Jun 14 2018

‘In every challenge there is an opportunity’: The Gingko-LSE retreat and the Christian-Muslim Encounter

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Reflecting on his participation in an interfaith retreat led by Gingko and the LSE Faith Centre, Mohammed Gamal Abdelnour, graduate of Al-Azhar University, Cairo (the prestigious centre of Sunni Islamic learning), considers the Muslim-Christian encounter and how this has better informed his understanding of his own religion as well as Christianity.

I had always thought of inter-religious dialogue as a practice that ran the risk of compromising your own faith. However, I had a curious mind that was never satisfied with one side of the story, hence studying Christianity at the University of Durham after graduating from Al-Azhar University, Cairo. Although I had great exposure to Christianity at Durham, it was a monologue to a large degree, and this necessitated the need to have some sort of dialogue.

Since graduating in 2014 I have embarked on this journey of dialogue. My participation in the Gingko Fellowship came at a good time for me to banish my earlier concerns. With the passage of time, the dialogue that I have had with my Christian brothers and sisters has largely deepened my understanding of not only Christianity but Islam as well. That is to say, I came to reflect on my own tradition and reconfigure certain aspects of it that weren’t previously clear to me.

The retreat was an initiative led by Gingko, directed by Dr Barbara Schwepcke, with support from the LSE Faith Centre, directed by the Revd Dr James Walters. The retreat brought together 18 PhD researchers: nine of these researchers are graduates of Al-Azhar University, Cairo (six of whom are current PhD candidates in the UK) and the other nine are UK-based PhD researchers majoring in different branches of Christian-Muslim relations.

Indeed, the amount of academia that was put into this retreat meant that it was a serious step towards taking inter-religious discussion beyond the fluidity of dialogue to the solidity of academia; a step that I like to call academizing the inter-religious dialogue. We were joined by lecturers from the two faith traditions. Dr. Joshua Ralston, a scholar of Islam and Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, gave a talk on Muslim-Christian relations. His talk had an immense impact on the attendees. He stressed the importance of tackling Muslim-Christian relations from an inter-disciplinary perspective, with the aim of deepening our understanding of the two traditions with an eye on the lived life.

Further talks by Dr Walters and Imam Asim Hafiz touched upon the need to link academia to real life. Reflecting upon the life of Jesus Christ as well as that of the Prophet Muhammad, the speakers illustrated that we live in a time in which people seek knowledge with the aim of having a practical role to play in real life. Yes, knowledge for knowledge’s sake is something valuable, yet the critical time we live in today necessitates that our lives should be informed and shaped by our knowledge.

For me, the retreat had three major components: understanding, learning and growing together. I came to appreciate more the value of understanding other faiths and taking the fear of compromise away from my subconscious. I would even say that not engaging with people of other faiths might cause the compromise that one tries to avoid. In other words, by getting involved in inter-faith dialogue one gets to know that such dialogue makes one more aware of the subtle differences and dichotomies between his/her own faith system and that of others.

I believe that in every challenge there is an opportunity. That is to say, when I first came to the area of Christian-Muslim studies I had always found it quite challenging, especially when we take into account the fact that the history of Muslim-Christian relations was primarily based on either polemics or apologetics. Yet sincere efforts in such an area meant that this challenge can instead be an opportunity for both traditions. Here I recall the British Ambassador to Cairo’s statement at last year’s Religious Imaginations conference: religion should not be a problem, but rather a solution.

Last but not least, this retreat left me with the impression that the old concept which links inter-faith dialogue to the practice of detecting commonalities between different religions is not the only possible scenario and outcome of inter-faith encounter. Inter-faith dialogue can instead be an experience of offering fresh thoughts on differences as well as commonalities. Detecting such differences can help us to have better disagreements and constructive conversations.

Mohammed Gamal Abdelnour is a tenured faculty member at Al-Azhar University, Cairo, majoring in Comparative Theology. He is currently doing a PhD at SOAS University of London with one of the British Council’s Al-Azhar Scholarships.

Posted by: Posted on by Angharad Thain

Jun 14 2018

Interfaith on campus: the role of courage

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Interfaith on campus: the role of courage

As we begin preparations for the next academic year here at the Faith Centre, starting a number of new collaborations across the LSE to expand interfaith work and planning towards Interfaith Week 2018, I have been reflecting on the principle of courage and its centrality in interfaith.

