Conversations: A Sermon for Multi-faith East Oxford

I went to see the film ‘Victoria and Abdul’ this week.  A film about Victoria’s friendship in the last years of her life with a Muslim called Abdul.  The great power of the film lies in its critique of the arrogance and violence of the British Empire.  By creating a real friendship and empathy between Queen Victoria and Abdul a link is created between Victoria and the Islamic faith.  Where the film fails in my view, is in its air brushing out of any valid Christian spirituality or presence in Queen Victoria’s life.  The Church of England gets one mention as part of the colonialist hierarchy, never a source of spiritual comfort.  When Abdul is present at Victoria’s deathbed he quotes Rumi but there are no Christians to be seen.  The film doesn’t pretend to historical accuracy but to me it is typical of our recent love affair in the West with the spirituality of  other faiths.

Today we come to the third of our 7 lamps – Christ at our heart, Health and Healing and today Inter-faith dialogue.  We live amidst the diversity of multi-faith East Oxford, this is part of our calling and our vocation as Christians in this place.

At this weeks School Governors meeting the head teacher asked if we could take the phrase ‘Community cohesion’ out of a document.  It sounded out of date, community cohesion was, so she said, a Blairite phrase, we changed it to ‘Equal opportunities’.  The discussion reminded me of the 90s where a new generation of the Left in Manchester wanted to do away with multi-culturalism and replace it with anti-racist.  My only reflection on all this is that community cohesion and Multi-culturalism were attempts to speak about the whole not just to protect the parts.  One thing my Christian tradition tells me it that however difficult it is we shouldn’t just speak up for all the different sections of the community we should also try, challenging as it is, to speak to and embrace the whole community.

The secular world view, also so important to this part of Oxford sees Religion as, at best something for the personal consumption of those who like that sort of thing, not part of the discussion about the whole community.

For me the question of what it means to be Christian and yet live in community with Islam here in East Oxford.  Dialogue has to be something which we engage in but how can we also proclaim the love that we believe is revealed in Jesus?

This debate between Dialogue and proclamation has been at the heart of Christian disagreement about inter-faith conversations for years,  With Conservative Christians focusing on Proclaiming the Gospel and  Liberals on dialogue and conversation.

Last year on an inter faith course I had to get a taxi in Birmingham – one of those days when I wish I didn’t go round in a dog collar.  The Muslim man who picked me up gave me a 20-minute lecture on Islam.  He questioned the legitimacy of the Christian Bible in comparison to the certainty of Islam and the Koran.  Unsure how to respond to this deluge which was very much one sided I interrupted “What is the best thing about being a Muslim?” and he spoke for the first time in a more heartfelt way about the Brotherhood and about care for each other including all their brothers in Syria.  This man didn’t want a dialogue, he wanted a ‘my faith is better than yours’ conversation.  I had to step back and engage in a slightly different way.  But what the encounter taught me is that, like my evangelical Christian friends, there are many Muslims who want to prove that they are right and I am wrong.

In the Church of England primary school that the taxi man took me to the head told me that they had  unashamedly Christian Collective worship in their 90% Muslim school.  No provision for Halal either just vegetarian or meat.  I still want to say that I am more dialogue than proclamation but I also think this is a ridiculous division.  When are we going to realise that multi-faith consciousness is not just a potpourri of everything, it is a willingness to be in conversation with the Other, if you like with the Jesus we find in Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism.  We are not a hermetically sealed Christian identity, the self is a fluid thing which is touched and influenced by all sorts of spiritual and religious experiences.

But we need to start with the riches of our Christian Tradition.  This is where God put us, where we found God or he found us –  in the church, even if you’re only holding on by your fingertips!

In the 21st century there has been a move amongst some Christian inter faith thinkers to begin not with texts – ‘my book is better you’re your book’ or ‘lets compare my text with your text’ but to return to the Christian monastic virtues of humility, empathy and hospitality – its an approach which sits well with our position here in Benson’s church on the Cowley Road.

Empathy is explicitly dynamic, it is disempowering and decentring.  It is not that empathy is the only answer, all these debates are hugely complex but rather than it begins the process of entering the place of dialogue with other faiths.

Being pro-active in our understanding of this multi-faith community means that we also inform ourselves and become more empathetic to other situations.  The Rohingya are a mostly Muslim ethnic group, who have lived for centuries in the majority Buddhist Myanmar. Currently, there are about 1.1 million Rohingya but hundreds of thousands of them are being displaced.  The BBC doesn’t always show us the whole picture.  One of the cleaning staff at Paula’s school showed her horrific pictures of Muslims killed in Myanmar.  These things might feel like they happen far away but they are having a direct effect on the emotional lives of our next door neighbours.  Why aren’t we talking more?

We need to step back from a religious debate which sometimes feels sterile or stuck and re-engage in a different way.  That’s exactly what Jesus does in today’s Gospel when the Pharisees try to trick him into either being pro Cesar or pro rebellion in the question of paying taxes – he side steps the question.  He avoids the binary opposites and affirms a practical position.   Sometimes I need to step back from my own passions, angers and disillusionments in order to really hear what is being said to me.

The great Jesuit Jacques Dupuis claims that: the Christ event does “not exhaust the power of the Word of God who became flesh in Jesus” (p.319 TCTP).  The power of the Word of God exists beyond its revelation in Jesus.

Dupuis seems to suggest that people in other religions can be saved, can know God, can have penetrating experiences of the divine.  Now this isn’t news to me and it probably isn’t news to you but it does lead us to ask what does it mean to be Christian in this multi-faith context?

And there are people who want us to give answers that are oppositional and divisive, just look at todays Gospel.  But when we move powerfully to the depths of our own tradition in prayer and contemplation so that we can inhabit the space of our faith then we can engage openly with the many gifts that other faith have to offer us.  Empathy, humility, hospitality are the gifts of the Western Monastic tradition that can guide us. The Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff once wrote:

“We must place ourselves in minor and servile positions, and we must renounce pretension that we are superior or privileged because we are Christians” (Quoted in Gaston p.148-9)

This renunciation is in no way a backing away from Christianity towards an endless celebration of diversity but rather it reminds us that we are first and foremost followers of Jesus Christ who died and rose again to new life with God.  Amen.

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