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Launch of Hindu Christian Forum - an opportunity for 'dialogue and depth'

The Archbishop speaking, with Sri Shruti Dharma Das Ji on right

Wednesday 23rd November 2011

The Archbishop of Canterbury and Sri Shruti Dharma Das Ji launched the Hindu Christian Forum at Lambeth Palace, at an event which featured addresses from Andrew Stunell MP, Baroness Richardson and Lord Popat.

In his address, the Archbishop said "The conversation of interfaith dialogue is always one where we look eagerly and expectantly for enrichment. We're not playing for victory, we're seeking understanding from one another... by learning the depth of one another's commitment and vision - dialogue and depth is what we all hope for."

He praised the launch of the Hindu Christian Forum and the role it will play in facilitating dialogue: "I believe that a dialogue is about work, real labour, but also about surprise and excitement, and it is with that vision in mind that I commend this forum to you, thank you for your support of it, and ask for your continuing prayers and solidarity with the work it will do in the future."

Dr Williams also spoke about his own early encounters with the Hindu faith. He described reading a children's version of the Ramayana in the school library when aged 12, and recalled the beauty, complexity and depth which captivated him at that early age. He went on to say how later in life, while contemplating his own spiritual identity during a visit to India, he realised that "the historic Christian identity is something that constantly needs to be opened and enlarged, challenged and enriched in conversation".

Speaking of a recent visit to Bangalore, he described a day of dialogue with religious leaders from a variety of Hindu traditions: "a deeply enriching experience - a day in which we were able to speak simply and directly about our traditions. We were able to say together, at the end of that conversation, a number of things about our mutual respect and the understanding that we sought."

The Hindu Christian Forum has been formed by a group of Hindus and Christians who have been meeting together since 2001. It has become a national forum partly in response to the findings of the 'Bridges and Barriers to Hindu Christian Relations' Report which was carried out by Dr Jessica Frazier of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies and funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government. In his address, the Archbishop described the report as a "very creative and stimulating piece of work, which provides an enormous resource for reflecting on how dialogue can be pursued, and how at the grassroots level it is to be understood and worked with." 

More about the Hindu Christian Forum:

The event at Lambeth Palace was introduced by the Chairs of the Hindu Christian Forum: The Ven Richard Atkinson, Archdeacon of Leicester and Ramesh Pattni, Inter Faith Chair of the Hindu Forum of Britain. There are 6 Christian and 6 Hindu members on the board, who represent the major denominations and communities organisations of both faiths.

At the beginning of Inter Faith Week, the Hindu Christian Forum hosted a concert by leading jazz musician Arun Ghosh of his ‘South Asian Suite’ at the Yogi Hall of the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Neasden. The Forum will also be hosting two weekend conferences sponsored by Near Neighbours in Leicester and London in December and early Spring.


Transcript of the Archbishop's address:

Good evening friends. It’s a very great delight indeed to welcome you here to Lambeth Palace, to see so many people gathered to celebrate this very auspicious and I hope creative occasion.  We’re always delighted when we are able to use Lambeth Palace as a place of hospitality for everyone in our society – for communities of all faith traditions. Tonight is a very special event from that point of view and we are truly delighted to see you all here.

I thought I might begin by saying a word about my own history of encounter with the Hindu world which began I think when I was about 12 years old.  I picked up in the school library a children’s version of the Ramayana, and began to understand that there was a very considerable world out there of which I’d known nothing, full of beauty and challenge and terror and complexity and death.  And from that moment in the early 1960s, when I had my first very superficial encounter, my interest remained strong and my appetite remained strong for learning what this other world might have to teach.  Later on in my teens I began to read some of the work of that unusual and controversial Roman Catholic writer, Bede Griffiths, who of course spent so many years in South India - controversial, I think, both in the Hindu and the Christian context, for his efforts to build bridges.  And it was later on as a student that I encountered yet another boundary-crossing Roman Catholic figure in the shape of Abhishiktananda, whose book on prayer was to me one of the most influential works I had ever read, drawing as it did on the very deep resources of the Hindu spirituality that this French monk had drawn from in his long witness in India.

It is perhaps not wholly surprising that when I got married I married somebody who had spent the first eight years of her life in the subcontinent.  Shortly after our marriage we spent time visiting India and I used the opportunity of studying as much as I could of the religious world in which my wife’s family had worked for many years, and again finding my own understanding and horizons enlarge all the time.

In other words part of my own encounter with the Hindu world has been an encounter in which I have constantly realised that the historic Christian identity is something that constantly needs to be opened, enlarged, challenged and enriched in conversation. But also I was aware of how that’s not a one way process.  Throughout my adult life the example and inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi has been immensely significant to me, as someone who I think would have said the historic Hindu identity is capable of being enriched, enlarged and challenged by the conversations that happen across cultures.  I have to say one of my favourite sayings of Gandhi, is when somebody asked him what he thought of Western civilisation and he unforgettably replied he thought it would be a very good idea.

But Mahatma is a very interesting example of someone who, as it were, reflects back to the Christian Church the riches and the challenges that the Christian Church itself doesn’t fully appreciate.  He was able to say to his Christian friends, you don’t really take seriously the Sermon on the Mount; you don’t really take seriously the person whose name you bear and whose allegiance you claim. That is something Christians need to hear.

So the conversation of inter faith dialogue is always one where we look expectantly and eagerly for enrichment. In that sense, we don’t look for what some people would consider results. We are not, if you’ll excuse the analogy, playing for victory in dialogue, and that is something which comes very powerfully and movingly out of this wonderful piece of work on 'Bridges and Barriers to Hindu Christian Relations'.

