In reporting Archbishop Justin Welby’s address to the Board of Deputies of British Jews last week, the Telegraph’s “click bait” headline read, “Welby: Let’s stop pretending all religions agree”. The Board of Deputies own website ran with the markedly less dramatic “Archbishop of Canterbury urges faiths to come together to combat religious violence.” Not having heard the speech myself, I can’t write confidentially on the nuances of Welby’s argument or where he might have hoped for the emphasis to lie. Either way, it is clear that the Archbishop raised some significant issues which deserve unpacking.
The Telegraph reports Welby’s mention of “profound differences” between religions and that any pretence of wide scale agreement is “dishonest”. Crucially for the Archbishop, we need increased honesty on issues of religious difference in order to stand-up to the challenge of violent religious extremism. As an interfaith activist, but one who regular critiques the sector, I’ve been known to make similar arguments. A “we’re all the same really” approach, the “tea and samosa” model of interfaith dialogue practiced by small insular groups, won’t ever have the society changing impacts which interfaith work, I believe, has the potential to achieve. As I have argued elsewhere, it is only when we discus differences, when we step outside of our comfort zones and challenge preconceived ideas of both ourselves and the other, that true progress will be made. I’m happy to make the argument that religions need to discuss their differences; so why did I feel so uncomfortable when the Archbishop of Canterbury broached the subject?
Some of this unease is because the notion of difference is relational: different compared to what? Compared to whom? For the white, upper middle-class, male leader of the Church of England, it is easy to begin conversations around difference because (in a British setting at least) you are the de facto neutral position; the Archbishop is not that which is different; the other; the exotic. It might, therefore, be worth raising the question as to whether intuitional forms of interfaith work ever begin from a level playing field whereby everyone is equally different. In such situations, I can imagine how a representative of a marginalised religion, or a widely demonised religion, might find more appeal in discussing that which is shared and to explore commonalities, rather than to highlight the things which mark oneself as different. After all, as a society we don’t have a great track record of encouraging the assertion of religious difference. Look for example, to recent furores and misunderstandings surrounding issues such a Sharia law, halal meat and the wearing of the face veil or niqab.
Of course, it is not only our recent history which suggests our lack of tolerance towards religious differences, both in society and institutionally. Our contemporary understanding of the term religion is, as Karen Armstrong suggests, an early modern product of Protestantism, which “set an agenda to which other faith traditions would be expected to conform”. In “Anglican Britain”, from the past to the present, religious difference is either subsumed as part of self-defined and fixed definitions, or is demonised and set apart.
Tucked at the bottom of the Telegraph’s article, Welby is quoted as having said, “True friendships and relationships can withstand honesty about differences in values, opinions and religious understandings and a common commitment to mutual flourishing in diversity.” Much of the interfaith work in which I’m involved is based on relationship building, usually between young and self-reflective people, coming together as part of a peer group, and acting together on issues beyond simply our religious identities. During these encounters, as Welby describes it, I have come to grow in “true friendship” which has often involved the difficult, yet profoundly powerful experience of mutual disagreement. But can the same be said of institutional forms of interfaith work? These “official” interreligious meetings, with their necessary doctrinal limitations, and careful need for “representation” appear a world away from the informal gatherings of youth I’m more familiar with. They are an example, as my colleague Chris Baker describes, of the bureaucratization of relationships, often at the expense of real respect and trust.
So why have we fallen into this rhetoric of interreligious similarities and shared statements? Can minority faith leaders speak with the same confidence on the question of difference, as the Archbishop of Canterbury? And why has the Archbishop yet to find a neutral “safe space” where faith leaders from all backgrounds feel fully able to meet the challenge he lays out? I would argue that the institutional approach to interfaith work practiced by our faith leaders might be holding the conversations back. For like all friendships, we are attracted to the other person in the first instance for our similarities, the things we share and it is only once a friendship has solid foundations when the difficult conversations can be broached. If faith leaders are failing to have these difficult conversations, then perhaps the necessary groundwork, the foundations of friendship, are too shaky to support them.
So how to build these friendship? First of all, these things take time and effort. Sitting together on high-profile panels at conferences, delivering one-off key note speeches, and signing shared statements, cannot provide foundations for enduring friendships. I have built my closest interfaith friendships through informal gatherings, one to one appreciative dialogue, sending jokes via WhatsApp, and working and volunteering together on shared social action projects. Maybe these models won’t work for faith leaders, but clearly something more effective, something multi-layered and sustainable must be tried in order to build the real friendships necessary to support those tricky conversations. In his address, Archbishop Welby appealed for an interfaith ideology “that undermines, that subverts, the arguments of the radicals’”. As I have argued before, the most subversive thing we can do to challenge violent extremism is to work together to develop “true friendships”. If we can meet as equals and grow together across lines of difference, this ideological position is the exact opposite of the ideology of religious extremism.
Charlotte Dando is Assistant Director of William Temple Foundation.