Interfaith Encounter: Israel and Palestine started four years ago. It grew out of the realisation that the discussion on Israel-Palestine at LSE, as with many other universities around the UK, and much like the conflict itself, had become stuck. Angry, belittling, inhumane. It is in the background of many other disputes on campus, and indeed numerous other tensions around the world. The LSE wasn’t managing to grow a generation of leaders who had the courage or the creativity to discuss the issue in a nuanced and mature way.

The Faith Centre Director, Revd Dr James Walters, saw the need to run a trip to the region. The trip brings 18 students to the region for a week to explore religious and political narratives and engage with numerous religious and political actors on the ground from Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Tzippori, Nazareth and Tel Aviv. We ask students from Christian, Muslim, Jewish and non-religious backgrounds to have the courage to step out of their context and spend a week together in the region, visiting sites of deep religious significance, and meeting religious leaders, activists and peacemakers to hear the histories and experiences that make up the conflict today. We do not ask our students to change their views, and indeed students return with their opinions stronger in many cases – but we do ask them to expand their understanding to include that of ‘the other’; the ex- Hamas fighter, the Israeli Settler, the communities in Jerusalem and Palestine, the region’s Christians, the local artist, the Embassy official.

The most powerful moments of Interfaith Encounter are often when the group shares worship across faiths, from witnessing prayer at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, to celebrating Shabbat in synagogue, sharing Shabbat dinner with Jerusalem families and witnessing prayer at the White Mosque in Nazareth. This enables our students to have an experience of worship beyond just words, to witness the devotion across faiths and to step into the religious imagination of the other.

I believe all of our interfaith leadership programmes – including Interfaith Buddies and Faith & Leadership – require courage: courage to come from a context where interfaith may mean violence or destruction, courage to step into the shoes of those faiths they may never have encountered before; courage to empathise with narratives and beliefs very different to their own; courage of honesty and vulnerability and courage to journey together through these programmes even when profound disagreements may arise. I believe we also ask our students to expand their horizons – and through this to learn about their own capacities and limitations – a prerequisite for any community and any leader in our age.

We often fear that by engaging in dialogue across difference that it will somehow dilute our own beliefs, or change the core of our tradition. This is something we would never ask our students to do. Instead we hope they will come fully as themselves to engage and learn without the expectation that they will have to compromise on their beliefs. Through interfaith we can have the courage to worship with and learn from others, to grow in our diversity, to gain inspiration from the way other communities are doing things and to start to think more creatively about engagement across difference.

For more information on our programmes check out the Faith Centre website.

Angharad Thain is the Faith Centre Programmes Manager. 

Posted by: Posted on by Angharad Thain

Apr 18 2018

Changing the culture: creating a faith-inclusive campus

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The LSE Faith Centre is delighted to announce that we have been successful in receiving 12-month programme funding from HEFCE (now Office for Students) to create a fully faith-inclusive campus, building on our current programmes of pioneering interfaith work in such a diverse student body.

This programme builds on HEFCE funding from catalyst Cohort 1 and 2, and is a cross-School collaboration with the EDI team and Research Division with support from the Volunteer Centre and Students’ Union, feeding into the LSE Strategy 2020 which prioritises a culture of equity, diversity and inclusion in all aspects of campus life.

This programme is based on the conviction that to create a cutting-edge example of a faith-inclusive campus we need to take both a reactive and a proactive approach. We want to ensure that students can report issues safely if they arise, whilst also creating a broader culture of curiosity and understanding around faith and belief on campus. We believe all campuses in the UK need to have a more honest and open conversation about how the wider political environment influences the experience of our students. As an outstanding global social science institution which strives to build a culture of respect that welcomes debate and celebrates difference, the LSE is pleased to be at the forefront of these conversations. This funding enables us to do this.

The work will:

  • extend the intersectional mapping research carried out this year, exploring how faith and belief intersect with other diversity issues on campus, and expand this to include the experiences of staff and PhD students;
  • mainstream faith inclusion training into staff and students induction processes, equality assessment and the ECU’s Race Equality Charter;
  • embed the solid School Report It Stop It mechanisms to ensure students of faith understand the processes of reporting;
  • amplify student voices on campus, growing facilitated dialogue groups and convening student-led Hackathons to brainstorm creative responses to challenging issues as they arise;
  • expand best practice on interfaith relations on campus and share our research to the wider LSE and beyond.

