The other evening I had the pleasure of being part of this year's inter-denominational service of commissioning of Religious Instruction (RI) teachers for Toowoomba. It was a typically up-beat and prayerful occasion, with fine inputs from local school principals and Stephen Urmston, the new Anglican Children & Family worker at St Barts Toowoomba. I was moved again by the genuine care and loving commitment of those involved in offering RI to children in our local state schools and do believe that, in some ways, they enhance both the spiritual and wider relational life of the children and adults they share and meet with. However...
What a beautiful start to 2016 at St Luke's, with a delightful New Years Day 'building bonds of humanity' community friendship tea at the Toowoomba City Labyrinth, organised by the Islamic Interfaith & Multicultural Association of Toowoomba. It was a great joy to offer and share hospitality together, as a symbol of our hope and mutual intent for the coming year. With music and dance, positive but concise speeches, food and drink and wonderful company (Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and all sorts), it was another sign of our 'model city of peace and harmony' in action.
It is hard to pick a special moment in the afternoon - a gorgeous Toowoomba summer day - as there were many, including the joy of many of our other faith friends, young and old, exploring St Luke's church building itself. Perhaps my favourite however was the men's dance (the first I think on the labyrinth), recalling the words of the psalmist (Psalm 133.1): 'how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell (and dance!) together in unity'.
This week I spent two days reflecting together with others on the next steps in the journey of peace and harmony in Toowoomba. The first day was with other members of the Goodwill Committee, developed at the invitation of the Pure Land Learning College to help give community direction to the Pure Land Venerable Master's vision of Toowoomba as 'a model city' of peace and harmony. On the second day we joined by some other wonderful key community leaders, acting as 'critical friends' to help take forward our hopes and ideas. Thanks are also due to Prof Michael Cuthill of USQ for his able facilitation. For it was a very profitable time, developing our structure (even if I was asked to be GWC chair for the forthcoming year!), our shared sense of purpose and key areas of partnership with others. GWC groups are now working particularly on specifics for: the development of agreed community values for our work, Indigenous engagement, youth engagement, peace art, further multi-faith understanding and action, and grounding our connections with UNESCO through official partnerships such as the 'Creative Cities' program.
Penny and I were delightfully taken aback when the president of Toowomba's Garden City mosque invited us, with a few other Christian leaders, to the recent post-wedding reception of his son Adnun Abdullah Khan and new daughter-in-law Farhana Haider Chowdhury. It was lovely expression of the growing multicultural friendships across our community in Toowoomba and another step in the deepening of our relationships. One of the most beautiful moments was when one of the little Muslim girls present came up excitedly to greet Penny. She was in one of Penny's classes at The Glennie School last year and she had spotted Penny as one of the few grown-ups other than her family to whom she really wanted to say hello! In such moments God smiles most kindly on her many children of different faith.
For a number of years in my last job I was a frequent visitor to the Lindt Café in Sydney’s Martin Place, the site of the recent Sydney siege. It was a common stopover after our combined New South Wales Churches’ executive meeting and a great place to relax and be refreshed. Ironically we also often discussed the many inter-faith and peace initiatives with which we were involved. For Sydney is an amazing place, full of so many different peoples, faiths and cultures. The range of that diversity can be a challenge but it is a great tribute to the city that so much positive inter-faith and peace prayer and action has been fostered over the years. This is part of what of what will enable Sydney, and the rest of Australia, to triumph and flourish after the tragedy of recent events.
The Sydney siege is a further confirmation of how vital is our prayer and work for community harmony, not least through the Toowoomba ‘Model City of Peace and Harmony’ initiative. When such terrible events happen, as they happen in different ways daily across the world, they can either erode our trust in one another or impel us to renew our faith in the love at the heart of the universe, differently displayed in various faiths and cultures. The strong base of relationships we have already established in Toowoomba certainly puts us in a good position to support those who are afflicted, to share solidarity with Muslims and others who are afraid or fear victimisation, and to create new partnerships for peace in our lives and wider world. The recent events in Sydney remind us again of how ‘no one is an island’ and how we are all affected by what else happens in our world. At home, Australia has mercifully been free of such events but it has always been connected to them overseas. Such connections can now make us afraid, if we let them, or they can make us stronger than ever in the things that truly matter.
From a Christian perspective, terror at Christmas should hardly be a surprise. Terror is written into the Christmas story itself. For Jesus was born into an oppressive and violent society, and, according to the scriptural stories, the holy family was forced to flee into Egypt as refugees, in the face of Herod’s massacre of the innocents. Yet Christ’s birth stands as a sign that such darkness, then and now, is not the end. There is something much, much stronger and deeper and transforming. So let us trust in that Spirit, shown also in the Magi, people of very different faith and culture, who left their comfort to share the light and love of God at the birth of Jesus. May that peace prevail in our hearts, our community and our world, that Toowoomba with Sydney may be fresh beacons of compassion and peace in the days ahead. Let us ride together on the path of peace.
