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Archbishop’s visit to Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara, Hounslow

Tuesday 18th October 2011

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, today visited the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara in Hounslow. During his visit he delivered an address on the spiritual and social benefits of dialogue between Sikhs and Christians.

The Archbishop’s visit to the Sikh Community in Hounslow began with a tour of the Gurdwara building including the Durbar Hall where the Guru Granth Sahib is kept and the Langar where free food is distributed every day. Sikhs from a number of organisations, Christians from different denominations and local friends from other faiths were present for a discourse introduced by the Archbishop and a young Sikh woman, Kiran Rana.

By coincidence, both speakers had prepared talks which mentioned the Ninth Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur, who had died to protect the rights of Hindus who were being persecuted at that time. Archbishop Rowan spoke about the capacity of religions to inspire people to be able to suffer not just to protect their own interests and the interests of their own communities, but on  behalf of the ‘other’, the ‘stranger’ as did Christ Jesus. 

The Archbishop also spoke about the importance of hospitality in both religious traditions, and the character of God whose doors are always open in in grace and love. In the discussion following, topics of mission and religious conversion were covered as well as God’s judgement and the place of silence in our practice of prayer.

The visit was a good example of how different religious communities can share together, and highlighted the importance of showing through their common practice the nature of their faith.  The speeches and subsequent discussion will be a resource especially for Sikhs and Christians who desire to deepen their dialogue and mutual witness.

'The Spiritual and Social Benefits of Dialogue between Christians and Sikhs'

An address given by Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, at Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara, Hounslow.

Honoured friends and my hosts, who have welcomed us here this morning, I must begin by thanking you for the kindness and warmth that we have been shown here. It is a real delight to have this opportunity to spend some time with you, to exchange some reflections with you and by God's grace to learn from you also.

There are three issues, which I should like to mention at the beginning of my reflections this morning; three issues, which reinforce the need and the profitability of a conversation between our communities. At the heart of all of them, I believe, lies this conviction; to be a religious community, to be a community of faith, is not simply to be a group of people who have certain opinions, or even certain convictions; it is to be a group of people who model, for the world around, what a community truly is. We, who are people of faith, are committed to the idea that God's presence, and purpose in the world, are shown not in words or ideas; but in the way in which we treat one another, the way in which we give reverence and respect to one other.

Our world is still a world where human life can seem cheap in the eyes of many. Returning as I have from Africa, within the last week, I have very much on my heart the terrible history of civil war, in the last couple of decades, throughout the continent of Africa and the immense loss of life that has meant perhaps five or six million, in Congo alone, within the last 20 years. We still live in a world where human life is cheap in the eyes of far too many.

Communities of faith exist by God's providence, so that we may see the preciousness of human life. And that underpins, I believe, all the reflections that we share in interfaith dialogue. Interfaith dialogue would be just an empty exchange of interesting ideas, if it did not begin from and end in a commitment to that reverence for the preciousness of every single person in the world.

And that takes me to the first of the points I want to make. And I've already really been forestalled in making it by the wonderful introduction that we heard. For those of us who do not belong to the Sikh community, the story of the 9th Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, is indeed a matter of enormous inspiration. Here is somebody who is a martyr, not for his private conviction, not even for the conviction of his community; but a martyr of the dignity and preciousness of the other, the stranger. And that is a truly extraordinary thing. It is so rare within the whole world of religions, that if that were the only contribution of Sikhism to the religious map of the world, it would be precious in itself.

And it is a reminder that in a world of plural convictions, and diverse communities, one of the most important things to which God calls us, is our willingness to take risks. Not just for our own dignity and conviction, but for the dignity and the conviction of the other, the neighbour, the stranger.

So the part of what we want to say, about true community to the world, is that God's purpose never lies simply in self defence but in the defence of the human family, as a whole. This purpose requires that we recognise dignity and liberty in one another and are ready to risk life for the other, for the stranger. That tells us the most human thing we can do, is to be willing to approach the stranger as a friend.

And that wonderful story, of the martyrdom of the 9th Guru, that I think should stand as an inspiration. And a profound challenge to all of us who tend, perhaps under pressure, to step back and say, "I'm going to defend myself, before I defend anyone else".

A little while ago, the religious communities of this country worked together on a protocol. In which we promised that when any one community, or its buildings or its people were attacked, others would be there to stand with them, and to defend them. This protocol has I think, worked itself out in many particular contexts across the country. I believe it is fundamental to a religious dialogue that is authentic, and transforming.

So my first point is simply to acknowledge that truly remarkable, and I believe unique gift, which Sikhs have given to the religious world. When our own St Paul, writes in his letter to the Romans, that God, in Jesus, has given up a life for the enemy; that is some echo of what we see in the life and the death of the 9th Guru.

And I believe that that is part of what God says to us, most deeply, that his will is not that we should be safe. But that all his children, friends and enemies, should be safe. And that our commitment, in dialogue, must be to serve the security and the wellbeing of the other.

