Why Inter-Religious Relations Matter Today: A Christian perspective


The Archbishop of York spoke at the launch event 'Interfaith in the 21st Century: New Paradigms in Jewish-Christian Relations' at Durham University in February 2014. His address 'Why Inter-Religious Relations Matter Today: A Christian perspective' follows in full...

Thank you for inviting me and the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis to welcome the launch of your new student-led interfaith group. I am delighted to be with you on this occasion and it is a double bonus for me to have the opportunity to share a platform with the Chief Rabbi. It's also a double bonus for you - buy one and get one free! An Archbishop and a Chief Rabbi: BOGOFs indeed!

We have seen a remarkable flourishing of interfaith dialogue in this country over the past 20 years or so, and I myself have had the privilege of participating in many inter-religious encounters.

I will never forget a three-week visit I made to the Holy Land under the auspices of the Council of Christians and Jews. And also the re-dedication and re-opening of the Jewish burial ground in Tower Hamlets, with the former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, when I was Bishop for Stepney.  

One of my favourite photos is of the last Lambeth Conference at which the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, Archbishop Rowan Williams and I are standing in a row with many others supporting the 'Keep the Promise' Banner to reduce poverty by 50% by 2015. The photo is on your seats

Last year I chose and recommended Lord Sacks' book, ‘The Great Partnership', as my Lent book. If you don’t know it, may I urge you to read this wonderful, wise and thought-provoking book which explores the nature of religion and science and the possibility of a happy co-existence between them.

Despite excellent developments in interfaith initiatives, we now need a more radical and a more participatory approach to enable us to meet the challenges of a changing world.

Our inter-religious encounters must be performative and transformational. I prefer to use the term ‘inter-religious’ to ‘inter-faith’, because that phrase is hackneyed and needs a lot of explaining nowadays.

What are the key elements of this changing context?

Our world is increasingly interconnected. This gives us wonderful opportunities to develop inter-religious relationships and understanding. We rely on each other, in ways we only glimpsed in earlier times and hence the case to learn how to live as near-neighbours is stronger than ever. Besides, the Abrahamic faith knows no separation of the sacred from the secular. All of life is Religious.

We are seeing a growing number of flashpoints throughout the world - many of them over scarce and precious resources - land, water and food.

And there is also a worrying rise in those suffering religious persecution. Christians have faced increasing persecution in a number of countries, such as Egypt, Nigeria and Pakistan.

But this isn't restricted to Christians. A 2013 survey by the European Union's Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), collected from nearly 6,000 self-identified Jewish people in eight EU countries including the UK, revealed that about three quarters said that anti-Semitism is worse now than it was five years ago, particularly online. Many had personally experienced anti-Semitic hate crime and harassment.

We need to find a new attitude, a new readiness to approach one another as human beings. We are all implicated.  

As Rabbi Abraham Heschel said, “We must continue to remind ourselves that in a free society, all are involved in what some are doing.   Some are guilty, all are responsible”[1]

In the UK, we have a growing number of people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds.

The 2011 census showed that 13% (7.5 million) of the resident population in England and Wales were born outside the UK compared with 4.3% (1.9 million) in 1951.

However, as I have seen from my visits to the Dioceses in the North of England, having growing numbers, doesn't automatically equate to growing trust and understanding. It is quite possible for different religious communities to live almost separate lives, despite the fact that they live within a small radius, and very close to each other, but in their own 'ghetto'.

Which reminds me of a moving story of three Jewish tailors in the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, at the beginning of the Second World War. Business was tough, so one tailor had an ingenious idea. He put a notice in his shop window saying, “I am the Best Tailor in the World. The second thought he could improve on this. He put up a bigger sign which read, “I am the Best Tailor in this Town”. But the third was wiser. He put up a small sign which people had to come close to read. His sign said simply, “I am the Best Tailor in your Street”. It drew all the customers to his shop, leaving the others deserted.

Yes, think Globally! Yes, think wider-community! But acting locally yields better results.

One worrying trend over the past couple of decades is the growth of religious illiteracy both among young people and adults. Let me give you a couple of examples from the Christian perspective. A recent survey from the Bible Society (based on a poll of 800 children and about 1,100 parents) found that almost three in ten young people were unaware that the story of the birth of Jesus came from the Bible, whilst a similar number of children had never read or heard about the Crucifixion of Jesus or the story of Adam and Eve.

Whilst many of the parents saw the Bible as a source of good values for their children, almost half did not recognise the story of Noah's ark as coming from the Bible.