A great Christian (Hans Kung) once said ‘there will not be peace in the world until there is peace between the religions of the world, and there will not be peace between the religions until religious people meet, understand one another, and work together for peace.’ Recent events, especially in the Middle East, show how true this is. Perhaps in the past it was possible for different religions to ignore one another or to compete, sometimes violently. Today, when people of different faith live next door to each another, we need another way...
John Donne's view that 'no one is an island' becomes ever more real in our increasingly interconnected world. Recent violence across the globe has certainly impacted on Australians in a variety of ways, including directly in Toowoomba with the tragic loss of two deeply loved and respected doctors in the destruction of the MH17 flight. Others are directly or indirectly affected by war and violence elsewhere. This can easily raise tensions and prejudices. In addition to a number of community laments and intercessions (such as our ecumenical and interfaith service after the MH17 tragedy and the Day of Prayer for Iraq), local Toowoomba leaders are therefore renewing our efforts to work together for peace and harmony. For peace is not something we can take for granted but always has to be renewed by active relationships and purposeful prayer and action. In this we remain blessed in Toowoomba by our 'Model City' peace and harmony network. It was thus good this week to meet with other members of our Goodwill Committee to talk about how we can make a common stand against violence (see conversation photo above), reaffirming the commitment of all our varied faith and community groups to nurture a more inclusive and humane future. ABC journalist Belinda Sanders was then able to interview us for local radio, helping the positive values of our faiths and communities to balance out the violent excesses which are often over-exaggerated by less responsible media and which then feed negative responses based too much on fear and insecurity.
Wednesday evening was a delightful example of the nature of interfaith peace and harmony life in Toowoomba. Not only were members of our Muslim community wonderfully warm and welcoming but all kinds of people were present from across our diverse wider community. And it all took place on Christian premises, at St Anthony's Catholic Church in Harristown. Jesus, I think, was smiling: all God's children together, sharing 'table fellowship', sharing faith and food, life and laughter together.
Sharing the evening Iftar (breaking of the fast) with others has become a very valuable and enjoyable part of Australian life. Each year, many Australians of other faith and none happily experience the generous invitation of their Muslim neighbours to join in this important part of the Muslim year and to grow in deeper understanding and love together. Thanks, in Toowoomba, go out especially to the coordinators of the Islamic Interfaith and Multicultural Committee. For, as a spiritual gift, hospitality is one of the most vital contributions anyone can make to peace and harmony. It is certainly one aspect of Ramadan which enriches others, though not the only one. Ramadan, like daily prayer in Islam, is also a gift to recall the rest of us to attentiveness, mindfulness and the presence of God. It is a binding force for community, here and across the world. It helps release our society from the compulsions to consume and blunt our senses with material things alone. Indeed, only when we know how to fast (in various ways) do we really feast properly. 'Let us cherish fasting', Athanasius, the great early Christian bishop and theologian said, 'for fasting is the great safeguard along with prayer and almsgiving. They deliver human beings from death.... (for) to fast is to banquet with angels.' Delivered from the destructive powers of self, we can then be more generous and hospitable towards others.
Hospitality is certainly a central theme of Anglican inter-faith and cross-cultural endeavour. As the helpful international Anglican document Generous Love puts it:
As God both pours out his life into the world and remains undiminished in the heart of the Trinity, so our mission is both a being sent and an abiding. These two poles of embassy and hospitality, a movement ‘going out’ and a presence ‘welcoming in’, are indivisible and mutually complementary, and our mission practice includes both.
This kind of hospitality is therefore an expression of the very nature of the God whom we approach in different ways. Such true hospitality is not about losing, but expressing, our integrity and convictions. Rather, we in turn can then receive the gifts of others, which can speak powerfully of the welcoming generosity at the heart of God. For , as Generous Love reflects:
through sharing hospitality we are pointed again to a central theme of the Gospel which we can easily forget; we are re-evangelised through a gracious encounter with other people.
Transformed by God, we become paradoxically both deeply centred and radically open, for our centre is self-giving love. Faith is not then based on human work, such as particular belief or practice, but on grace. In all the great spiritual traditions, fasting and feasting are gateways and expressions of this.
On behalf of Angligreen, it was a delight yesterday to share in the 'Debate the Preacher' series at St John's Cathedral in Brisbane, exploring environmental ethics. I found myself drawing on recent experience of Aboriginal approaches to land and the cosmos. These can be part, I believe, of ways of re-reading our world, ethics, bible and sacred traditions which enable a fresh and more fruitful Pentecostal understanding of life. Through this, we are challenged and inspired to eco-Living in the Spirit. For, to our loss, we have so confined our understanding of Pentecost to human, and often restricted personal and ecclesiastical, experience. Instead, Pentecost perhaps offers us vital ways in to more fruitful engagement with the heart of many of our contemporary challenges, not least ecological ones, as well as cross-cultural and inter-religious. Not for nothing is Pentecost understood theologically as a new creation. Check out my address here.
