Issue 43, July 2004
Inter-faith integrity and Christian witness: a consultation in Bangalore
Clare Amos, Michael Ipgrave, Susanne Mitchell, Andrew Wingate
The Network for Inter-Faith Concerns for the Anglican Communion (NIFCON) was established in 1993 as a result of decisions taken at the Lambeth Conference (the 10 yearly meeting of Anglican bishops) in 1988. Since its inception NIFCON has developed gradually, though the events of 2001 provided a major impetus for its work, which has, partly due to the demographical and regional realities of the Anglican Communion, often focused on Christian-Muslim concerns and relationships. I myself (Clare Amos) was appointed Coordinator of the Network in autumn 2001 and work with three international Presidents, a largely UK based support group which has just become a management group, and with an Administrator, Susanne Mitchell. Susanne has engaged seriously over the past two years with building up a network of international correspondents reporting from around the Anglican Communion, and assisting in the development of a website, which carries news about inter-faith activities and concerns particularly (though not exclusively) where there is Anglican involvement. The website address is www.anglicannifcon.org We have desks at the Anglican Communion Office in London and also work quite closely with relevant members of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s staff.
There are a number of plans and initiatives which we have been, and are, seeking to implement, but among them was the proposal (made by the bishops at the Lambeth Conference 1998) that we should organise one or more international consultations. By 2003 NIFCON had developed its capacity sufficiently to organise the first of these, which was held at United Theological College, Bangalore, largely at the suggestion of Dr Joshva Raja, the Director of Communication Studies at the College, and Canon Dr Michael Ipgrave, a member of NIFCON’s management group. We viewed this consultation, which was deliberately designed to have a regional focus on South Asia, as an opportunity to discuss and hone the direction in which NIFCON might develop and work over the next few years. One of the issues that we felt we needed to address was what the word ‘Concerns’ in our name might mean. Specifically we were seeking to define whether our work related solely to what might broadly be called ‘inter-faith dialogue’ or whether our remit extended, either potentially or actually, into the area of advocacy on behalf of those suffering marginalisation or even persecution linked to the differences between faiths. There was also a need to help the Anglican Communion do some thinking about the relationship between ‘mission concerns’ and inter-faith issues: we felt it important to have some representatives of the Anglican Communion’s Mission Commission with us at the consultation in Bangalore.
The proposal for the consultation expressed our aims as follows:
In such situations, several tensions emerge out of the churches’ inter-faith involvement. A number of interlocking key themes can be identified as follows:
The relation between a commitment to missionary proclamation and a commitment to inter-faith dialogue;
The relation between protecting the religious and social rights of a minority community and seeking the common good of a whole society;
The relation between a concern for religious understanding and a quest for social justice;
The relation between academic theology in seminaries and research institutions and grassroots attitudes and practice in local churches.
Bangalore proved to be an excellent and appropriate place to hold a consultation with such aims. We were confronted with the fact that inter-faith concern is not an ‘academic’ or theoretical topic in this part of the world, but something that one needs to engage with in regular daily living. And it is a reality that isn’t always comfortable. Certainly those of us who were involved in preparing for the consultation became very aware of the difficulties, sometimes minor, but nonetheless irritating, which confront Christians who are seeking to live out their faith as a minority in the Indian context. Dr Sathi Clarke, of United Theological College, who gave one of our key note lectures (the other was given by Father Michael Amaladoss and is referred to below) pointed out that we were meeting shortly after the explosion of a bomb in Mumbai on August 25 2003 which was a symbol of the religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India (which, of course, also inevitably affects Christians). Sathi Clarke’s exploration of the motif of ‘textiles’ in discussing the role of the Church in India gave us much food for thought. He illustrated how the church had the task of being ‘quilt’, ‘fringe’ and ‘patch’. Andrew Wingate’s contribution to this joint article (below) explores further the Indian dimension of our meeting.
One of the issues that was raised at the consultation by implication, was what was the role of an Anglican inter-faith network? We were meeting in a part of the world where Anglicans have become part of a United Church, which threw this question into quite a sharp focus. One of the important aspects of the consultation involved us hearing reports on inter-faith activity from the representatives of at least some of the 15 Anglican Provinces represented at the consultation. These reports can be found on part of our website http://www.anglicannifcon.org/Bangalore.htm.
