went to The Progressive Synagogue for an event and display that focussed  particularly on the children of survivors

My own reflections on the Holocaust have been shaped by my recent reading of a group  of Jewish philosophers and theologians who led from the mid sixties onwards a serious engagement with the reality of the Holocaust and the radical evil that it represented. Among these thinkers I have found myself drawn into and being moved, challenged, inspired, confused and provoked  by the work of the late Emil Fackenheim.  Fackenheim himself only just escaped Nazi Germany in the late 30s after having experienced a period in a concentration camp. This Guardian Obituary at the time of his death in 2003 captures the complexities and contradictions of the man I've encountered in his writing and memoirs as does this penetrating and critical exploration.

Below is a very powerful speech that Fackenheim made at a conference on 'Ethics after the Holocaust' in 1996

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Clifton Road Invitation to Lectures

Update: I managed to get to all three talks and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Thanks to all at KSIMC for their lovely hospitality and to Sayed Ali Abbas Razawi for a stimulating and thoughtful series as I tweeted after the first night 'experienced once again the beautiful gentle passion at the heart of Shi'a spirituality'

You can listen to the talks at

Sheikh Muhammed Amin Evans has sent out the following invitation from Clifton Road Mosque in Balsall Heath. I hope to attend on Saturday evening for the third talk

"The President of Clifton Road Mosque has asked me to convey an open invitation to organisations and individuals involved in interfaith, intra-faith or the City's life as a community to share three evenings with the members of KSIMC including three lectures on the life of Prophet Muhammad (saw) to mark the anniversary of his passing.  It is appreciated that not everyone will wish or be able to attend on all three evenings but we hope that many people will be able to accept our invitation and attend at least one of our gatherings.

Visitors are invited to arrive at the gates 45 minutes prior to the event start time.  Volunteers will then guide them to an assembly room for welcome drinks and conversation with Sayyid Razavi (the lecturer), President Br Shafik Hajji and I.  We will attempt to connect the lectures and provide some background to the events to be discussed so that you may more fully engage with the event.

Thursday 19 January at 8.00pm- 'The Prophet (saw) before the declaration of Prophethood'

Friday 20 January at 8.00pm- 'The Prophet (saw) in Mecca- Life with polytheists.'

Saturday 21 January at 7.00pm- Dinner followed by, at a little after 8.00pm,- 'The Prophet (saw) in Medina- Islam with the People of the Book.'

Please contact me for further information.

Alaykum salam,
Shk Muhammad Amin Evans "

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Christian - Muslim Relations in Pakistan and Egypt

Two interesting stories from Pakistan and Egypt point to hopeful developments in Christian - Muslim relations in contexts that have often been seen as places where Christian minorities have been vulnerable to religiously motivated violence.

The first from Pakistan is of The Christian - Muslim Covenant of Non Violence in Pakistan

The second story is from Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood has vowed to protect Coptic Churches that have in the past been attacked at the time of the Celebration of the Coptic Christmas in January.