Without compromising our convictions, without looking for some kind of formula that we can all sign together. No, simply that their willingness to be there for the other, and to take risks for the other. As we Christians believe, God himself has taken a risk in his love for us.

The second obvious point here, has to do with the historic Sikh commitment to equality. Reading the Guru Granth Sahib, on it seems almost every other page that vision of equality is set forth. And not only a vision of equality, but a vision of equality that rests on the belief that everyone has access to the grace and love of God. God does not sit back and wait for us to fulfil a lot of complicated conditions. God's grace, God's help, God's mercy and love, are offered to us even before we have begun on the journey. And that underpins some of the comments in the Guru Granth Sahib about ritualism, about the belief that by our external acts alone, we can somehow justify ourselves in the sight of God. And again, this echoes so closely some of the fundamental beliefs, convictions, of our own Christian faith: that emphasis on internal transformation, that emphasis on a belief in a God who is always on the way to meet us, even before we have started on our journey to meet him. This is crystallised for us who are Christians, in the story of the prodigal son. When he begins to return to his father, is overtaken by the father who has already set out to find him. And my own reading of passages of the Guru Granth Sahib, makes me believe that that vision of the God who sets out towards us, even before we have reached him, is fundamental to the conviction expressed in that book.

Equality among human beings is not as obvious as some modern people think it is. There are a great many people who believe that a conviction about human equality is so self evident that we need no religious underpinning for it. And yet the history of the last 100 years, does suggest that when religious conviction disappears, human equality and human dignity often go with it. Or to put it grammatically, if you stop believing in God, then sooner or later you'll stop believing in man as well. So in the witness that we seek to bear together, to our society, we do, I believe, want to underline as Sikhs as Christians, whatever community we belong to. That sense that the equality and dignity of human beings, rests not on some rational self-evident idea. But on a belief in God's own passionate commitment, to every creature God has made.

And that without that sense of God's commitment to us, our belief in human equality is going to be a very fragile thing indeed. The Sikh tradition has again and again, resisted the temptations that so many other faiths have fallen prey to of hierarchy, the abuse of power. It has remained deeply faithful to that belief that all are equally welcome. In that free grace, that free love, that pours out without cause, without a beginning and without an end, from our Creator. Who loves us, and holds us precious.

And to speak of welcome, is to take me to the third of my points. You will not need me to remind you that hospitality is fundamental in Sikh practice. And those of us from other communities have benefited in soul and body, from that hospitality many times. Hospitality, human hospitality, the open table, the open door. That is one of the most effective signs in our world of that causeless, beginningless, endless love of God. God is quite simply there for us, his door is open. "I have set before you", says the Lord in our Christian scriptures, "A door, an open door, which no one will be able to shut". And that belief, that the love of God is an open door that no human being is able to shut, that we seek to express, you seek to express, in the practices of hospitability. A service, once again, not just for a small community of like minded people, but simply a service, a recognition of dignity. And a recognition of the fact that one of the things which keeps us united as human beings, and makes us equal as human beings, is hunger. The need to be fed physically, and the need to be fed spiritually and emotionally, with human love and with the love of God. So what is done by Sikh communities in that daily practice of hospitality, speaks not just of vague goodwill; but a real belief in who God is, and how God is expressed directly in material terms.

And for the Christian, it's worth remembering that Jesus Christ in his earthly life, did not only proclaim the good news by what he said. Or even by the miracles he performed, but by his willingness to welcome around the same table, those that the rest of the world would prefer to forget about. Jesus himself uses hospitality to speak of God, of who God is, and of how God is. Once again, we're in a world where hospitality seems very difficult to many people. Once a very hospitable society, we in Britain have sadly become less hospitable in some ways in recent years. More nervous, more suspicious about the foreigner, about the refugee. And yet there is obstinately within our British history and culture, some sense of that religious heritage, that pushes us back towards a vision of welcome, of justice and hospitality to all. And once again, our religious communities can together bare witness to such a vision. We who are Christians, those of you who are Sikhs, those of you who represent other religious families, we can surely, together, see that that kind of witness is what a suspicious, violent, anxious, hungry world needs.

And we need one another to make that witness effective. We need to be able to say that this or that conviction, is not just the eccentricity of Sikhs or of Christians. It is something to do with the effect of what I sometimes think of as the sheer pressure of the love of God on the human world. The pressure that we cannot resist, pushes all of us at some level, towards generosity, towards mutual acceptance and reconciliation. That is the very energy of the universe itself. That is what we seek to witness to, in our different ways; with our very different convictions, and philosophies, and constructions of how the world is. Together, as communities of faith, we have something to say to the world about what human community is. I trust, and pray, that in our dialogue we shall learn how to do that together more and more effectively. And more and more joyfully, and gratefully. As we are pressed, pressured, by that vision of God's reckless love for all, friend and stranger, which has so shaped our traditions. 

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