Bishop Toby speaks about Bradford at interfaith conference in Abu Dhabi

The Bishop of Bradford, Bishop Toby Howarth, has spoken about recent events in Bradford  in a keynote address at an international interfaith conference which has taken place in the United Arab Emirates.

(Pictured right, members of Anglican team in Abu Dhabi - Rev Mark Poulson Archbishop of Canterbury's Inter-Religious Affairs Secretary, Katie Hodkinson, a member of the Archbishop's Inter-Religious Affairs Team, Bishop Dr Toby Howarth and Rachel Harden, the CofE Deputy Director of Communications).

The ‘Towards an Integrated World’ conference, focusing on integration, religious freedom and flourishing societies,was organised by the Muslim Council of Elders with Christian leaders from the Anglican Communion. Those taking part included Dr Ahmed El Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al Azhar and president of the UAE’s Muslim Council of Elders and the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Dr Justin Welby. 

In his speech, Bishop Toby, formerly the Archbishop’s Advisor on Interfaith issues, spoke frankly about the obstacles in the path of coexistence and dialogue, and possible solutions – and he said he was encouraged by his experiences in Bradford. “I am from the city of Bradford in the UK” he told the international audience of religious leaders and politicians. “It is a great city and has one of the largest proportions of Muslims in any city of the UK. It is also the youngest city in the UK. Our future in the UK and in our world is one of much greater mixing and shifting of identities. One of the great sources of hope for me in Bradford is that there are young Muslim women coming up and changing the face of the leadership in the city.”

(Pictured left, Dr Sarah Snyder, the Archbishop of Canterbury's Advisor for Reconciliation, with Bishop Toby).

Speaking about the need to address people’s fears, he recounted how at the height of the flooding in the Calder Valley last December he had gone to a church where people were bringing food and blankets to be distributed. He said, “The first people I met there were a group of young Muslims who had come with two car-loads of food and blankets. This gave me hope. We didn’t talk about religion. We stood shoulder to shoulder, sweating and laughing and working as Christians and Muslims, but in a deeper way, as human beings together meeting the needs of other human beings.”

But he said fears needed to be addressed with dialogue and personal encounter and spoke of another experience at a Bradford Mosque, which he visited with retired soldier, Mike Haines, whose brother, aid worker David Haines had been killed Da’esh.  An argument had begun, but ..”the soldier came in, still in shock because of his brother’s death, and he saw the people still finishing their rawatib prayers, and he was moved with emotion, and he began to weep.

“Great tears rolled down his cheeks. And the whole atmosphere in that room changed. The same man who had shouted at me went to the soldier and embraced him and said to him, “When those people killed your brother, it was as if they beheaded my whole community…”

Bishop Toby said that the dialogue taking place left him full of hope: “I do not leave this gathering afraid. I leave this dialogue with hope. I am hopeful partly because of the quality of people here, and the great investment that has been made into this dialogue, and the resources put into such positive engagement with each other. But mostly I am hopeful because I believe that God wants an integrated world, a world of justice and peace, where people bring their differences together and learn to disagree well, and to celebrate together and to work for the common good. God, I believe, wants us to talk together, but also to work together.”

Earlier this week the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke at the Conference - you can read his speech here. 

Read Bishop Toby’s speech to the ‘Towards an Integrated World’ conference here

Anglican Communion and Muslim Council of Elders Meeting

‘Dialogue Towards an Integrated World’  -  Abu Dhabi 2-3 November 2016

The Rt Revd Toby Howarth, Bishop of Bradford

"Obstacles in the path of coexistence and dialogue, and possible solutions."

Your Emminence, Professor al-Tayeb, Your Grace, Archbishop Justin, honoured elders from the worldwide Anglican Communion and the Muslim Council of Elders, your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen

I am grateful to be part of this historic gathering, hosted here in Abu Dhabi, continuing the formal dialogue that we have enjoyed over the last 15 years between the Anglican Communion and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Al-Sharif.

It is particularly significant that this year the gathering has expanded so much, with the Muslim Council of Elders, bringing partners in dialogue from so many different parts of the world, and with such rich experience and wisdom to share.

It has been notable during these days here at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Abu Dhabi that a number of people have come to me in the lift or in the corridor or in the restaurant to say how happy they are that this dialogue is taking place. We heard yesterday from our brother Bishop Ermia from Cairo how during a dialogue there between imams and priests, passers-by came to them and said that they thought someone was making a film! But this is reality, and people are happy that we are meeting. Why are they happy? Because they are afraid. Our world is burning. When I flew here with Etihad Airways, we could not fly directly because that would have taken us over Mosul where a terrible battle is going on as we speak.

We have the responsibility, those of us in this room and those we represent, to find a way of dealing with the burning issues and differences between our two great religions. Otherwise people who are not in this room will take the ground, and they will destroy everything that we hold dear and precious.

I have been asked to speak about “obstacles in the path of co-existence and dialogue” and to suggest “possible solutions.” Others have spoken in this session very well and with great learning about these obstacles. I want to focus in my contribution here on the obstacles in this dialogue process itself. What are the challenges we face that we need to address if this dialogue is going to achieve what we all so badly want it to achieve?

The first challenge is that we need to expand the dialogue to include people who are not here but should be here. It has been encouraging in this meeting that we have more women speaking than we have had before, and more younger people. But this process of widening the dialogue needs to continue. And we need people from other places, and representing other streams within our traditions.

