CHRISTIAN IDENTITY IN A MULTI-FAITH CITY
I was recently asked to write an article for the Spirituality magazine of the Diocese of Guildford, edited by my former Anglican colleague in Surrey, about my experience of Inter-Faith work in Birmingham, in relation to the Magazine’s theme of ‘Identity’. I thought it was worth sharing within the District:
CHRISTIAN IDENTITY IN A MULTI-FAITH CITY
Moving to Birmingham three years ago after 27 years of ministry in Surrey has proved a fascinating experience. To move into a city where all six of the world’s major faiths have a significant presence, and where over half the children born today have grandparents born outside the United Kingdom offers both its joys and its challenges. In Birmingham, to many of the residents, faith identity matters. There is a growth in faith schools of all faiths, partly as groups fear losing their faith identity in the predominantly secular British culture. In terms of practice Islam is by a clear margin the majority religion.
What does it mean to offer a Christian witness in such an environment? In all faiths, I am discovering that people can wear their faith identity in different ways. There is a spectrum of approaches. At one end there are those who see their faith identity as exclusive, as defining themselves over against those of other faiths and none. In some faiths, notably Christianity and Islam this outlook can come with an implicit, and occasionally explicit, desire to proselytise and convert. In other faiths, Hinduism, Sikhism and Judaism there is a strong sense that you are born into that faith, and that is your life-long identity, which challenges the Western (Christian?) idea that an individual is free to choose their own faith.
At the other end of the spectrum is the approach which sees a faith identity as one which gives meaning and purpose to your own life, and that of your faith community, but believes that identity is expressed and enriched, when you reach out and build bridges between those of other faiths and none, as it contributes to what it means to have a parallel, shared identity with those of other faiths as twenty-first century Brummies.
I personally find that building of bridges between those of different faith identities, leading to shared work in community development to be one of the most enriching experiences of my time in Birmingham. Such building of bridges does not involve compromising beliefs, but finding ways of sharing them creatively, and I have been privileged to experience some of that over the past year or so.
Last year, according to the Islamic calendar, Mohammed’s birthday was in late December, near to Christmas. A Muslim adult education centre, run by a Sunni Sufi Muslim scholar, worked with the Diocesan Inter-Faith advisor to put on a joint celebration of Jesus and Mohammed’s birthday. A hundred or so of us met, half and half Muslim/Christian and two Christian speakers shared their understanding of Jesus, and two Muslims shared theirs of Mohammed, and after each pair of speakers we sat round tables in fours, two from each faith, and shared our perspectives. Then, we cut a joint birthday cake and as in all such events, we shared a great curry together! The openness, and particularly the joy of Muslims in finding people who were prepared to listen in a respectful way, was most moving, and a subsequent meeting has been held with a similar format to reflect on different and similar attitudes to prayer between the two faiths.
On Christmas Eve, I went to Midnight Eucharist at my local parish church, and was surprised to see that in a congregation of about 120, at least 40 were obviously Muslims. After the service they stayed and chatted. They had come from the local Shia Muslim mosque to support their Christian brothers and sisters in the celebration of Jesus’ birth. A link is growing between that church and the mosque. They had a meal together in the church hall over Easter and members of the church went to celebrate Eid at at the mosque.
The Methodist church over the city is expressing its commitment to community issues through a very active membership of Citizens UK. The chief organiser is the son of an Imam, and his assistant a Fijian Methodist. This is the group that has been most active in campaigning for the council to take its fair share of Syrian refugees, and holding the council to account on the issue of the living wage, (the real one, not the lower one invented by George Osborne). Saeed, the organiser, learnt his community activism through the Lozells Methodist community centre, which he regards as the community centre for his diverse multi-ethnic community. He told me recently that his son is just starting at an Islamic school on the other side of the city where he lives. I asked how he felt about the journey across the city, and he said: ‘I know he will be alright because Eddie (the manager of the community centre, a Sierra Leonian Christian) lives almost next to the school. ‘If you have any trouble’ he said to his son, ‘just knock on uncle Eddie’s door and you will be OK.’
The number of active Christians in the city may be on the decline and be outnumbered by Muslims, but the church still has the social, if not the economic power. The Bishop is still able to the one to initiate inter-faith conversations after the tensions caused by the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair, and it weas he who was in a position to convene a meeting of faith representatives to meet with Priti Patel, the Overseas Development minister when the the Conservative party conference met in Birmingham in September. I think many within the mainstream churches are working hard to ensure they use that power to build bridges between communities. In the end it comes down to making opportunities to build the relationships where we can be confident in our own faith identity but in a way that respects, honours and celebrates the humanity of those who do not share it, and may have another faith.
There are many challenges. Like Christianity, other faiths have many different ‘denominations’, who respond differently, and have different identities, both theological and ethnic. There is no one Muslim community or Sikh community, and it is difficult to find community leaders who can speak for more than a tiny proportion of their co-religionists.
There is a conservative expression of Islam in the city. The Burkha is more widely worn than ever before, as many Muslims feel pushed back into having to assert an identity that is not respected. There have been Muslim school governors who in state schools have inappropriately bullied head teachers to introduce more Islamic practices.
There are some parts of the city that feel like ghettoes, whether they be the 95% Islamic area of Alum Rock, or the white edge of city housing estates like Frankley. We have churches in both those places, and still have much to learn about what Christian witness means in those contexts.
But I have a growing conviction that our calling as Christians in this city is to have such confidence in our own faith identity that we are inspired to be bridge builders within and between communities, and I rejoice to meet and work with those of other faith communities and none, as, (in Christian language) we work together for the Kingdom values, of love and peace, justice and joy within our city.