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Archbishop - We have to spread the good news of what is done

Thursday 12th February 2009

The Archbishop on Inter Faith - Presence and Engagement, General Synod, London.

Read a transcript of the Archbishop's speech below, or click download on the right to listen [8Mb]

Before I begin my remarks I'd like to echo what the Bishop of Burnley has just said by way of tribute to Guy Wilkinson whose imagination and skill and dedication in this work and in much else has given so much to the Church of England and indeed the communion in recent years. But I was thinking back to a dinner I attended not very long ago with a number of parliamentarians. A subject matter for discussion over dinner was the place of the church in British society and one of them asked me at one point, "How can you defend the special place of the Church of England in a deeply religiously divided society?" My first response was to say actually this is not a deeply religiously divided society in the sense that I think you mean. Behind that form of words lay, I think, a major fallacy which has a very strong stranglehold on Government in this country. Somewhere out there, that is outside the reasonable and rational and rather secular world of North London, somewhere out there Christians and Muslims have to be stopped from killing each other on the streets. And the Government has to ride in like the United States Cavalry and sort it out.

You and I know that this is not a particularly accurate perception but it is nonetheless quite deeply entrenched in Government, in parts of the media and therefore in the minds of quite a lot of people who actually know better if they just step out of their front doors. We are already addressing such problems as there are in many multi-faith contexts and at grass roots level, the average Christian and the average Muslim, not to mention the average Hindu, Sikh, Jain etc will know each other, quite likely, as friends and neighbours; not as lethal adversaries. And some of the work that has already been touched upon and which will doubtless hear more about during this debate, there's ample witness to that.

We can do better. We can demonstrate that this is not, in that sense, a deeply religiously divided society. And yet it is a deeply increasingly religiously diverse society, in which the lines of diversity don't simply run between historic confessions: they run within them, they run between all historic faiths and the secular assumptions of great many of our fellow countrymen and women.

So we, I think, have a number of tasks to do in this setting. We have to spread the good news of what is done, and plenty of it is in evidence here. And we have to challenge some of those assumptions about the intrinsically violent divisive nature of faith in general. I'm very glad that the background paper pinpoints the difficultly encountered when people speak of Faith in that generalised sense. But what presence and engagement most deeply stands for, I think, is intimately related to some of what we were talking about yesterday. And I draw your attention to paragraph 98 of the paper, the first point there. 'The Task Group commends to Synod in particular its understanding that:

'The mission of God shown in the unique life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ encompasses both dialogue and evangelism in a seamless whole and is the eternal source of hope for the world.'

I think that could hardly be improved upon as a definition of what this is about and it underlines our presence and engagement as a program as essentially about two things which we've already in the Synod registered as crucially important. We approach our neighbours of other faiths with both patience and honesty. Patience in the sense that we seek to learn and to grow in our encounters and we recognise that that takes time. Honesty in that we don't conceal what we believe, and indeed what we pray and hope for, for the entire world, which is the convergence of all human destinies upon the unique life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Part of how that balance is held between patience and honesty is the sheer fact of witness, a word that's already been used this afternoon and that is I think crucial in this connection. The witness of those whose depth of commitment to the unique life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is evident in all they do, for their neighbours of other faiths and their neighbours of no faiths, whose willingness to be there engaged patiently long term is part of that commitment to Jesus Christ, the finding out of all that, the words in which to speak about it.

Before I finish I want to share another memory from a very different environment from the Westminster dining rooms. Two weeks ago I was in Libya engaged in a pastoral visit to the tiny Anglican congregation in Tripoli and also to other centres of worship and reflection in Tripoli, which included the unusual challenge of having to speak on the Christian notion of revelation to the World Islamic Call Society in Tripoli; one of the more challenging remits.

But I also spent an afternoon with a local Roman Catholic congregation. The Roman Catholics in Tripoli are largely ministered to by Franciscans and I'd been invited by the Franciscan Bishop to address a small group in the Roman Catholic Church that afternoon and among the readings for the act of worship that we shared was part of Saint Bonaventure's life of Saint Francis. The passage where Bonaventure describes Francis' visit to the then Sultan of Egypt, and the salient phrase was "Francis came with no weapons to speak to the Sultan" and there on the wall of this rather beautiful church was a mural of Francis approaching the Sultan. Now, the Franciscan tradition has made much of Francis' nakedness, his self stripping, acted out quite literally after his conversion when he took off his clothes in the market place of Assisi and put himself under the protection of the church and renounced all his wealth. And for the first time I realised that Francis' approach to the Sultan of Egypt was all of a piece with that moment in the market place when he had stripped off what protected him. He went simply, as the medieval phrase has, "Naked following the naked Christ". And in that tiny Catholic community in Tripoli I saw something of The nakedness of following the naked Christ. The Bishop and the head group around him, the handful of sisters belonging to Mother Theresa's order, and also some of the little sisters of Charles de Foucauld, all of them working in some of the most difficult and demanding settings in that very difficult and problem ridden inner city that is Tripoli. They were not evangelising, they were speaking the Gospel. They were making the Gospel available and they had the words and they had the passion and they had the prayer. But first of all came the witness.

I believe that's what presence engagement is about. It's not, as we were reminded yesterday, an "either or", evangelism "or" presence, it is an evangelism that has depth, conviction, passion, credibility, because of its rootedness in presence and I feel I've been privileged to see it in this Country as well as in Tripoli and I hope and pray that Synod will give a strong affirmation to the presence and engagement programme in this afternoon's debate.

© Rowan Williams 2009

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