We have just had a great week doing what is closest to our heart, bringing Christians and Muslims together. Conscious, as ever, of the outlook which says 'Christians and Muslims, no big deal', we brought people together in different quarters of London. Actually if we add another day to our week, we will have been in each quarter, finishing off in Whitechapel with our regular dialogue.
Yes, Christians and Muslims can and do meet naturally but it doesn't happen as often, or as meaningfully, as we would like. It needs a little push, someone to create opportunities and introduce people to each other, that's where we come in. Where would you start?
Our week began in Clapham Park, just down the road from Streatham and Brixton in South London. My colleague, Bishop Donnett Thomas (it's good to be ahead of the trend with a woman Bishop on board!) was looking for a way of meeting with local Muslims. Our first conversations were with a Shi'a cleric, Sayed Ali Abbas Razawi, one of our partners in the London Peace Network. As an illustration of how close we are to each other, we discovered that his mother runs the nursery at the church where we were planning to meet and our Christian colleagues already knew her.
We began to put together a list of mosques in the area and invited them to meet with us at the church, with a little help from friends we had a good turnout. And although we have been doing this work for nearly ten years it was a first for our Christian and Muslim friends and for St Stephen's, Clapham Park. It was no surprise to me, though it may be to some, that at this gathering of Sunnis, Shi'as and Black Pentecostal Christians everyone got on like a house on fire, South Londoners together. It was helped by the hospitality of local church people, a humorous imam and the generosity of all who were there. There was a shared sense that we had a responsibility to do something positive together, as one of our friends said, 'It's time to erode the boundaries we've created for ourselves.' It only takes a little joining up for us to realise how connected we already are, as another participant said, 'A beautiful thing will come out of getting closer together.' Then begins the real work of shedding our misconceptions and understanding each other.
The next step for our Clapham Park group is a meal together in the next few weeks at Tooting Mosque.
We began our week in a church inviting Muslims to meet with us, then on Saturday we invited Christians to Finsbury Park Mosque. It gained some notoriety ten years ago due to the unwelcome presence of Abu Hamza whose activities were resisted by the mosque trustees. It is now a very welcoming place, I took one of my friends there for a visit a few years ago. This time we met to explore pointers from the Bible and the Qur'an for closer relationships. The theme of this meeting was the Muslim 'Common Word' initiative, we used #acommonword as our hashtag on Twitter. The phrase 'Common Word' refers to a verse in the Qur'an which asks the 'People of the Book' to come to a common word (or understanding) with Muslims. This verse was taken up as an invitation to Christians worldwide following a controversial speech by Pope Benedict which quoted a mediaeval statement which was hostile to Islam.
Unusually for us we only invited Christians as this event was taking place in a mosque. My target was 50 people and by Saturday morning we had forty six people who booked a place. It's tremendously encouraging to run an event where nearly all the chairs are filled and where there is a good atmosphere from the beginning. Though again this is not unusual, often our main input is to find ways of bringing people together, with people regularly signing up via Twitter and the biggest part of our work is done. The event itself is the cherry on the cake. Another cherry was the excellent Exhibition Islam display which fitted so well, showing us all how the Qur'an encourages dialogue and coexistence between Christians, Muslims, Jews and others. We are now looking for a similar Christian exhibition, or we may produce one ourselves.
We could not have done better than Steve Chalke as our first Christian speaker, who reminded us of God's promise to Abraham in Genesis, to bless all people through him. Christians and Muslims haven't been particularly good at doing this, though there have been some highpoints in the past, amongst our troubled history. He made an appeal to us, as children of Abraham, to do what we should be doing, as in fact we were while he spoke, be good cousins to each other and share good things with ourselves and the rest of society. Abraham's legacy should be joy, peace and love, not hostility and negativity. Living well with our neighbours of other faiths and cultures is as old as Abraham (1800 BCE, approx).
One of our Muslim speakers, Dr Adil Salahi, echoed this, unsurprisingly (though it may be surprising to some), quoting one of the display boards in the mosque exhibition to show that the Qur'an (29.46) itself urges Muslims to meet, talk and develop relationships of respect with Christians, Jews and others. Shattering a few perceptions, he offered themes from the Qur'an as building blocks, rather than roadblocks.
Our friends who were with us had just as many interesting experiences - the Muslim woman whose daughter attends a local Catholic school, the minister with a Muslim grandson, the local vicar welcoming us to his parish because the mosque is in the parish, local Muslim women visiting Westminster Abbey after forming a friendship with another vicar. Another friend was so enthused by the experience that she stayed in the mosque for a tour and talking to evening worshippers until 7pm, long after we had finished and our team had gone home. It reminds me of a friend who was surprised that I had been inside another mosque in Finsbury Park. So we can say, 'Yes, the mosques are open and you will be welcome.' Get in touch if you would like us to come with you.
I'd already decided on Sunday that it was my ideal week - beginning with inviting Muslims to a church and ending with bringing Christians into a mosque. It's rare, even for us, to do both in the same week. What made it so valuable was that it was both simple and hugely appreciated by everyone I spoke to. But the week wasn't over yet, just a few hours left for on more gathering.
A group of us met - Jews, Christians and Muslims - in a West London synagogue to read our three scriptures together. It's an experience that places us, despite all our differences, on an equal footing, sharing from our own traditions in a way that joins us all together. There are many connections between our scriptures and our beliefs, though there was a whole spectrum of views on our theme 'Questioning God'. God, indeed, asks us a question, 'Are you reading and sharing together, learning about each other, being vulnerable and intimate together?' It's a question I leave you with, we know the alternative and what happens if we don't connect.