Posted by: Andrew | December 9, 2014

The Value of Dialogue – just dialogue

There’s been an interesting shift in the interfaith world over the past few years. Whereas once interfaith activities were all about conversation and learning the call now is to action. There’s a huge amount of interfaith social action that is making a difference to may people’s lives and is mostly very good. Whilst I’m all in favour of this activity I am concerned that it is becoming the default for any interfaith work and the sign of whether an event was worthwhile. ‘But what are we going to DO as a result of all this talking?’ is a complaint I hear with increasing frequency. Discussion, it seems, is only valid if it leads to direct, measurable activity.

Yet, as someone who has frequently bemoaned interfaith talking shops, I want to defend the value of dialogue for it’s own sake. Dialogue at it’s best is neither a bland sharing of platitudes nor an excuse for irrelevant pontificating on subjects the speakers know little about, rather it is the genuine exchange of ideas that lead to increased understanding and changed attitudes. Growing in our understanding of the views and beliefs of others is a worthwhile task and one that is not easily done whilst delivering food (or whatever the social action task is). Big questions about the nature of God, the human condition, hopes for the future (in this life or the next) are not just obscure bits of theology of interest only to religious geeks but shape the way people of faith view the world, themselves, other people and the relationships between people, creation and God. They really do matter and so understanding why people of faith behave in certain ways means understanding how these beliefs and others shape their worldview and thinking and this is best done through informed dialogue. But genuine dialogue is not just limited to these big themes but also a way of understanding and re-thinking some of the issues facing society today.

If dialogue is only considered valid if it leads to specific action then the important tasks of growing in our understanding and wrestling with important concepts that do affect the way people interact with the world get lost. Furthermore there is a danger that dialogue becomes consumerist with people only willing to engage if they can see exactly what they will get out of it in ways that can be measured in tangible, photographable ways.

We must continue to make sure that dialogue leads to useful action, or that it takes place during action, but we also need to continue a commitment for dialogue that challenges our thinking.

Posted by: Andrew | November 17, 2014

I Believe in Miracles (or do I?)

I’ve spent time recently listening to Sikh, Hindu and Muslim friends recounting miracles that are recorded within their respective faiths. All the worlds faiths (as far as I’m aware) share a belief in the miraculous – an event that sits outside normal laws of physics, biology, chemistry or time and that owes its occurrence to a deity (I’ve also come across stories of miracles within Buddhism but that aren’t attributed to a deity). As I’ve listened to these stories I’ve started to ponder whether miracles is a useful starting point for interfaith engagement or a controversial complication best left to one side.

At one level they can be a great starting point for conversation. Twice I’ve been with people who have felt embarrassed to talk about miracles assuming that I’ll ridicule them for believing in things dismissed by rational scientific analysis. When I’ve explained that, as a Christian, I too believe in miracles so am happy to hear the accounts of others they’ve opened up and shared the stories in some depth. We’ve been able to talk about similar beliefs or accounts in our faiths and found discussing miracles as a helpful starting point for conversation.

That’s fine as a tool for exploring comparative religions. But the question left hanging is what do we make of the stories of miracles from other faith traditions? Do we believe that ‘Our God’ could or would perform miracles for people of another faith? If so then what meaning do we attribute to those miracles? It’s clear that miracles do more than heal or make us feel astonished or awestruck, they say something about God and the relationship between God and the created order. Whether we feel able to believe in the miracles of others or how we interpret them seem to me to be key questions if we are to seriously engage in interfaith encounters between people who both hold onto a belief in a deity who acts to change the world in ways outside the ‘natural order’.

In the Bible we read that God can clearly perform miracles that bring healing and wholeness to those outside the Jeudeo / Christian communities. In fact Jesus faced serious opposition for saying as much early on in his ministry (Acts 4: 14-30). But whilst those people benefitted from God’s generosity the miracles are clearly attributed to Jehovah and so they can be located within Jewish, and then Christian, theology. But there are others from outside that faith community that are recorded as performing miracles such as  Pharaoh’s magicians in Exodus chapter 7. So can I, as a Christian, believe that God performs miracles that aren’t called on in the name of Jesus? One way to look at this is to consider that if God does love the whole world, and if his spirit is abroad in the world, and he is sovereign then why shouldn’t he answer the cry of the mother when her child is ill or the father desperate for food? (why God seems to grant miracles to some people and not others is a debate for another day). It seems to me to be reasonable that God could do this, but to suggest that miracles believed in by Sikhs or Muslims are done by God acting in accordance with Christian principles is to somehow bring them under the orbit of Christ, when the adherents of those faiths might well wish to deny that he is the source of their miracles. So whilst we may feel comfortable understanding their appearance from within our own theological framework is it possible to make sense of them from within the epistemology of the faith itself. In other words can I as a Christian believe in or make sense of a miracle attested to by Sikhs without seeing it as part of a Christian understanding of the world but as a Sikh understanding of the world? If not then does it matter if I interpret it in a Christological framework? Is one interpretation as equally valid as any other? (the same of course would be true of any faith considering the miracles of another faith tradition).