We are proud to be a pioneering religious facility on a global campus with low incidences of hate crime among students and staff, but there is always room to build on this success. We are therefore very grateful to HEFCE for providing the support to expand our capacity, vision and impact in this vital area over the coming year.

Posted by: Posted on by Angharad Thain

Mar 12 2018

Faith & Leadership 2018: A few highlights

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Faith & Leadership cohort four graduated last week, meaning we have now had 100 students pass through the religious literacy and leadership development programme. Our students are not afraid of challenging conversations around issues of faith and belief in the world today, and the questions surrounding the interaction of religion and global society, from politics and finance to justice, development, lifestyle and education.

Conversations around the role of religion and current affairs are growing in importance for this century, and we are proud that are students are passionate about engaging across religious diversity and are curious to understand those whose faith and beliefs can be very different from their own.

Two of the highlights of this year’s programme have been the residential held at the Royal Foundation of St Katharine’s retreat centre, Limehouse, and the final student group presentations to mark the close of the programme.

The residential included a mix of panel discussions and sessions on individual values-driven leadership and an introduction to Scriptural Reasoning, a new programme which we will be continuing this term and next in the Faith Centre. Our panel discussion on Faith and Leadership in politics and society today included input from Remona Aly, journalist, commentator and broadcaster, Francis Campbell, Former Ambassador to the Holy See and Rabiha Hannan from New Horizons in British Islam. We were delighted to welcome back Jasvir Singh of City Sikhs and Taha Mangrio, LSE alum from the Financial Conduct Authority to discuss Faith and the City.

Our two religious literacy sessions on the residential included The Buddhist Imagination, given by Venerable Ajahn Khemadhammo, Spiritual Director of Angulimala, the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy, and a session on The Christian Imagination given by Fr Timothy Radcliffe, former Master of the Dominican Order. Common Purpose delivered a thought-provoking session on leading with cultural intelligence where students were invited to reflect on their core values and attributes in leadership, and the contexts in which they would be flexible with their approaches.

The final evening of Faith & Leadership saw students giving group presentations on a challenge facing faith groups in the world today, and how this can be faced creatively from a leadership perspective. Students chose to present on religion and medicine, Islamic marriage, Jewish atheism, anti-Christian prejudice and how practices of fasting fit with contemporary health concerns. These presentations enabled students to reflect on key issues that have arisen over the course of the Lent term programme and start thinking about how they can be approached in fresh and innovative ways for a new era.


It has been a privilege running the Faith & Leadership programme this year and we cannot wait to see what the Class of 2018 will do in their future leadership roles around the world!


With immense gratitude to David and Kitty Beecken whose generous funding makes this programme possible.

Posted by: Posted on by Angharad Thain

Mar 12 2018

Exploring LSE: IntoUniversity Campus Visit

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Since being involved in Widening Participation initiatives during my time at University, I have been interested in how we can support students to raise their aspirations about attending university as well as busting some myths about what it is like to be a student at an institution like LSE, and how different it can be to assumptions. So it was wonderful to have the opportunity to collaborate with the LSE Volunteer Centre to invite IntoUniversity onto campus for a day exploring the LSE, and to learn about faith and belief on campus, something that is not often covered in tours and presentations about university life in the UK.

The trip involved a campus tour of the LSE and chance to ask questions about student life, from essays, to societies, to friends, to where you would live and what the options are for teaching and course choice. The students enjoyed this because they learned about the diversity of the school and saw university facilities, some for the first time.

From the tour the group of 25 Year 8s came back to the Faith Centre to hear about our programmes and what is available for students of faith and belief during their time at the LSE, including opportunities with the Volunteer Centre, Faith Centre leadership programmes, and the opportunity to travel abroad for a week to Israel-Palestine on Interfaith Encounter.

One of the highlights of the day was for them to hear a number of students across our programmes reflect on their time at LSE and answer lots of questions about student life. This was popular as it illustrated the reality of studying at university, both the positives and the challenges, straight from the students themselves. Some of the most popular questions included comparisons between student life in the UK and abroad, why certain courses were chosen by our students and what you can get involved with in student societies, and learning that it is possible to go on trips abroad. The students enjoyed using the prayer rooms in the Faith Centre and learning that university isn’t as scary as you might think!

We were delighted to hear that the IntoUniversity students had enjoyed their visit to the Faith Centre and to LSE: ‘We had a great day. It was fantastic that there were so many different students who came to speak. I feel the KAA pupils truly benefited from seeing there are people from so many different backgrounds at LSE. Just the fact that they were listening so attentively shows that they were truly interested!’ It has been a pleasure to collaborate with IntoUniversity, and the Volunteer Centre, and we hope to engage in future visits.