Many confused Biblical stories with plotlines from Harry Potter or Indiana Jones films. A quarter of adults think Superman is a Biblical hero. Six out of ten did not know the story of the feeding of the 5,000, three quarters did not know the story of Daniel and the Lion's Den; and almost nine out of ten had not heard of King Solomon.

This growing religious illiteracy is a worrying trend for many reasons. It means that an increasing number of adults have little or no knowledge of the Judeo-Christian religious background which underpin so much of our law, morals and religion in this country. Without a basic grasp of the key elements of the Christian religion, they are ill-equipped to respond to aggressive ‘…isms’. Many young people are growing up without any religious frame of reference.

Another key change is the creeping fear of speaking out from a religious perspective because of the concern that if you say anything it will cause offence. The extreme reactions provoked recently by the Jesus and Mo cartoons have illustrated just what a sensitive area this is. It is no wonder that journalists, MPs and increasingly, religious leaders, are reticent to speak out for fear of unleashing a whirlwind.

But we also have to ask what we are doing to ourselves both as communities of believers in God, and as a country, when we relegate any reference to religion to the private sphere.   

Because, alongside the growing interconnectedness in society, there is the paradox of growing religious ignorance. As religious communities become hermetically sealed from one another, and from secular society, it is harder to break down barriers and build bridges. If we are not listening and talking to one another, fear and misunderstanding will grow and mutual support will be lost.

Certainly, we must all learn to sing the Lord’s Song in a minor key. However, there are serious implications if we do not grapple with these issues. People will not hear the desperately-needed message of the love of God. They will not hear of the deeper reality for which we were created and our calling as human beings to manifest the glory of God’s image and likeness in every one of us.

Perhaps a certain, far-from-easy, book will help us all to address the intellectual crisis that religious faith faces today.

The book belongs to the Wisdom Literature of the Jewish Scriptures. It is, of course, the book QOHELETH in Hebrew, and Ecclesiastes in Greek.  A name which in both languages can mean “The Assembler”, or “The Gatherer”.

Qoheleth, Ecclesiastes is a wise observer of the world and the faith that he has sought to understand in the light of God’s own self-disclosure. 

The writer says, “I taught people knowledge and sought in many ways to find wise words and what was written in the words of truth” (Ecclesiastes 12:9-10).

He speaks to us today – from the middle of the second century BC (for fragments of the text have been found at Qumran, which are dated on handwriting grounds to be no later than that time). Yes, he speaks to us today and says, “Trust and fear God with diligence and wisdom. For there is nothing better for people than to rejoice in their lot and do what is right in God’s eyes while they are alive.  Ultimately everyone will be held accountable. Maintain your sense of values and always recognize that people, as the only creature with a Godly-soul, must aspire to higher goals. Have a practical observation of the world, attentively listen simultaneously to your inherited religious tradition and to the world as it is, and then intelligently respond to the challenges of today.”

Such as:-

  • Incalculable suffering and painful death which evoke the response: “everything is pointless and nothing is worthwhile”.

  • People’s search for wisdom, joy, justice, enjoyment, knowledge and meaning.

  • Questions of ageing, youth, longevity, hard work and folly.

  • Friendships and companionship.

  • God and the Law.

  • Injustice, poverty and riches.

  • The just, good people, and the godless, bad people.

  • Practical observations and wisdom’s helping hand.

So what form should strong inter-religious relations take in the 21st century?

First of all, I want to stress that it's not about religious fudge – though the Church of England is a master at this. Our starting point must be faithfulness and authentic witness from our own religious tradition: fearing God and keeping his commandments, and serving his world – for that is our whole duty.

My desire, as a Christian and Archbishop of York, is for all of us in our Global village to flourish as human beings and for Christians, as disciples of Jesus Christ, to say that in him is the offer of the gift of life in all its fullness. This is an invitation and not a judgement on anyone’s religious adherence. I see myself not as my brother’s keeper, but as my brother’s brother.

There is a story of a Rabbi who asked his disciples how they knew that night had ended and morning had broken.

“Could it be,” asked one, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it’s a sheep or a goat?”

“No”, replied the Rabbi.  “Could it be,” asked a second, “when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it is a fig or an olive tree?”

“No”, the Rabbi replied.  “Well then, what is it?” the disciples pressed.

“It is when you can look on the face of any woman or man and see that she or he is your sister or brother.  If you can’t do this, no matter what time it is, it’s still night.”

