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Archbishop's Speech at the Launch of Inter Faith Consultation

Monday 17th December 2007

The Archbishop spoke at the launch of a new document, issued by the Department of Communities and Local Government, on inter faith relations.

Secretary of State, friends, thank you very much indeed for the opportunity to be here this evening and I'd also like to say thank you for the document that's before us. I think it does represent a major step forward in the relationship between government and faith communities. And I think so for this particular reason; there's a way of talking about faith communities which seems to take it for granted that faith communities are essentially exotic. They are other people from other places, or in other places, and they spend all their time sitting there being faith communities. Now that's huge error as everybody in this room tonight knows. I don't think that you'll be able to imagine after two minutes conversation with our friends from Burnley that they're exactly exotic, well I don't know maybe I'm doing you an injustice there, but the point is that, as we've already heard, people involved in faith communities are people who are part of their community more widely, they are already there. And they are already there not only doing all those hugely positive and constructive things about cohesion and compassion that we've heard mentioned - just as importantly they are there doing ordinary things. And what I want to celebrate particularly this evening is that fact people of faith do ordinary things, they are part of the prose, not just the poetry of our community. The Sikh librarian, the Muslim school teacher, the Hindu social worker, the Christian business man or woman, the Jewish lawyer, to for that matter the equivalent of all of those in less high profile, less obviously socially marked jobs, they are there, they are part of who we all are, and they are already doing it. One of the most converting (perhaps not a word I should use in this context) but one of the most converting conversations that I've ever had on the subject of inter-faith relations, was with a young woman professional belonging to another faith community at an event rather like this a couple of years ago, who said to me 'what I worry about is that nobody speaks for people like me who are just there holding down ordinary jobs in our community, and when my religious identity is made known, people assume straight away I have a massive agenda and they get frightened'. Now how we as a nation, as a society, get used to the normality of faith, the ordinariness of people that belong in faith communities, I think that's part of the challenge that is the deeper agenda of a consultation like this. Not just about how faith communities provide social capital (crucial as that is), but how faith communities are us, and not them. And I say that perfectly well aware of course of the fact, that not everybody in this our society holds a religious faith as you may have noticed. The point is that in a society where we work together as the Chief Rabbi has wonderfully said 'to build a house together', the prose as well as the poetry is important. And people of faith are not exotic aliens, they are neighbours, they are us.

So that's my first observation about all this. I hope that this consultation will be a significant step forward in that recognition, recognition of the routine presence of people in ordinary jobs, ordinary contexts, the prose of our society. So that we are grateful to people of faith not just for filling in the gaps in providing social capital, but grateful for their ordinary humanity and their ordinary neighbourliness. Second thought about all this is a very obvious one if you just look around this evening and listen to conversations; the inter faith situation is very diverse in this country, there's no one pattern, there's no one problem, there's no one solution - if you want to think in terms of problems and solutions which perhaps you shouldn't anyway. But there are very diverse social realties. There's London, there's Burnley, there's Leicester (happily represented by several distinguished friends here tonight) and all the other places from which people are drawn. Each has its own story to tell, and a good national policy is of course one which recognises that diversity, which is able to relate, again, people of faith to the specific geographical, social, demographic contexts in which they ordinarily, unfussily, get on with their business. Quite often when I read discussions of 'inter-faith issues' in the press I think this sounds as if its mostly about two square miles in North London, (I expect there are a number of social issues about which people feel similarly when they read the press). And the truth is we have a glorious variety, some of that variety will be fleshed out for you in a few minutes time, by our friends from Burnley, and I'm looking forward very much to that. We need to be aware of that variety in our society, and not suppose that there is one situation, one kind of relationship.

The third observation on this whole world of inter faith work at present. An observation that has to both with the face to face and with the side by side dimension. At first sight it might seem to tell in a slightly different direction from the place I started, but I don't think we get anywhere without trying to understand this. People who hold a religious faith are people who believe that there is more to human beings than a lot of others around them realise. They are people who are alert to an extra dimension of dignity and possibility. An extra dimension of human richness. One of the most important things we could every say about religious faith is that it doesn't shrink, but enlarges our sense of what human beings are like and what human beings are about. That is one of the most significant things that all religious traditions hold in common. A deeply, gloriously, and thankfully ambitious idea about human beings. As a Christian I express it in terms of my belief that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. Other traditions have their own ways of talking about this. And it's that sense of a deeper, more lasting and more solid dimension to human dignity that is the specific gift that people of faith bring to the social conversation. Whether they do that in their conversations and relationships with one another, recognising in one another a depth and seriousness of conviction, or whether it's in the work they do together, pushing out the boundaries of what is possible in serving human dignity and human possibility. It comes from the same basic sense. And that's why of course it's very important that inter faith dialogue and cooperation is not about looking for some watered down version of each faith which is just about able to manage to get along with others, it's about people who have very deep and very passionate convictions. But one thing that I've tried to argue in various contexts in recent months and years is that the deeper the conviction, the deeper the faith in fact, the less likely people are to seek to solve their problems by violence. Violence is always a mark of lack of faith, violence says 'I've got to end this situation of tension, oppression, stress, now - and I will end it by violence'. The person of faith says 'I trust that there is more around in the world than my resources, or yours. I trust that there is a divine presence and power, and purpose, upon which I can rely and therefore I don't have to resort to violence. I don't need to get that desperate.' Now I think that is something which we need to hear. I think it's something which, as a culture, we desperately need to be assured of, that there is more resource available to serve and nourish our humanity than a pragmatic and secular approach offers.  Pragmatists and secularists in the audience will no doubt want to argue and that's fine, that's what it's about. But if we want to identify what it is specifically and distinctively that is offered here, I'd say that is it – the sense of something more, something more to humanity, something more to the universe, something on which we can rely so profoundly, so gratefully, we're not driven to the downward spiral of violence and resentment and retaliation. So that inter faith work is about connecting with that depth, it's not about looking for superficial ways in which we can  modify our convictions so that we can more or less agree. It's about going to the very depth of our passion about God and about humanity, and finding there the harmony that we need to work together. Not compromise, but deepening together, side by side and face to face.

So in conclusion, let me repeat my appreciation for the document before us, I can only speak of course, as representing one community of faith. But I suspect that I will be able to speak for a good many in this hall in saying this is a deeply promising and encouraging start. The question of implementation, of delivery, of many of the things it talks about – that will take a long time, we need to be talking together actively and intelligently about all that. But here we are to welcome something which does open some doors for understanding, and which does I believe remind us of, (the point I started with) the normality of people of faith. When people write about their anxieties over indoctrination in faith schools, of matters like that, they are I think missing the fact that people of faith are, as I said, us not them, in this society. Recognising that, appreciating it, working with the grain of it, that's what I think this document is looking for, that's what I hope to see as the government develops it's strategy in this direction. Aware of the huge variety that there is in our society, aware that it's never just a question of one faith or two faiths locked in discussion, but of a great variety of identities and cultures here. But above all, aware of faith as itself, I can be excused of the paradox, faith as a humanist enterprise, an enterprise that's about humanity at it's fullest, at it's most joyful and exuberant and creative. And that I think is quite enough from me because we ought to hear of something of the exuberant and creative work that our guests are going to talk about, so I'll detain you no longer. Thank you.

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