With thanks to our student volunteers for taking the time out to share their experiences.

For more information on IntoUniversity, check out their website.

Angharad Thain is Faith Centre Programmes Manager.  

Posted by: Posted on by Angharad Thain

Mar 8 2018

‘There is no such thing as one solution. Listen with intent.’ Reflections on the role of women of faith in building peace.

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On International Women’s Day 2018, it seems fitting to reflect on one of the highlights of the Faith Centre’s events this term, hearing from Shaked Hasson and Amal Khayat, volunteers from Solutions not Sides about the role of women in building peace in Israel and Palestine, and drawing lessons for peacebuilding around the world.

Shaked Hasson is a 28 year old Jewish student and activist, and the Leader of Young Labor’s Tel Aviv branch. During 2015 Shaked lived in Burundi for a year and established a project for female empowerment in the local area. Amal is a 28 year old Palestinian from East Jerusalem seeking a better future for both people through dialogue and not violence.
At a time when the Israel-Palestine conflicts seems insoluble, with the two-state solution that has long been promoted as the only way forward seemingly unreachable, the friendship of Amal and Shaked provides a glimmer of hope, that there can be a new way of doing things in a new generation. Two main themes came out of their reflections above all: the role of dialogue, and the role of solidarity between women.

In a region where the separation barrier and the entrenched fear on both sides means people are meeting each other and hearing each other less and less, Shaked and Amal spoke of the importance of not being afraid to engage in dialogue, to ask questions, to reach out to ordinary people, to understand their motivations, their reluctance and their fears and to take this loss of hope seriously. Ultimately both women have a deep understanding that the conflict is not black and white, and that the only way to move the conversation towards peace is to have the courage to listen to this with whom we profoundly disagree. They believe it is this refusal to listen across difference that has caused the impasse in Israel-Palestine.

Women in their communities can be those who listen and hear, those who witness to the effects of conflict on the ground, and who can see some of the possible solutions for the future. This is true, and has been true, of women of faith in conflicts around the world, from Northern Ireland to Liberia to Colombia and everywhere in between.

One barrier to this dialogue however can be language. Amal and Shaked touched on the constraints on women due to the boundary between Hebrew and Arabic; a society divided linguistically as well as religiously, socially and culturally. There is discrimination and stigma on both sides about learning Hebrew and Arabic, making it challenging for women to share their stories authentically in a common language. Amal and Shaked both do their speaking tours in the UK in English as a meeting point, a shared place even though it is not their mother tongue. For Shaked this is however not ideal. To truly understand people the aspiration should be to bilingualism, to hear and understand the other in their first language.

People like Shaked and Amal cannot build peace alone. They spoke poignantly about solidarity between women and the need to see each other as partners in the process, and to be aware that each woman has different boundaries and constraints on their time, their life, their movements and their choices. For them, the vital decision is to see each other as partners in a shared struggle for a peaceful region, not to expect too much of other women, and to trust that each person can make the decisions that are right for them. Despite their differences of background and faith, Amal and Shaked are united by mutual experiences of being women, and their vision of a different way of building peace – one that involves hearing ordinary people and taking them seriously in any peace process.

Overall, I was struck by the courage of Amal and Shaked as women living in the region, speaking from the heart about their struggles. But I was also struck by their realism that Israeli and Palestinians are in this together and that women have a vital role to play in the future of peace in the region. It is time that the voices of women of faith like Amal, Shaked, and so many like them, are heard more loudly. It is on a day like today that we need to celebrate, support and magnify these voices.

For more information on Solutions not Sides, check out their website.

Posted by: Posted on by Angharad Thain

Nov 1 2017

Understanding complexity: Reflections on the centenary of the Balfour Declaration

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On the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, LSE PhD student Fatima Ahdash reflects on the complexities in her interfaith experience in the Holy Land and resisting the urge to take a position.

On the 2nd of November this year, millions of people around the world will commemorate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration- the 67-word letter that represented Britain’s endorsement of the establishment of a “national home for Jewish people” in the Holy Land. Some, including our Prime Minister, will celebrate. Others will protest- even silently, by declining invitations to attend formal celebratory dinners. In the midst of the heated debates and the, at times feverish, accusations and counter-accusations of every imaginable ism, it can sometimes feel like one should have an opinion on the event, and should share and defend it. And here social media platforms don’t help- ‘what’s on your mind?’ they temptingly ask you- and you begin to feel the urge to take a position, to have a say.

