I find the question 'how relevant is faith and religion in a modern society?' so often at the forefront of my work. Maybe I should not be surprised at this, as CEO of the oldest national interfaith organisation in the UK. Here and across Europe it appears at times that we are becoming increasingly intolerant of religious observance and highly sceptical of any opinions based on faith.
Times have certainly changed since 1942 - the year the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) was founded. In the midst of the Second World War, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and Chief Rabbi with others started the organisation as a much-needed conduit for Christians to talk with Jews and try to heal two millennia of so much prejudice and distrust between the two faiths.
So how does an organisation over 70 years old like the CCJ stay relevant today? As a society we are turning our back on religion more and more in our political and societal debates. Is 'interfaith relations' still worth discussing in this changing context?
I would answer with a resounding 'yes.' Not only are we becoming increasingly interconnected, but we are also seeing a rise in religious tension, persecution and an increasing number of bloody conflicts around the world where 'religion' is perceived to be a contributory, if not the sole, cause. Our pluralist and multi-faith society brings us face to face with diverse religious practice, which to some appears strange and threatening - although to others can appear fascinating and enriching. How do we move from suspicion and fear of the other to acceptance and respect? A lot of work still needs to be done to cultivate an openness and understanding.
Interfaith dialogue has a hugely significant role to play in a diverse and multi-cultural, multi-faith society. Furthermore, it occupies a prominent, upfront position in corridors of power, buildings of faith and halls of learning. Luckily, students across the country seem to agree. This month the Archbishop of York and the Chief Rabbi travelled to Durham University to discuss the critical role of interfaith and met with 18 students from around the UK who were interested in setting up their own CCJ network. Participating students - or CCJ Student Presidents (CCJSPs) - will work with the wider organisation to facilitate regular opportunities for students of different faiths to meet, campaign for religious tolerance and promote religious literacy within the wider campus community.
From my perspective, the project is in the hands of the students - we will maintain a supportive role for them to pave the way in facilitating interfaith discussion locally. The Manchester Jewish Society (Jsoc) has already arranged a meeting with the Christian Union to discuss how to take the initiative forward - over bagels, for food is always a good start!
Interfaith dialogue will have to take its place as a crucial item on everybody's agenda. It is heartening to get behind these students - the leaders of tomorrow - who show us that faith and religion is still relevant to life's meaning and for flourishing, dynamic, societies. What these young students have shown us is the next generation have glimpsed both the opportunities and the urgency of enriching interfaith relations through exciting dialogue and sharing knowledge.