Our final report also addressed this ‘Anglican’ question and commented: ‘Part of the answer to this question must surely lie in the real sense of ‘Communion’ that we felt permeated our meeting, with participants from different parts of the world deeply sharing the joys and pains of one another. Another part of the answer perhaps lies in the statement about the nature of Anglicanism made by Archbishop Michael Ramsey which was quoted at the meeting. “While the Anglican Church is vindicated by its place in history, with a strikingly balanced witness to the gospel, to the Church and to sound learning, its greater vindication lies in pointing through its own history to something of which it is a fragment. Its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and travail in its soul. It is clumsy and untidy; it baffles neatness and logic. For it is sent not to commend itself as the best type of Christianity, but by its very brokenness to point to the universal Church wherein all have died.” Although Archbishop Ramsey was there thinking about ecumenical endeavours perhaps Anglicanism’s “incompleteness” and ability to point beyond itself also applies to its vocation to engage in inter-faith concerns.’
Looking back on this comment after a space of just over six months, and writing at a time of considerable tension in the Anglican Communion, it seems an appropriate – and telling – point with which to conclude my (Clare Amos’) comments and let my colleagues in the consultation speak for themselves.
Canon Dr Andrew Wingate writes:
The context for this consultation was chosen carefully, and proved to be of considerable importance. Much of NIFCON’s work has centred upon relations between the Anglican Communion and Islam. But the mandate given by the last Lambeth Conference in 1998 made clear that NIFCON is to enable reflection and communication, related to all faiths. This has always been the case since NIFCON was formed in 1993. The last Lambeth Conference focused on case studies of Muslim-Christian relations around the communion, and that was appropriate in what proved to be three years before 9/11. This consultation in Bangalore therefore was designed to focus more widely, and to refer quite specifically to Christian-Hindu agendas. And though Bangalore has a significant Muslim community, Hindus predominate, as everywhere else in India except Kashmir, with its Muslim majority; the North Eastern States, with their Christian majorities; and Kerala, where there is a balance between Hindus, Christians and Muslims, though still with a Hindu majority. South India and Gujarat are in many ways the heartlands of classical Hinduism, and both featured in our consultation.
Bangalore itself is the fastest growing city in India. Once known as the garden city, and a favourite stationing for the British military, with its mild climate, Bangalore is now famous all over the world for its IT Sector, and its highly publicised call centres, but is also the home of major aeronautics, automobile and other industries. Pollution is high, and so the difference in temperature now between Bangalore and the main plains of South India is not great. The United Theological College (UTC) where the consultation was held, has had a proud history of ecumenical training and research since 1910, and was influential in helping to establish the Church of South India in 1947. The facilities of the college were opened wide for us, and the Principal, Dr.O.V.Jathanna, preached a powerful sermon on the importance of hospitality in inter-faith relations, based on the story of the journey to Emmaus. Such hospitality was something we faced in an intra Christian way during the conference.
We became aware very sharply of two particular aspects of the Indian context. The first was the situation of minorities within an increasingly Hindutva dominated India. This was not an immediate issue in Bangalore, which is in the State of Karnataka, where the Congress Party was in power, represented to us by a much heralded visit of Sonia Gandhi during our days there. But we were made aware of the specific issue of the anti-conversion bills, passed recently in Tamilnadu, and since the consultation, in an even stricter version, in Gujarat. Strictly these bills are called ‘Regulation of conversion’ bills, but in practice, legal conditions laid down as a prerequisite for a person changing their faith, are a major deterrent even to an articulate middle class convert, yet alone poor villagers, against whom they are primarily aimed. We heard how in one diocese, the potential converts were gathered together and taken across the border into an unrestricted state, baptised, and then led back again. The argument is that we should be as ‘wise as serpents’ in approaching a law which is seen as going against the freedom of religious choice which is enshrined in the Indian constitution, and seek ways around it.