But on this occasion of the centenary, I have decided to resist the (for me usually irresistible) urge to take a definitive position and to vociferously share it. This is not to say that there are no moral rights and wrongs to the historic event itself and its perennial aftermaths. Of course there are, and people much more knowledgeable than myself have pointed them out and continue to do so. But every time I feel impelled to take a position, I remember the people I met on the LSE Faith Centre’s Interfaith Encounter trip to the Holy Land.

Earlier this year, a group of LSE students, from various religious and academic backgrounds, spent our first week of 2017 in Israel and Palestine as part of an annual interfaith trip to the Holy Land. Whether it was the entrancing proximity of the holy sites and the (almost) stifling spirituality in East Jerusalem, the serenity of the Galilee or the buoyant din and buzz of Bethlehem on Orthodox Christmas day, the trip was the intense learning experience you might expect it to be. And it certainly was not the type of interfaith activity that can be dismissed for conducting easy falafel interfaith – the cliché type of interfaith event where Christians, Jews and Muslims compare their similar attitudes and teachings and wonder why their respective peoples can’t (for the love of God!) just get along.

Sure enough, we met our fair share of Israeli and Palestinian peaceful hippies and co-existence activists. But they were part of a deeply complicated wider political conversation, that included settlers, refugees, politicians, ex-IDF soldiers turned radical leftists, ambassadors and ordinary Israeli and Palestinian people, challenging us with conflicting narratives of precarious peace, shaky trust, injustice and war.

And so on the occasion of this centenary, I will keep this bewildering complexity at the forefront of my mind. I will remember what the people of that land, in all their differences, told us- the thoughts, fears and hopes that they so generously shared with us. I will remember that for Henry, a Holocaust survivor, Israel represented a sanctuary, a haven where he could finally live in safety and prosper. And I will remember that for Sami, a Palestinian community organiser and co-existence activist, the establishment of Israel meant uprooting and displacement. I will remember Dr Yusuf’s haunting fears for the security and future of Al-Aqsa mosque and his determination that it shall endure the physical and epistemic threats to its survival. And I will remember Yaniv’s anxieties for the future of human rights and democracy in Israel in an increasingly polarised climate. I will remember that every day the likes of Shaul, Antwan, Sami and Ophir work inconceivably hard to understand each other’s languages, each other’s fears and each other’s aspirations in the hope that one less person dies as a result of the conflict, that one day they may live in something that resembles peace.

I will remember the many narratives and claims to the Land we heard from Israelis and Arabs, Jews, Muslims and Christians, the secular liberals and the religiously orthodox. I will remember that the narratives and identities we crossed throughout the trip defied categorisation and were as complicated as the history of land that they claimed a right to.

But above all, I will remember what Antwan, a Palestinian peace activist told us: “we suffer from people’s ‘pro.’ Don’t be pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, be pro-solution.” I will remember this brutally honest call for restraint, for checking our privilege, this reminder that one’s words, one’s positions and stances can have a real impact on the lives of real people with real names, real families and real stories. I will remember all of this whenever I feel the urge to take a position.

Fatima is a PhD Candidate in the Law Department, researching the place and role of the family in counter-terrorism. She is also a Legal Research Fellow at human rights organisation Rights Watch UK. 

Posted by: Posted on by Angharad Thain

Sep 4 2017

Interfaith Leadership for the 21st Century

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What is interfaith leadership?

At the start of an exciting new academic year Dr James Walters, Director of the Faith Centre, reflects on what is required for effective interfaith leadership for our time. 

The LSE Faith Centre’s mission is to promote interfaith leadership for the 21st Century. But what kind of leadership is this and who is it for?

Misconceptions about what “interfaith” means lead many to conclude that interfaith leadership would not be for them. Non-believers or agnostics feel that you have to be a committed religious person to qualify. But equally the religious can be suspicious of the interfaith agenda because they think it will involve compromising their beliefs. These fears are not without foundation. Towards the end of the 20th Century, many in the interfaith movement dreamed of a single “world religion” that distilled the common values of all the world faiths, values that (unsurprisingly!) seemed to reflect the liberal Western values of the movement’s leaders.

