31 August 2015

A week in Cambridge discussing possibilities and
limitations in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue

Cloister Court, where I am staying in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge ... the venue for the IOCS annual conference this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

I am in Cambridge for the annual conference of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies which begins in Sidney Sussex College this morning [31 August 2015] and continues until Wednesday evening [2 September 2015].

I have been a regular participant at this conference since 2008, and having stayed in Trumpington at the weekend, I am staying in Sidney Sussex College throughout the conference. This year, I am on Stairs M in Cloister Court, in a room looking out onto the Gardens and Jesus Lane.

This year’s conference is looking at ‘Christian Faith, Identity and Otherness: Possibilities and Limitations of Dialogue in Ecumenical and Interfaith Discourse.’

The conference is investigating the nature of Christian faith and identity and how Christians can appropriately relate to internal and external otherness. One of the main aims is to reflect on the possibilities and limitations of dialogue in ecumenical and interreligious debates.

I began this morning attending the early morning Eucharist at 8 a.m. in Saint Bene’t’s Church, which is just five minutes stroll from Sidney Sussex College. The Revd Richard Ames-Lewis presided at the Eucharist, and we remembered Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne whose feast day is today.

Saint Aidan, who was one of St Columba’s monks from the monastery of Iona, was sent as a missionary to Northumbria at the request of King Oswald, who was later to become his friend and interpreter. He was consecrated Bishop of Lindisfarne in 635, worked closely with Oswald and became involved with the training of priests. From the island of Lindisfarne he was able to combine a monastic lifestyle with missionary journeys to the mainland where, through his concern for the poor and enthusiasm for preaching, he won popular support. This enabled him to strengthen the Church beyond the boundaries of Northumbria. He died on this day in the year 651.

In the first conference session this morning, Professor Ivana Noble of Charles University of Prague, asks: “On what common path do we embark when we converse with the other? Three different visions of ecumenism: Berdyaev, Bulgakov, Lossky.”

At the second session this afternoon, Dr Kateřina Bauerová (Charles University of Prague) speaks on “To Live Otherness: Sergei Bulgakov, Joanna Reitlinger and Maria Skobtsova in Exile.” Later in the afternoon, the Revd Prof Nikolaos Loudovikos (University Ecclesiastical Academy of Thessaloniki) describes “The International Catholic / Orthodox academic dialogue in the St Irenaeus Group: Adventures of an Orthodox Secretary.”

The day concludes with Vespers in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College at 5.30 p.m. and dinner at 6.30 p.m.

We begin tomorrow morning [1 September 2015] with Dr Razvan Porumb (IOCS) speaking on “Orthodoxy and ecumenism: towards active metanoia.” Later in the morning, the Revd Dr Alexander Tefft (IOCS) speaks on “Integrism and the Limits of Dialogue.”

In the afternoon, Dr Dominic Rubin (Higher School of Economics, Moscow), addresses “Orthodox-Muslim interaction in Russia today: between ideology and theology,” and Dr Mangala Frost (IOCS) speaks on “Karma and the Cross: a dialogic study of suffering.”

Once again, the day concludes with Vespers in the Chapel at 5.30 p.m. and dinner at 6.30 p.m.

On Wednesday morning [2 September 2015], Dr Gorazd Andrejč (Woolf Institute, Cambridge) asks: “Dialogue, Conversation or Discursive Encounter – How Relevant are the Conceptual Distinctions?”

Dr Andrejč, a philosopher and theologian, is a Junior Research Fellow at the Woolf Institute, and a research associate at Saint Edmund’s College, Cambridge. His academic interests: include the ways in which religious language, belief-attitudes and felt experience are intertwined, especially in Christianity, and inter-religious and religious-secular relations, both their verbal and non-verbal aspects, and how these aspects are related, especially in Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and the UK. Before joining the Woolf Institute in 2013, he was a lecturer at the University of Exeter, where he designed and taught philosophy of religion courses.

The Woolf Institute is a global leader in the academic study of relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims. The institute was established in Cambridge in 1998, with close links to the university. The Institute aims to connect the multi-disciplinary study of these relations with broader practical and theoretical questions, including the importance of trust in everyday life, the role of religion in international diplomacy, and improving end-of-life care in local hospices.

Later on Wednesday morning, Dr Brandon Gallaher (University of Exeter) introduces us to “The One Logos and the Many Logoi: Reflections towards an Orthodox Comparative Theology.”

The closing panel discussion on Wednesday afternoon is being chaired by Dr Christoph Schneider of IOCS.

The last of the flowers on the wisteria in Chapel Court in Sidney Sussex College this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford 2015)

In contemporary discussions, dialogue is often understood in different or even incompatible ways: Either, dialogue is uncritically idealised as the mode of discourse par excellence to access truth. The free verbal expression of the interlocutors’ different religious convictions, their mutual respect and tolerance, are celebrated as an end in itself.

The logic of dialogue is thus understood as the norm that prevents the dialogue partners from universalising their own religious beliefs and practices at the expense of the other. This position is only a small step away from the more radical view that dialogue enables us to transcend specific manifestations of lived religion, and to access the common, universal core of human existence.

Accordingly, the fact that differences are often irreducibly incommensurable is denied. Dialogue is seen as a strategy to unmask the apparent heterogeneity of different beliefs as a mere surface phenomenon.

Or, conversely, dialogue is exposed as a manipulatory rhetorical tool and the incommensurability between different religious beliefs and practices is absolutised. It is believed that the co-existence of proponents of different religious traditions necessarily has an agonistic character.

Any attempt to initiate dialogue is viewed as an encroachment of the dominant and more powerful dialogue partner on the ideological territory of the other.

Within this framework, even peaceful, non-violent mission and conversion are inevitably seen as forms of subtle coercion and manipulation. The conference seeks to explore alternative, more nuanced views of dialogue that do justice to the Christian understanding of truth, and that avoid the impasses of these two outlined approaches.

The speakers are being invited to address one of the following issues:

• The possibilities and limitations of dialogue in ecumenical or interfaith discourse.
• Historical and theological case studies of cross-fertilization across confessional boundaries.
• Historical and theological case studies of ecumenical or interfaith encounters and dialogues.
• Mission and dialogue.
• The contemporary ecumenical dialogue.

The conference opens this morning after registration and morning coffee. Further details are available at the IOCS website.

David’s Bookshop in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

I hope to begin each day this week at the early morning celebration of the Eucharist in Saint Bene’t’s Church. Hopefully too, there will be time too to enjoy the bookshops and cafés in Cambridge, for walks along the Backs or the banks of the River Cam and across the Fens, and perhaps even to visit Ely Cathedral or some of the other historic churches and towns around Cambridge before the week is over.

Collect of the Day:

Everlasting God,
you sent the gentle bishop Aidan
to proclaim the gospel in this land:
grant us to live as he taught
in simplicity, humility, and love for the poor;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The cloisters in Cloister Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

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