14 May 2011

Caught between the Scylla of repression and the Charybdis of oppression

Visiting a Hindu temple in Leicester ... one of the images presented during the Inter-Faith debate at General Synod in Armagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

On the third day of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland in Armagh this morning [Saturday], I seconded the report of the Commission for Christian Unity and Dialogue, and as secretary of the Inter-Faith Working Group, seconded Motion No 10:

“General Synod welcomes the work of the Inter-Faith Working Group and encourages each diocese to appoint an Inter-Faith resource person to foster and encourage Inter-Faith initiatives at diocesan and parochial level.”

The motion was proposed by the Archbishop of Dublin, the Most Revd Dr Michael Jackson. As we spoke, a collection of images from two conferences – the Inter-Faith Conference in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute last September, and the Inter-Faith Conference in Leicester earlier this year – were projected on the main screens behind us.

Seconding the report and the motion, I said:

Over the past few weeks, I have followed with fascination the news from the Middle East and the Islamic world – the Arab Spring that has gripped Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Qatar, the Emirates …

And as I’ve watched, like you, I have found I am reacting with a mixture of hope and fear, joy and anxiety, wonder and heartbreak.

There are up to 10 million Christians in Egypt … twice the population of Ireland. There are 2 million Christians in Syria … greater in number than the membership of the Church of Ireland.

In both countries, these people have joined the calls for democracy … knowing that the price of demanding democracy risks being caught between the Scylla of an even more repressive regime that clamps down any lingering liberties, and a Charybdis of a new order controlled largely by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The bravery of these Christian communities, the willingness of their Muslim neighbours to stand guard as they prayed, and of Christians to stand protectively by their Muslim neighbours as they bowed in prayer, is an example of how good Christian-Muslim relations produce fruits that are for the benefit of the whole of society.

Last February and March some of us heard similar heart-warming stories – how Muslims and Christians have stood together in the face of hatred and in the face of provocation.

But whether we are talking about these islands or the Middle East, good relations cannot be created at a moment of crisis. They come about only through hard work, honesty and commitment, from communities that respect themselves while respecting others.

Events in the Middle East and the Islamic world are a sharp reminder that the world is changing rapidly, and that the agenda the context for Inter-Faith relations is changing faster than we can grasp.

The time is now to prepare for this on this island. We need people in each diocese who are resourced so they can answer and advise us at all levels in the Church about the difficult questions about school prayers, community prayers, shared events, marriage, family tensions, community opportunities …

That is why the Inter-Faith Working Group believes there is a need for a commitment in each diocese to have an Inter-Faith resource person.

All of us who went to Leicester a few weeks ago were impressed not so much about the theoretical under-pinning of dialogue in that city and that diocese but more by the stories that underlined the value of pastoral and personal encounters, that were built on the church, in the diocese, in parishes, in schools, engages with community and society.

At times of crisis, the church in Leicester was able to offer solidarity with those who were targeted by those with violence in their hearts, violence stirred and provoked by media caricature and images.

Our images from Leicester are positive and encouraging. And we hope that these images, and other positive images from our conference last September, encourage each diocese – more than this resolution – to appoint an Inter-Faith resource person to foster and encourage Inter-Faith initiatives at diocesan and parochial level.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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