But in the 21st Century the world looks very different. Religion is resurgent in many forms, including fundamentalist expressions across all faith communities that are deeply hostile to other religions and interfaith initiatives. So our approach to interfaith is more pragmatic and more modest. LSE students come from 150 countries around the world and we want to resource them with skills and insight to counter the climate of hostility to religious difference that is growing in virtually every corner of the world. To do that, our understanding of interfaith leadership has three strands:

Leadership for Imagination

We view interfaith understanding less as a matter of gaining knowledge and more as a shift in imagination. In the religious literacy programmes that we run we are concerned that students don’t just learn what other people believe but rather how different religious believers imagine the world and their place within it.

Imagination is important in everyone’s worldview. No one sees the world purely empirically; we all hold beliefs, assumptions and ideals that frame our interactions with others and our shared quest for meaning. In the Western world, we have overlooked the predominance of religious narratives in this kind of imaginative framing and forget how much religion has shaped our own imagination. To address the challenges of religious conflict today, interfaith leaders have to make these imaginative leaps and empathise with worldviews very different to their own.

Leadership for Dialogue

Our view is that interfaith dialogue is not something a small group of religious people get involved in. As global citizens we are now all already engaged in complex religio-cultural dialogues about values and meaning. The question is how effectively and constructively we want to contribute to those conversations. Are we prepared to hear views that disturb or offend us and still consider them thoughtfully? When we disagree with people, are we prepared to engage in a respectful dialogue of persuasion rather than exclude them from the boundaries of acceptability that we have set? Everyone needs to be involved in these dialogues: the religious, the non-religious and all shades in between. And we seek to give people the interfaith leadership skills to make these dialogues inclusive, meaningful and effective.

Leadership for Transformation

We can learn more about religion to understand people better. We can learn more about religion to facilitate dialogue between different peoples. But maybe learning more about religion could also be a source of wisdom to address the intractable problems we face in today’s world. That would be a long way from the deeply ingrained Western perception that religion is simply a private matter that can only lead to division when it comes into the public sphere. But we believe our political culture could be deeply enriched, even transformed, by greater religious understanding. Think of the contribution that faith leaders have made to the climate change debate, such as Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si. Or consider the way in which a better understanding of religious motivations can transform situations of conflict. That’s why the Faith Centre is also currently working with the UK Foreign Office to develop their understanding of the kind of interfaith leadership that can be taken by British diplomats around the world.

So what is interfaith leadership? It is skills and insight to enable the imaginative understanding of others, to contribute to the kind of difficult dialogues that the world needs, and to bring the resources of religious understanding to address today’s problems. And who is it for? It’s for you. It’s for all of us.

If you are interested in finding out more about the LSE Faith Centre interfaith leadership programmes and activities, take a look at our Programmes page for more information.

Posted by: Posted on by Angharad Thain

Apr 6 2017

Church, politics and social action today

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In our age of such political volatility and polarization, Revd Canon Dr James Walters reflects on two very different political theologies and what they can teach us about the role of the church in society today. The below is taken from Dr Walters’ address given at the Dean’s Forum at Chicago Cathedral during his recent trip to the United States. 

On both sides of the Atlantic, we are currently experiencing an alarming new era of political volatility and polarization. Our societies are more divided and the political discourse more acrimonious than most people have known in their lifetimes. We are seeing a resurgence of forces that we thought history was leaving behind – extreme nationalism, explicit racism, isolationism. There is a lot of anxiety around, including in our places of worship.

So I have been reflecting a lot recently on how the church engages with all of this in the Anglican/Episcopalian tradition. Is it of course a diverse tradition, but nonetheless with common themes. In these reflections I have been inspired by two theologians, both called William who both have very strong connections with the London School of Economics, and somewhat contrasting views of how the Church should relate to the State.

The first is William Temple. He was Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War, another time of great political turmoil and a time of very different visions of the state. Europe had seen the rise of totalitarian states, espousing ideologies of racial superiority and military expansion. England itself was emerging from the Victorian free market state that had polarized wealth and led to a dramatic expansion in urban poverty.

Temple was not a fan of either- but he did believe in the state. The governance of the Church of England remains closed linked to the State and back then was even more so (Parliament had rejected the revision of the Prayer Book in 1927 for example).Temple was a member of the British establishment. His father had also been Archbishop of Canterbury and he went to the prestigious Rugby School where he became close friends with R H Tawney who was later to become Professor of Economic History at the LSE. Through Tawney, Temple became friends with the director of the LSE William Beveridge and he officiated at Beveridge’s marriage to Tawney’s sister.