But it is different in Gujarat, where the church is much weaker, and the BJP government much more aggressive in pursuing its anti-Christian and anti-Muslim policies. In a session related specifically to Gujarat, we heard an impassioned appeal for understanding and prayer for minorities in this comparatively prosperous state. We were asked not to allow Christians and Muslims to be forgotten, and to do what we can where we are, to highlight the situation in Gujarat. Members of the business classes from Gujarat have travelled all over the world, whether directly, or living for two or three generations in East and Southern Africa. They are the largest community of Indian origin in the UK, and significant in North America and elsewhere. Members of NIFCON consultation agreed to do this sensitively in their various contexts, and this is an example of the advocacy role, which is one of NIFCON’s objectives.
The regional issue of the North Eastern states was also raised, at least in groups. There is continuous violence in states such as Nagaland and Mizoram, where the population is nearly all Christian, and where central authority is used to suppress tribalism, indigenous culture, and separatist tendencies.
The other major contextual issue was that of Dalits. Numbering at least 180 million people, Dalit is the name chosen by the people themselves, meaning ‘crushed ones.’ They were formerly known as ‘untouchables’ or, as named by Gandhi, ‘Harijans’. Our attention was continually drawn to their situation, both within the wider society, and within the church, and of the need to support them in their struggle for justice, now that they had become much more conscientised to their situation and the need for change. This whole debate brought us up against the complexity of Hinduism, and of the need to de-romanticise the picture which Orientalism, and favourable media coverage, has left with people in the west. We experienced some of the best of Hinduism too, in this time, but also were alerted to the reality that many of the Dalits do not wish to be know as Hindus at all, traditionally outcaste as they are. This is why so many have converted to other faiths, Christianity, Sikhism, Islam, Buddhism.
Members of the consultation were also exposed to contexts around Bangalore. We experienced the strength of the major churches of the city on the Sunday, and their distinctive cultures, depending on which mission had founded them, even they are now all part of the Church of South India. We had a dinner in Bishop Cotton School, one of the most prestigious in the South of India, with the strengths and also questions raised by such an institution. We visited the ashram of the renowned Indian artist Jyoti Sahi, a haven of peace just ten miles or so from UTC, still in a rural area, at least for the moment, as Bangalore encroaches further and further. Another striking experience for some of us was to visit a Buddhist Vihara, in the heart of the city, and meet very young monks, who were training in meditation and Buddhist teaching, from all over India.
Susanne Mitchell reflects on the ‘Bible study’ methodology which was an important aspect of the consultation:
Acts 17 is the account of Paul's engagement with Hellenistic religion and philosophy in its Athenian heartland. The speech on the Areopagus is clearly evangelistic whilst the overall structure of the passage might be described as dialogical in that the subject clearly alternates between Paul and the Athenians. It is worth noting that 'speak' and 'listen' appear in balancing pairs throughout. That said, Paul's style of dialogue pulls no punches in that he is not afraid to set out a distinctive position. His motivation is as much about probing differences as it is about establishing common ground. The Athenian context is interesting in that the city thrived on acting as a trading place for new ideas. The Athenians were keen to hear what Paul had to offer. But, a desire to listen is not the same as an openness to change. Paul praises the piety of the Athenians. As Michael Ipgrave said in the notes ‘The force of Paul's argument depends on a willingness to recognise an authentic experience of God within pagan spirituality’.
Matthew 28, often called ‘The Great Commission’ (although this is not an altogether helpful title) was not in fact closely associated with the Church's missionary activity until the end of the 17th century. It has made its mark since then and has perhaps disproportionately affected our understanding of mission by being interpreted, not necessarily accurately, as a 'command'. Matthew's model of mission here is rather particular, didactic in process, disciple making in ambition. But is this the only definition of the mission of God? Is it even the only definition implied by Matthew? This is after all the climax of the gospel and needs examining in the context of the book as a whole. To do so is to discover an incarnational approach to mission where the evangelising disciples get alongside those to whom they bring the good news. Matthew 28.17 is ambiguous but suggests that the disciples who are sent out are sent precisely because they are those who themselves have doubts. Might it be that mission is better accomplished when those engaged in the task do not behave as if they have all the answers. Clare Amos suggested in the notes that what Jesus commands can be summed up as the 'love commandment'. In other words social involvement is an intrinsic part of evangelism. It was also noted that it is a modern tendency to separate Christian education and evangelism and not one found in Matthew. Nor is Matthew's teaching a course of indoctrination. The command to love is an integral part of the command to evangelise.