So, we must build on what we have in common. In our case, our common link as Abrahamic religions and the many Jewish-Christian relationships which we have developed. The long and distinguished history of the Council of Christians and Jews bears witness to the growing conversations and deepened understanding which we have developed over the years, thanks to the patient and dedicated efforts not just of our contemporaries, but also those who have gone before us. I am sure that Bishop Nigel McCulloch may wish to add his testimony to this rich heritage.

Our inter-religious relationships must be based on mutual respect and understanding as people who strongly believe in the One, Holy, and Almighty God. We have an excellent basis from which to develop this.

As the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks said: 'Britain is the nation - perhaps the only one in the world - where the leaders of all the major faiths know each other as personal friends, where Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus, caught up in conflicts elsewhere in the world, meet in warmth and mutual respect.  It is where I, as a rabbi, am encouraged to speak to people of all faiths and none, not just my fellow believers. I do not know of anywhere else where this happens to quite the same degree’[2].

There are some excellent examples of inter-religious projects I have seen recently which I believe can inspire us for the future.

For example, in 2005, the Churches in Bradford set up an organisation called, 'Bradford Churches for Dialogue and Diversity' to help bring together the different communities to learn from and share with each other. The government-funded 'Near Neighbours' programme has provided small grants to many local projects.

One of these brought Muslims, Christians and Jews in a Muslim-majority neighbourhood together to share meals. This led to the Muslim community helping a local synagogue raise funds to repair a leaking roof. This is not just a story about restoring the fabric of a building but the fabric of a neighbourhood, of civil society.

It is also important to remember that is it not just what we do as Jewish or Christian citizens but how we do it that matters.

Our conversations must be courteous. We must demonstrate gracious and magnanimous charity to those we are opposed to. We need to commit ourselves not to indulge in old and worn-out prejudices. We must all work together to find solutions to the intractable challenges of difference.

Tonight is an exciting occasion for the Jewish and Christian societies of Durham University. It's exciting because there is a major opportunity, which you have identified, to work and witness together more closely.

In the past, Durham has played an important part in our inter-religious history. The 18th century Bishop of Durham, Richard Trevor introduced the "Jewish Naturalisation Bill", which sought to naturalise Jews born in Britain - many of whom had helped to defend London during the Jacobite uprising.

Bishop Trevor also bought the thirteen Zurbaran paintings depicting Jacob and his twelve sons; paintings which illustrate the power of people who are on God’s side, however conflicted they might be in sibling-rivalry!

So as you look forward to closer links between the Jewish and Christian societies here at Durham University, I'd like to reflect finally, on how you might develop these links in ways which will help tackle some of the problems and issues I identified at the start of my talk. Please learn from each other, taking the opportunity to share and learn together.

I would also strongly encourage you to take steps to build up religious literacy amongst your fellow students and in the City. Look at opportunities - be they talks, discussions, films or visits, to help people to experience, at first hand, what is the belief in God which motivates and drives you.

Within the Christian tradition, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we seek to follow his command to be salt and light in the world. The challenge for you, as representatives of the Jewish and Christian religions is to find ways in which you can witness your trust in God to your fellow students and those in this great City of Durham today.

The development of the Council of Christians and Jews Student Presidents’ initiative (CCJSPs) offers an exciting opportunity to take this forward. I have high hopes for it and look forward to hearing how it develops. May God bless you as you seek to build up understanding, trust and respect between Jews and Christians and all people of the world’s religions and none.

I suggested above, that Qoheleth, Ecclesiastes, may help us to respond appropriately to the challenges we face today in the UK. Let me end by turning to him, and Chapter Three of his wisdom, which says, “All things in their time”.

As we think of this, let us listen to a song, “To Everything there is a Season[3]”, written by Pete Seeger, who sadly died on 27th January this year. The lyrics are the words of Chapter 3 of the Book Ecclesiastes,verses 1-8, asfound in the King James Version of the Bible.

These lyrics were set to music and recorded in 1962, the year my country, Uganda, gained its Independence.

Peace! Shalom! Let us listen.


[1] Abraham Heschel, Vietnam: Crisis of Conscience, New York 1967; also in Pacifism and the Jews by Evelyn Wilcock, Hawthorn Press, 1994, p.169

[2] Sacks.J, 'The House We Build Together'. Continuum, 2007, pp168-169

[3] The Limeliters album Folk Matinee, and then Seeger’s own, The Bitter Sweet.