Understanding a faith on its own terms without constantly interpreting it through our own filters is one of the biggest challenges in interfaith work and our ability to conceive of the miraculous in the other is perhaps the biggest challenge within this. Maybe too big, but it opens up new ways of engaging in faith discussions beyond the who’s text is most reliable or which personal experience is most interesting or valid.

There’s lots more to ponder and I suspect some more posts on this topic to come, I sense this is just the start of this exploration.



Posted by: Andrew | November 13, 2014

The Increase of (mis)Representation

I’m on a number of different groups and bodies that try to include people from across the city or region. If the conversation gets round to the membership of the group it’s not long before the word ‘Representation’ is mentioned. Usually with the idea that we could invite a select number of key people who can legitimately represent the various groups living in the city.

What is becoming increasingly apparent is that in a ‘Superdiverse’ city like Birmingham with 187 nationalities and members of every major faith group – and every branch of those faiths along with many of the smaller faiths and sects – the notion of representation is increasingly problematic.

Firstly there’s the problem of just how many people would you need to have in a room for it to be truly representative? eg do you need to include all the Christian denominations or groupings, and what about the different ethnicities within those groups?

Secondly which groups get representation? What about members of the LGBT community would they be there in their own right or under an ethnic or religious tag? What about different classes or types of atheism or humanism? Then there’s age, gender, areas of the city which could be taken into account.

Thirdly do all groups get 1 representative regardless of size. In Birmingham there are 235,000 Muslims and 2,500 Buddhists would they each get 1 representative (by the way there are about 12 different Buddhists denominations in the city so should they get one each?)

Fourthly what if the representative of one group won’t come if the representative of another group is there as they don’t think they have a right to be in the room? Who gets to decide who’s in and who’s out? And if we say everyone’s in we’re back to the numbers problem

Finally can any of these people legitimately claim to be a representative anyway? To my mind this way of thinking is predicated on an outdated view of how communities are structured and organised where people were generally assumed  to subscribe to a meta-narrative which could be articulated by a single person. Whether people were ever quite this compliant is, I suspect, a moot point but they were certainly perceived to be so by those in authority. I still do meet some leaders from different communities who hold this view of society and believe they can legitimately represent an entire group, although I rarely find such a view when talking to younger people or women.

So what is a possible way forward for groups trying to tackle issues facing a city? I would suggest the following:

1) Recognise that no group or individual is truly representative
2) Research the changing demographics of an area to know who’s actually around
3) Keep asking ‘Who’s NOT here?’ at any gathering and try and find out why that is the case
4) Spend time outside of meetings getting to know people from different backgrounds and LISTEN to them
5) Invite people to attend in their own right and not as representatives
6) Look for people who have an ear to the ground rather than status or a title
7) Invite different people to meetings to get away from having the same ‘usual suspects in the room
8) Have meetings at different times and in different places to make it easy for different people to attend
9) Have short life spans for committees so they can be re-formed with different people
10) Don’t beat yourselves up about not being representative – you won’t be. But you can try to change the way you relate to people whose lives you are seeking to impact.

Posted by: Andrew | May 15, 2014

What is Permanence?

Recently I had the privilege to preach at St Nicholas Church, Curdworth in North Warwickshire. This delightful church will be 850 years old in 2015. I always think it’s amazing to stand and preach in a place which has been used for Christian worship consistently week in-week out for many centuries. To stand in a line of Godly preachers and proclaim the word of God is awe inspiring. To look round a building that old is to see something of permanence, many of the stones have been there for the full 850 years, although there have been additions and changes during that time. So much history has happened even in a small village like Curdworth. It’s recorded that the first skirmishes of the English Civil War took place there in 1642.

On reflection I thought of three types of permanence I’d experienced during my visit

Physical: The building really has stood there for 850 years. If someone from that time came back bits of it they would still recognise.

Spiritual: There has been a congregation worshipping there all that time, still using forms of words that would be familiar (if translated into Latin or French) to the original worshippers. Yet obviously there have been hundred or even thousands of people over the years who have been regular worshippers there. The permanence  is through the continual re-telling and re-enacting of the Gospel story.