2 Corinthians 4; 5.14-21, according to Andrew Wingate 'centre upon Paul's understanding of the core of ministry. They are an apologetic for himself, and for the compulsion he feels driven by.' If the incarnation is about effecting reconciliation between God and humanity and between human beings is this not now our mission? If fundamental division such as between gender and race are to be transcended by Christ can we also include the divisions between Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jew? Paul was involved more than once in the unpopular mission of reconciliation across divisions which had existed for centuries yet he did not despair because 'the love of Christ urges us on'. Paul seems also to emphasise a determination to focus on open statements of truth, which is refreshing to realise in an age of spin. Indeed there is much in these verses which gives us cause to examine how we communicate the gospel. Are we tempted to downplay our Christology for fear of causing offence? Is it the gospel that is commended to those with whom we engage or merely ourselves? These verses also raise questions about the nature of God, God's love, and our response. If God is generous in creation might he not also be equally generous in salvation? Do we reflect grace and thanksgiving at being loved by God, or anxiety and boredom: do we really show that the love of Christ urges us on? The verses end with an encouragement to see Christ in all persons (which surely has implications for inter-faith dialogue) and the gift of the ministry of reconciliation (which has, until recently, often been lost of standard definitions of mission).
John 4.1-42 tells of Jesus' encounter with the woman at the well of Samaria. Is this an illustration in story form of the essence of mission in John's Gospel? It is a story about breaking down barriers as well as a story about liberation. For a variety of reasons the Samaritan woman represents the 'uncleanest of the unclean'. But the liberation is a mutual process for both giver and recipient. In the story both Jesus and the woman are vulnerable and it is this shared experience which brings them into dialogue. The dialogue is lengthy and has no predetermined agenda, to quote Clare Amos' notes it is a conversation between 'two people, both of whom are willing on the one hand to confront each other - but at the same time be open to the possibility of being changed themselves.' There are many paradigms here for inter-faith dialogue. Jesus does not patronise the woman. He does look to a time when divisions are overcome but never the less maintains his tradition, 'salvation is from the Jews'. This is at one and the same time a useful model for dialogue and a challenge to contemporary Christianity. Finally these verses are not simply Christocentric, because the Father and the Spirit are also included in the story. Nevertheless the cross is there, symbolised in Christ's noonday thirst. The verses offer an opportunity to consider how we ensure the cross is at the heart of faith and yet is presented in a way that liberates rather than creating barriers.
Finally, Canon Dr Michael Ipgrave, who might be said to have inspired the particular focus of the consultation, and encouraged it to take place at United Theological College, Bangalore, sums up what felt to be the ‘spirit’ of the event:
Secondly, the Spirit has a critical and judging function. There are some sharp questions which need to be asked of the theory and practice of dialogue. It is important to be clear from whose perspective dialogue is being conducted, so that we can be aware of the power dynamics and of the various motivations which bring people to the dialogue table. The discernment that the Spirit gives helps us to be honest and realistic about our own attitudes and expectations as well as those of our dialogue partners. Nor can it simply be assumed that dialogue is only or even primarily concerned with establishing points of agreement between different faiths, with finding common ground. As Christians we need fully to recognise the ‘otherness’ of other religions, and to see that the acknowledgement and exploration of difference is an important dimension of dialogue. The question of conversion – always a highly contentious point in the inter-faith setting – raises the issue of difference in an existentially urgent way for some people within the encounter of different faiths. Although seeking converts from one religion to another cannot be seen as the goal of dialogue, it is important that the possibility of such conversion – in any direction – should be accepted as a valid outcome of the conversation. Conversion is experienced by many Christians as a liberating and life-giving turning point in their lives. This can be unsettling for some models of dialogue and some theologies of religion, but the freedom of all to choose and to follow their own paths of faith is crucially important. This again can be a sign of the unsettling and discriminating activity of the Spirit.
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