William Beveridge was tasked by the post war Labour government to write a report for the rebuilding of the nation, a nation that would not allow those who had defeated Nazism on the frontline to return to slums and poverty. So Beveridge wrote a report that created socialized medicine, the benefit system, and universal access to schooling. In other words he wrote the blueprint for the British welfare state. But it was his friend William Temple who first coined the phrase.

Temple conceived of the Church at the heart of society, shaping the political order in ways that made it conform more closely to the Kingdom of God. So in contrast to a state that just allows the market to divide its citizens, or a state that is overbearing and oppressive, Temple believed that the life of the church could shape the state in ways conducive to the welfare of its citizens.

Temple’s understanding of the primary means by which it does that is what makes his political theology distinctively Anglican. And that is worship. Worship sanctifies the citizen and so, by extension, sanctifies society. The Anglican understanding of the sacraments, inherited from Augustine, as a sign and instrument of God’s grace also expresses, therefore, how worship is a sign and instrument of the society God is seeking to build. What we do in worship is both a sign and instrument of how society should be.

So Temple wrote about the Eucharist:

“There we bring familiar forms of economic wealth, which is always the product of man’s labour exercised upon God’s gifts, and offer them as symbols of our earthly life… The Eucharist divorced from life loses reality; life devoid of worship loses direction and power. It is the worshipping life that can transform the world.”

Temple’s vision is of a Church that works with the state, redeeming the state, and making it more able to serve the welfare of all its citizens. That is an expression of the fact that he does believe in the state; he sees it as a revealed manifestation of divine will. This is where Anglicans can sometimes be in danger of baptizing the state or being religious apologists for the state. Temple, for example, despite now being venerated by Christian Socialists, opposed the General Strike of 1926 as too damaging to the state, and he was a staunch defender of the British Empire.

The second William is William Stringfellow. He was a young American who came to study at the LSE in the late 1940s with the explicit intention of researching the thought of Archbishop Temple. He was an Episcopalian but had not had a privileged childhood. He was very active in student Christian organisations and frequently represented them at the international ecumenical conferences that were gaining some traction in the postwar years.

Like most of our students at the LSE, Stringfellow was a very high flyer and he clearly harboured political ambitions. But while he was in London he did something which LSE students don’t often do: he decided to abandon ambition. He would write in 1982, “I was politically ambitious in my student days. But I had died to that during the time that I was a research fellow in England at the London School of Economics. It was then that I determined not to pursue politics as a career.”

Whatever his reasons for doing that, Stringfellow set himself on a path that saw him identifying with marginalized and excluded communities all his life. He trained as a lawyer at Harvard and on graduation moved into a tenement block in Harlem where he worked with a local parish providing free legal advice to anyone who needed it. This was the beginning of a life of activism for the disadvantaged. He was a prominent campaigner for civil rights, for gay rights, and against militarism. Indeed he and his partner were indicted for harbouring a Catholic priest who had destroyed Vietnam draft papers.

In Stringfellow we have a more radical Christian witness in which political order is cast as more hostile to the Gospel. Running through his theology is a Christian dynamic of the struggle against death and the resurrection’s power to overcome death in all its forms. Stringfellow draws on the Letter to the Ephesians which speaks of a struggle, not against flesh and blood, but against the “principalities and powers.”

But Stringfellow is not unpatriotic about America. He has high ideals about what America should be. But it is clear that he is far less positive about the current configuration of the state, and indeed its possibilities, than Temple. He describes the nation state as “the preeminent principality,” that which is most likely to be idolized and lead to death, both literal (as through militarism) and figurative (as in the death of justice, freedom and opportunity).

Christian life is about overcoming the principalities and powers, and fundamentally, Stringfellow sees the Church as a community that points to something far greater and more universal than the State. The event that founded the Church, the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, was a moment at which different races and speakers of different languages were drawn together. Stringfellow’s lifelong involvement in the international ecumenical movement can be seen as a desire for the Church to embrace more of its universal character and avoid being constrained by nationalism or any oppressive political order of the fallen world.

I do believe though that Stringfellow’s theology is still thoroughly Anglican rather than non-conformist, primarily because, exactly like Temple, he roots the political action of the Church in worship as the living enactment of scripture. He writes:

“At no point in the witness of the Church to the world is its integrity as a reconciled society more radical and cogent than in the liturgy, the precedent and consummation of that service which the Church of Christ and the members of this Body render to the world.”