Geographical: Outside there is a field where battles were fought some 350 years ago. It’s still a field with new grass that has been used for many different purposes by many different people and groups. Yet it remains a field. Grass, which might seem the most temporary of plants easily sown and very easy to uproot has outlasted the years. Permanence

As Christians we talk about God’s unchanging nature, his permanence. Maybe a reflection on different types of permanence can shed new light onto the meaning of God’s eternal permanence.

Posted by: Andrew | May 13, 2014

What’s the Future for Interfaith Dialogue

It seems to me that lots of people who have been involved in Interfaith Dialogue are expressing frustration with dialogue and many have given up on it all together. So what’s led to this disillusionment, this cynicism and defeatism? Below are my thoughts which may be spot on, wildly inaccurate on somewhere in between.

Nothing Happens
Too much dialogue doesn’t achieve anything. It’s just fairly random discussions that don’t connect or lead to any actual outcomes or activity. In an increasingly busy world people aren’t willing to give up time for directionless or pointless activities.

It’s Irrelevant
Too may events are just people sitting talking about things that mattered a few years ago. There’s little, if any, engagement with issues facing people today who aren’t theologians or historians. Not many people want to discuss conflicts from 800 years ago, but might have an interest in looking at how faith can inspire un to tackle homophobic bullying or the environment.

It’s Too Safe
To much dialogue skirts round the difficult but pressing topics (see above), or when a controversial issue regarding faith hits the media rarely do inter-faith groups comment leaving the way for the loudest people from each faith community shout their opinions. If interfaith is to have a future it has to be brave enough to tackle all topics, however difficult.

It’s Stuck in the Past
Too many dialogue meetings feel like you’ve entered a timewarp to the 1970’s. There’s little if any use of technology, it’s mostly attended by elderly men and there’s great deference for those considered too important to be questioned. This means that others (eg young people and women) don’t get to speak and those with views counter to the prevailing mood are made to feel unwelcome.

It’s Too Restrictive
Rather than being an open and inclusive engagement much dialogue is limited to those from particular faiths (or section within those faiths). As cities become increasingly diverse this become untenable as many from smaller faiths, denominations or ethnic groupings demand legitimate rights to participate.

If interfaith work is to have a future in the UK it needs to address these (and other) issues as a matter of urgency and turn it from an intellectual hobby for professional interfaith practitioners to a vibrant movement for all.

Posted by: Andrew | May 10, 2014

Top Ten Albums

Here are my Top 10 all Time Favourite albums (at the moment)

Blinking Lights and Other Revelations: The Eels

Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: David Bowie

The Stone Roses: The Stone Roses

The Kick Inside: Kate Bush

London Calling: The Clash

Trans-Europe Express: Kraftwerk

Hallowed Ground: The Violent Femmes

Unknown Pleasures: Joy Division

This Year’s Model: Elvis Costello and The Attractions

Posted by: Andrew | April 21, 2014

Happy Muslims and Happy Clappy Christians

In the last week a video has been posted on youtube called Happy British Muslims and features a number of Muslims in the UK dancing and miming along to the Pharrell song ‘Happy’. I have to confess that when I watched it it made me smile, a number of folk I know feature in the video and it certainly left me (a Christian) feeling happy. Judging by the overall comments on social media and youtube it made an awful lot of Muslims also feel happy. There was a feeling that it challenged stereotypes and presented British Muslims in a new and positive light. However, inevitably, the video also brought questions, challenges, criticism and even hostility. Some Muslims called it haram (forbidden) due to the use of music and / or dancing (there was even an edited version – not done by the original producers- which claimed to be a halal (allowed) version by removing all the women from the video), others were concerned that this was not the best way to show that Muslims were happy arguing that going to prayers at a mosque or reading the Qur’an would be preferable. For others they felt it trivialised the difficulties that many Muslims in the UK were facing and many Muslims due to poverty, prejudice or other issues were not feeling happy.

So, if this is a video about Muslims and is causing a debate within Islam why have I called this post Happy Muslims and Happy Clappy Christians? Because the debate that this has sparked feels very familiar to those of us old enough to remember debates about Christian worship music in the 70’s and 80’s? Hard as it might seem to believe now but there were seriously angry debates and discussions about what Christian worship could / should be like. This included questions like ‘Can you use guitars or drums in church?’ Are chorus’s really Christian music? or even should Christians listen to pop music. These can seem ridiculous now but they were very live issues back then. Of course back then we didn’t have the internet (or home computers!) so the debates were less public but were no less passionate for that. In both the Christian debates then and the Muslim debates now one of the questions raised is that’s a slippery slope embrace this bit of ‘secular’ culture now and who knows where this will end up. I’m sure there are some who think because we let guitars in then that’s why the church is in the state it’s in. That would be ridiculous the use of cultural influences drawn from outside a narrow Christian historical culture have enhanced worship and enabled many to be drawn closer into the faith.