I am from the city of Bradford in the UK. It is a great city and has one of the largest proportions of Muslims in any city of the UK. It is also the youngest city in the UK. Our future in the UK and in our world is one of much greater mixing and shifting of identities. One of the great sources of hope for me in Bradford is that there are young Muslim women coming up and changing the face of the leadership in the city. Last month I was asked to appear on a series of television programmes made by British Muslim TV. The show was called ‘Ask the Alim’ and featured an Uzbeki imam and myself. People could tweet or message or email us with any questions and we would have to answer them. Young people were asking all sorts of questions, about deep trauma, about their sexuality, about the things they were doing in their free time. And the people running this TV station were all young Muslim women.

When I served as a priest in another city of the UK, a Muslim shopkeeper put up a sign above his shop which was very offensive to Christians, Jews and other religions. An election was coming up and I was concerned that his sign would lead to people attacking Muslims or voting for extreme right wing parties. So I went to the shop-keeper, who I know, and asked him to take down the sign. He refused. “God told me to put that sign up!” he said to me. “Why should I take it down for you?” So I went to our local imam, and together we went to see the shopkeeper. He told us both to leave. Then I went to a young Muslim woman politician. She got that sign removed within two hours. I don’t know how she did it. But she did it. Religious authority is changing whether we like it or not. It has to be reflected in our dialogue meetings.

The second challenge to our dialogue process is that we need to include that which is difficult in our traditions. We have heard some very nice speeches here, mentioning very nice passages in our scriptures and our traditions, that we all know well. But there are other passages, and other traditions that we do not speak of so easily. But they are there, and we need to be able to address them and talk about them. Bishop Jo yesterday spoke about some difficult passages in the Bible yesterday, and I was grateful that she did so. We must own this part of our tradition and be honest in dealing with it.

Our third challenge is to bring to the dialogue not just our doctrine and theology, our law and the principles of our religions, but also to bring our feelings. What touches the deepest parts of ourselves, our hopes and fears, our loves and hates? I studied for some time in Uganda in East Africa, and learned there about the crocodile. You can see its eyes above the water of the river, but you don’t see the sharp teeth underneath the surface. When we talk about doctrine and law and principles without talking about our feelings, it is as if we keep the dialogue on the surface.

When I first went to Bradford as bishop, a retired soldier came to Bradford whose brother, an aid worker, had recently been beheaded by Da’esh in Iraq. This soldier did not want people in Britain to take revenge against Muslims in the UK because of what had happened to his brother. So he came to visit Muslims in Bradford. We prayed together in the church, and then we went together to the Central Mosque. The soldier was interviewed outside by the media, while I went inside. As I entered the prayer hall, a man who had just finished the Dhuhr prayers came to me, who knew why we had come, came to me and was very angry. “Da’esh,” he shouted, “is nothing to do with Islam. These people are CIA agents; they are paid by Mossad to bring shame upon Islam!”

As he spoke, the soldier came in, still in shock because of his brother’s death, and he saw the people still finishing their rawatib prayers, and he was moved with emotion, and he began to weep. Great tears rolled down his cheeks. And the whole atmosphere in that room changed. The same man who had shouted at me went to the soldier and embraced him and said to him, “When those people killed your brother, it was as if they beheaded my whole community…”

At a few times during these sessions we have heard feelings, of anger or hurt. And they have been uncomfortable, but they have been important for us to hear. Because they are also part of the reality of ourselves and our world, they need to be part of our dialogue.

We cannot make room for these deeper feelings unless we not only have these big, formal meetings when we look over to each other across a room the size of a football pitch, but we also have smaller gatherings, when we can look each other in the eye and say things that we are afraid of and begin to trust and weep with and embrace one another.

In the UK and Europe and the US, many people feel threatened by immigration or by different religions. “All these people with different cultures and beliefs coming into our country changing our way of life,” they think. So they vote out of fear for people who are using them, who will not address the real, complex issues, but who will use those fears to gain power for their own purposes.

I have heard fears expressed here about threats to our national loyalties. When this is undermined, by an ideology that does not acknowledge nation states and their rulers, what will happen?

These are issues which need careful thought and careful reflection, attending to both the feelings they bring, and also the complex causes of those feelings. We need to address the doctrine and theology of nationhood and citizenship. But we also need to ask what our faith says to us about our fears. The Lord Jesus says, ‘perfect love drives out fear.’

I do not leave this gathering afraid. I leave this dialogue with hope. I am hopeful partly because of the quality of people here, and the great investment that has been made into this dialogue, and the resources put into such positive engagement with each other. But mostly I am hopeful because I believe that God wants an integrated world, a world of justice and peace, where people bring their differences together and learn to disagree well, and to celebrate together and to work for the common good. God, I believe, wants us to talk together, but also to work together.

Last winter in Bradford we had terrible floods, and many people had to leave their houses as the rivers burst their banks. I went the following morning to the church where people were bringing food and blankets to be distributed. And the first people I met there were a group of young Muslims who had come with two car-loads of food and blankets. This gave me hope. We didn’t talk about religion. We stood shoulder to shoulder, sweating and laughing and working as Christians and Muslims, but in a deeper way, as human beings together meeting the needs of other human beings.

There are different pictures of an integrated society that the Bible shows. The first is a narrative in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. It describes the building of the ‘Tower of Babel’, and it tells how, very early in the history of humankind, people came together in fear that they might lose their identity, and instead of finding that in a relationship with God, they built a tower reaching to the heavens to defy God. This is a picture of empire, of humanity trying to be God, a picture in which we recognise the human tendency to totalitarianism, the ideology that leads to death.

But there is another picture, in the last book of the Bible, Revelation, in which in Chapter 21 we are shown a vision of the heavenly city, not built by humans but given by God and coming out of heaven. Into this new Jerusalem all the rulers of the earth bring their glories, the glories of the diversity of their different cultures and languages. That vision gives me the hope that God wills diversity, and we know that what God wills, God will bring into being. God is greater, and this is the foundation of our hope for an integrated world.

 

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