'Are preaching and doctrine really barriers to peace and multi-faith harmony?' Awkward questions are uncomfortable to ask, even in congenial gatherings. Yet some are also necessary. For every group has places where it prefers not to go, despite its ultimate health depending on doing so. This is true for multi-faith groups, as it is for church and other groups. For multi-faith groups too can sometimes begin to build walls they do not realise they are creating. Last Saturday's otherwise excellent Interfaith Forum in Toowoomba was a case in point. I felt awkward demurring at the groups' discussion feedback (see photo above) but I felt something needed to be said. For, among many very helpful and constructive ideas for moving forward, up came the old chestnuts that 'we should not preach' and that 'we should avoid doctrine and just share love'. Well, yes, and no...
The damage done, over the centuries, to human relationships by bad or misdirected preaching and by mishapen doctrinal assertion and conflict is incalculable. Today, hopefully, most of us are ever more sensitive to of the pain and disharmony which can be caused. There are times and places, ways and styles, which are more or less appropriate. In some areas, such as in what ecumenical and inter-religious scholars call 'the dialogue of life' and the 'dialogue of action', preaching and doctrine may be particularly important to play down. Within multi-faith and many secular settings, there are also people who have been so hurt by bad religion that we need to give priority to gentleness and restraint in communication of our own personal inspirations. Yet without doctrine we lose both the dynamism which leads to genuine unity and harmony and also the will and openness to truth upon which such unity and harmony depends.
'Love unites, doctrine divides' is certainly a popular contemporary slogan. It is even heard sometimes within otherwise informed ecumenical circles. Partly, the aversion is a case of language. Today, both preaching and doctrine smack to many of olde worlde, as well as troubling, times. It is possible indeed that such words may one day be beyond recall, in the same way that the word dogma (understood as 'non-negotiable, incontrovertible' doctrine) is pretty much taboo. Yet they are so much part of our human religious fabric, especially within Christian circles, that rehabilitation would be a better option. After all, the reality is that everyone has doctrines. Buddhists, and some others, call them 'teachings' but they are the same thing. 'Love unites, doctrine divides' is indeed (a somewhat amorphous) one of these for some.
Apart from pointing out that a significant part of my life has been, and is still, given over to preaching, my own sense is that disdain for preaching is based on bad experience or misconception. After all, one of the greatest peacemakers of my lifetime was Martin Luther King Jnr, who was a preacher in word, deed, and essential personality. You could no more take the preacher out of him than you could take his passion for peace and justice, love and harmony. For these were all one, grounded in his love and experience of God in Jesus Christ. So to reject preaching, in the best sense of the word, in all circumstances, is to reject one of the distinctive charisms of Christianity (and also, to some extent, those of Islam and some other faiths). It would certainly do little to endear multi-faith discussion and relationships to many Christians for whom this is part of their lifeblood, not as a weapon towards others but as a means of grace for all. What matters is how we preach and teach. Graciously, on Saturday, this concern was heard by others. For at the heart of our journeying with others of other faith, and none, is respect for the inner integrity of one another and what shapes us for good.
Doctrine itself is a vital matter for ecumenical and inter-religious as well as confessional and intra-religious life. For it is a tool which can be used to help us grow together, as well as being a potential, and well proven, weapon of division. As with other things in religion, it is a case of how it is used. Is it a barrier to protect us against others or a freeing pathway upon to which walk? Is it used for the glory of God and for human self and mutual understanding or for self or group aggrandisement? Is it a means to learn and grow, written on our hearts and in our souls rather than in proscriptions of others? Ultimately every doctrine is, even at its very best, but a symbol of eternal love. We must always be wary therefore of overstepping the mark in our own doctrinal exploration and affirmation. Yet, even when we fail to comprehend them, the greatest doctrines of faith, as genuine symbols of God's love, can be for us means of grace and revelation. As such, they cannot simply be laid aside in multi-faith relationship. They are too important for that. As the ecumenical journey has shown, 'Life and Work' concerns must proceed hand in hand with 'Faith and Order' dialogue. Sometimes love is best expressed just in presence, care and service. Intertwined and underlying however are always our understandings of love. It is a matter of our human intellectual responsibility to complement and deepen our feelings of well-being towards others. If we never wrestle with what helps and what hinders we will fail to grow in love and we will hold back our gifts of, albeit glimpsed, understanding from one another. For as G. K. Chesterton (in What's Wrong with the World?) once said: 'creeds are always in collision. Believers bump into each other; whereas bigots keep out of each others’ way.'
Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.