And I’d like to echo what has already been said in tribute to Jessica [Dr Jessica Frazier] for the very creative, very stimulating work that is done here, which gives us an enormous resource in times to come for reflecting on how dialogue can be pursued, and how at the grass roots level it is to be understood and worked with.

We’re not playing for victory. We’re seeking understanding, and seeking understanding from one another. The worst thing that can ever happen in the circle of dialogue is when we patronise one another  If we are all honest in this room I would dare to say that Hindus have patronised Christians and Christians have patronised Hindus in the past, and we have all got to do better than that in the future by learning not just the superficial impressions but the depth of one another’s commitment and vision.

Dialogue at depth is what we all hope for.  Just over 12 months ago I had the great privilege, during a long, very challenging and very fruitful visit to India, of spending a day in Bangalore in dialogue with religious leaders from a variety of Hindu traditions.  That day remains in my memory as – to go back to the words I used earlier – a deeply enriching experience. I hope that it was so for all those who participated. Certainly it was for me.  It was a day in which we were able to speak simply and directly about our traditions, about what matters, what is the feel of the universe we inhabit and the prayers that we pray and the silence that we inhabit as well – what is the atmosphere in which we live, what are the roots which feed us and help us grow.  And in talking from the heart of our own tradition we found ourselves, all of us I believe, talking to each other’s heart and learning more and more deeply. We were able to say together at the end of that conversation a number of things about our mutual respect and the understanding that we sought.

I look back on that experience with immense gratitude. Gratitude not least to my deeply valued colleague Dr Kate Wharton, who helped to put that together and who’s worked so very hard to put this evening together. I will not spare your blushes Kate, but say the warmest of thanks to you for all the work that you’ve done in this context.

So – a dialogue which takes us to the depths, but a dialogue which also works, quite simply, for ordinary believers (if there are any such things – ordinary is not meant to be a derogatory word), for those who simply get on with the business of being Hindus and Christians day by day, hour by hour.  A dialogue that works to help human beings in our society to be more human together, to speak about depth, to speak about the theological complexities and the philosophical tussles that we’re involved in.  That is not to say we ignore the immediate challenges of being believing, conscientious citizens together.

And that’s the other dimension of all of this. We’re all aware that we live in a society that some people think is secular. I believe that’s a bit of an illusion. We’re a society that is deeply confused about religion, which is not at all the same thing.  A really secular society would ignore religion and think of other things to focus on.  Our society is muddled, anxious, homesick, confused and expectant where religion is concerned.  Our society is one which still wants faith to have a voice somewhere in public debate, even if it doesn’t quite know what it wants to hear, and even if it doesn’t very much like what it does hear from time to time. I've described it before as a culture haunted by God rather than a culture without God.

We who belong to deeply resourced, ancient traditions of discipline, practice and thought – and I do put practice before thought there, for a reason I’ll come back to in a moment – we have something to say into that society, which is not just an alien word from mid-air but a word spoken by people who share the ordinary experiences, the day to day experiences of citizens of this country, and who want again and again to say to our fellow citizens: to have faith, to practice faith, is not a hobby or an eccentricity - it is a way of exercising a humanity that is critical, intelligent and rich.

But I have mentioned practice, which is one of the ways in which I think inter religious dialogue needs to evolve and mature. And I use the word in two senses.  First of all, some people who criticise religion, or belief in general, do so as if being religious were a matter of holding a set of opinions. We are all of us – so people think – signed up to a set of opinions.  Somewhere outside the world lives a person called God. I believe that there is such a person outside the world.  I believe that God does certain things – or did certain things, we’re not sure if he still does them – inside the world. We believe that when we die we go somewhere else called heaven.

That’s about it, I think, from the point of view of a secularist critic - whereas those of us who practice our faith know that there is always far, far more to say than that 'God is a person who lives somewhere else'.  We believe that we live day by day within the will, the presence, the challenging energy of God all around us, permeating our reality.  We don’t believe certain things about 'someone who lives somewhere else', but we that we are in the presence of Holy love and intelligence minute by minute.

We believe that the life we live in that presence here and now is a life that is not terminated by death. We believe that we are accountable for how we live here and now. And we believe that because of all that we are able to act meaningfully in the world, to make sense of the material things of this world, the lives of one another, the society we live in.  [Religious] practice is one of the ways in which we convey wisdom, a sense of reality, from generation to generation.

And because of that we move into practice in a different sense.  That is, the practical service of the society we’re in; the cooperation we are able to undertake for the sake of the life and health of all of our neighbours. Out of the practice of the presence of the Holy, we practice in the presence of the neighbour, and for the sake of - for the love of - the neighbour.

If we’re clear about this, and if in our dialogue we can become clearer and clearer all the time, we shall have something very significant to say to our secular neighbours; a reason for taking faith seriously and understanding its transforming capacity.  And I believe that a dialogue which does not somehow lead us in that direction is a dialogue that’s failing in its essential purpose.

So thank you very much for the support you’ve given and are giving this evening to the Hindu Christian Forum.  It’s taken quite a long time to work out how we best undertake this task, but what has kept us going throughout is a very clear sense that it is a task worth performing.  We’re here because of that deep commitment to the worth of others, of understanding one another, and we’re here because of the hope of enriching one another and being enriched by one another.

I believe that this dialogue has enormous potential. I believe that those who have supported it and are supporting it this evening bring to it a wealth of experience and energy. And in this room those resources are very well witnessed to.

We have been warned. We warn one another yet again of supposing too soon that we understand everything about each other. God forbid that we should think that. If we understood each other perfectly there would be no work to do, and no surprises, and no excitement.

I believe that dialogue is about work, real labour, but also about surprise and excitement. And it is with that vision in mind that I commend this forum to you, thank you for your support of it, and ask for your continuing prayers and sympathy and solidarity in the work it will do in the future.

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