These two Williams– Temple and Stringfellow – have contrasting political theologies. One essentially positive about the nation state and the capacities of the church to shape it. The other more radical and critical about the state.

Considering our contemporary political situation, I think we’ve got something to learn from both Temple and Stringfellow, pretty much in equal measure. What can they teach us?

On the one hand, we need to give a place to the state and to people’s aspirations for their national community. It seems to me we need to recognize that the divisions present in our countries have, in large part, arisen through the effect of what we might call the “secular Pentecost” of globalization.

  • Markets have globalized ripping industries out of many communities and moving them to more competitive parts of the world.
  • People have become more mobile, following the jobs and the money, so communities have become rapidly more diverse.

So many people are feeling that their communities and their country have changed dramatically in ways that have benefited white collar workers more than blue collar. And we shouldn’t rush to accuse people of bigotry or xenophobia in their concerns about how their communities have changed. It’s often pointed out in the UK that concerns about immigration are lower in very diverse communities like London than they are in less racially diverse areas. And that’s often seen by the cosmopolitan-minded as evidence that if people just embrace the changes globalization is bringing to their communities, they’ll learn to appreciate this diversity.

But researching I saw the reason for this is in fact that in London we have given up on community. We do not talk to our neighbours and we just seek out the like-minded through our professional and social networks to construct our own sense of community. But in less metropolitan areas people don’t want to give up on community. It hurts them that they have new neighbours who don’t speak the same language as them and who don’t come and drink with them in the pub. They want a strong sense of community build on shared values, language and understanding. That isn’t racism.

In response to this I think we need a good dose of Temple’s understanding of the state as a force which protects its citizens from market forces and which allows people to take pride in their nation, in its heritage and traditions. The Christian tradition has a strong sense of the sanctity of place, of nations having patron saints and purposes under God. Globalisation has robbed people of that, making every place the same place and leaving us feeling that no place is sacred, no place is special, no place is home. So we need Temple’s commitment to the state, and his understanding of worship that sanctifies our national community.

But on the other hand, we are also in urgent need of some incisive and effective critique of the state on Christian terms. We need Stringfellow’s understanding that the state can be our most dangerous idol and a powerful source of judgement and exclusion. Stringfellow would tell us that no Christian nation worthy of the name secures itself by excluding the refugee or the poor in the way that both our countries are seeing as an almost unquestioned logic at the present time. It is in the suffering stranger that we most clearly encounter Christ and in response to whom we are judged by God. So we need Stringfellow’s radicalism. We need his suspicion of the state and his understanding of worship as a witness against the idolatry of nationalism, money and ethnicity.

So we have two Williams, two political theologies but both grounded in our primary act as Anglicans of participating in God’s transformation of the world through worship. I think both are as relevant today as they ever were and I commend both their perspectives to you as sources of inspiration in our uncertain political times.

Posted by: Posted on by Angharad Thain

Apr 6 2017

Faith & Leadership: Presentations and Celebration

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The Faith Centre’s flagship programme, Faith & Leadership, is a religious literacy and leadership formation programme that gives participants the chance to meet with and question leaders of faith from all walks of life to enrich their understanding of how faith can influence and drive leadership in our world. After running every Monday evening in Lent term, and including an intensive weekend residential of seminar, training and panel sessions, the last evening is always slightly different.

All participants are given a chance to reflect in groups on a key theme that has emerged for them in the course of the programme, to present to the group and to receive their certificates of participation. We were privileged this year to be joined by Baroness Butler-Sloss, Chair of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, and an expert on the challenges at the intersection of faith, politics and modern life in Britain today.

Topics presented by the groups included the challenges of religion in the workplace, including the need for managers and senior leaders to have an understanding of how religious observance can impact on work, and what this diversity can bring to the team; the role and challenges of Faith Schools and the nuances within this definition; the lines and possible limits of the separation of church and state; interfaith marriage and how this is viewed within the Sikh tradition, and the ongoing persecution of Baha’is and what the international community can do to support faith minorities in contexts of persecution and fear.

Baroness Butler-Sloss commented on each presentation, stating that many of the themes the participants had touched on had emerged also during her series of nationwide meetings and focus groups for the Commission. Each participant received their certificates before we shared food and refreshments as a celebration of what had been learned and shared during the course.

Posted by: Posted on by Angharad Thain