One Muslim commentator who liked the  ‘Happy British Muslims’ video said the important thing was to keep asking whether this was right and that seems to me the sensible response for any community. Look outward, see the positive elsewhere, embrace new ideas but keep asking whether they are good influences and  positive changes. But overall whatever we decide let’s Be Happy.


Posted by: Andrew | April 3, 2014

Trojan Horse – some reflections.

There’s been lots on the news in Birmingham about the ‘Trojan Horse’ Document purporting to reveal a ‘Jihadist’ plot to take over some Birmingham schools. Whilst the truth, reliability or credibility of this is investigated here are my reflections. Firstly there are many Muslims in Birmingham appalled by the allegations if they turn out to be true. Many are wanting the very best education for their children so that they can participate fully in British society. We must not treat the community as a monolith but recognise the diversity within Islam in Birmingham. Secondly where there are concerns they should be properly investigated without people being branded Islamophobic. This is time for urgent, serious, calm action not screaming headlines, rumours or false accusations. Birmingham has a strong tradition of good relations between faiths it’s vital that we draw on those good relationships at this time to support those feeling under attack (from any direction) to stand up for those who feel their views or beliefs are being trampled on and to ensure that Birmingham is a good place for all young people to grow up in.

With regards the alleged activities within schools here are some thoughts on what this says about priorities for any school.

1) Staff have the right to do their work without feeling intimidated or bullied. It’s vital that governors, local authorities, Academies and Unions should work together to ensure a positive, safe working environment for all staff.

2) State schools whether run by a Local Authority or an Academy or a Faith School should teach the whole National Curriculum to ensure that pupils are given the same opportunities as all others in the country. Local Authorities, OFSTED and Academies should support teachers and governors to make sure this happens.

3) Unless the foundation document of a school states otherwise (eg wanting staff from a particular faith background), staff should be appointed on merit alone.

4) Schools should work hard to provide the very best education for all their pupils so that they can achieve their full potential. Schools should also make sure pupils are equipped for life outside school in the wider society by encouraging pupils to meet and mix with peers from different ethnic or faith backgrounds.

5) Schools should make sure that the needs of all pupils and not just the majority are catered for. This means equipping staff to understand pupils backgrounds and finding space to celebrate and cater for every pupil.

Whilst all 5 of these happen in the vast majority of schools, it’s easy for one or more of them to be eroded by parents, governors or staff with a particular agenda. Lets work to ensure it doesn’t happen – anywhere.

Posted by: Andrew | May 14, 2013

Disconected or multi-conected?

I often year older people (those over 47 by my definition) complaining that they see groups of young people staring a mobile ‘phones and not communicating with each other. But I often see older people (especially couples in restaurants) doing exactly the same. Staring at their smart ‘phones and totally disengaged with each other. But if we look closely at how young people behave I think we’ll often see that whilst they may be tapping away on their ‘phones they are simultaneously carrying on a conversation with those around them. They are not disengaged but multi-engaged carrying on several conversations at the same time. Perhaps the angst of the older generation is actually their own concerns and fears about their relationships being displaced onto young people.

Posted by: Andrew | May 7, 2013

Hidden Beauty

Why is it that so much of God’s amazing creation is hidden from view? If we were to only use our eyes and the limits of our bodies we would see beauty and lots of amazing things, which reveal us something of God’s creativity, diversity, care, majesty and power. In Psalm 8 the writer uses the wonder of creation to praise God.

But in recent years technology and science has allowed us to see so much more. Whether it’s under the oceans or in deep caves, or the wonders of the universe which are revealing new things almost daily it seems. Then there’s stuff at the micro, cellular, atomic or sub-atomic level. None of this we could see even a few years or decades ago.

With each new discovery rather than see it as a proof against God, I see it as an insight into a created universe that is so complex and wonderful that we are only now beginning to understand or even see some of it. This is surely a reason to praise God even more. He has created a universe we can never get bored with, however, clever we get.

And just as we have to go on searching to discover more of his universe. So we have to go on searching to discover more of God.

And all this has only been made possible by the inquisitive nature of scientists and engineers and their willingness to keep on experimenting, searching and asking until they find the answers. So I don’t see science and Christianity as being in opposition to one another as science has shown me so much of a universe I believe was created by God. So I want to say a huge ‘Thanks’ to all the scientists whose work has expanded our knowledge of the universe and allowed me to praise God even more.


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