Is Interfaith Worship a Desirable Practice?

Jul 6, 2020

Rev Jenny Miller is one of our ordained OneSpirit Interfaith Ministers, and the recipient of the World Congress of Faiths 2019 interfaith award for her essayIs Interfaith Worship a desirable practice?(available to read in full on www.sundarispirit.co.uk)

As well as a Worship Service Leader of the Unitarian and the Free Christian Church, Jenny is also a former solicitor and has qualifications in Transpersonal Psychotherapy and Integrative Child, Adolescent & Family Psychotherapy, with specific experience in Bereavement Counselling. She is currently studying for her second Masters Degree at Sarum Theological College, with a specific interest in mystical theologies, to help her ‘complete the circle’ of Mystical knowledge and understanding in both Eastern and Western Mystical Theologies. 

We spoke to the Rev Jenny Miller on her thoughts on her award-winning essay, interfaith worship, and OneSpirit training experience…

When did you first hear of the Congress of Faiths, and the essay competition?

I saw an advertisement for the Essay Competition on Facebook! As I was enrolled as an MA student at Sarum Theological College, validated by Winchester University, doing a (second) Masters degree, with a focused interest in mystical theologies, I was eligible to submit an essay as a post-graduate student in higher education. I just ‘knew’ that I had to write an essay on Interfaith Worship as a desirable practice and it became my ‘labour of love’ last summer, as I spent hours grappling with the sensitive nuances of ‘how’ to write about and approach such a tender subject of Interfaith Worship for the breadth of readership of the International Journal, Interreligious Insight, of The World Congress of Faiths.

How did you find the experience of winning the essay award?

As there were two joint-winners in 2019 for The Essay Award, the monetary aspect of the prize was divided and I received a cheque for £100 from The Rev. Dr. Canon Alan Race at the World Congress of Faiths, which I asked in advance to be made out to a small Interfaith Charity, Spirit of Peace, whose founder I met in Unitarian circles.  So, I was delighted to receive this cheque for the furtherance of valuable interfaith work and I particularly enjoyed my excuse to travel to London one evening instead of doing the school run and ‘tea, bath and bedtime’!

In particular, having the opportunity for my thoughts on Interfaith Worship from my experience as an Interfaith Minister formally published in the International journal of Interreligious Insight was a huge joy, honour and privilege for which I am extremely grateful. Therefore, jointly-winning this Essay Award with The World Congress of Faiths has been the catalyst for establishing a non-commercial website which serves to inspire other Worship Services with freely downloadable published essays, articles, poetry and photographs.  My Ministry (and my thoughts on Interfaith and Interfaith Worship, contained in my essay) has been able to reach out more widely than I had ever imagined and even contribute a little something on the ‘world stage’.

What does ‘interfaith’ mean to you?

I see ‘Interfaith’ as a word which, in a modern, contemporary context points to a spectrum of different ideas, nuances and even ‘belief/faith’ in itself. Interfaith is often regarded as being about tolerance, respect, dialogue and understanding between the different faiths, in the sense of being Inter-Faith.

However, the very linguistic usage of one word of ‘Interfaith’ carries subtly different nuances to the two word phrase ‘Inter Faith’, which, is the phrase used in the context of the UK’s annual ‘Inter Faith Week’ in November with The Inter Faith Network during which I have recently been privileged to take part as a speaker on Interfaith.

As I say in my essay, I see Interfaith as including a further depth perspective for some people, if not all, of a depth Unitive Spirituality of ‘Oneness’ at its heart which is more of an Inter-spirituality or even an inter-mysticism, which can, in turn, become a basis for faith in itself, as similarly reflected in the theology of Unity of Unitarian Universalists and the Unitarian and Free Christian Church, or indeed Sufism, Bauls and Bahá’i Faith which believes in the Unity of God, Religion and Humanity. This compliments similar beliefs of Swami Vivekananda (a disciple of the Indian Mystic Ramakrishna), who was well known for his work in establishing the idea of the Universality of all Religions as a Religion in itself.

Swami Vivekananda writes:

‘I shall go to the Mosque of the Muslim,

I shall enter the Christian’s Church and kneel before the Crucifix,

I shall enter the Buddhist Temple and take Refuge in the Buddha,

I shall go into the forest and sit down in meditation with the Hindu…

In addition…

I shall keep my heart open for all that may come in the future.

Is God’s book finished?

Or, is Revelation still going on?’

What drew you to interfaith ministry initially?

Having travelled a fascinating, but sometimes arduous ‘inner-journey’ of ‘spiritual seeking’ far and wide, the wings of my soul were too wide to fit any organizational constraints of the spirit! Finally, I found a word that more closely described someone like me, ‘Interfaith’, especially in the context of the OneSpirit Foundation with its deep grounding in experiential awakening to the Oneness of All Life, whatever ‘word’ we choose to use for the ‘God of our Understanding’. I felt I had ‘come home’ to an organization that, despite its own frailties, deeply honoured the soaring flight of ‘free spirits’ with wide wingspans to express our calling to God from within the very calling of our own hearts.

Tell us about your spiritual journey so far – what have been the highlights/ turning points?

As a child, I attended a Non-Conformist Methodist School for girls, whilst also attending a traditional Anglican Sunday School for years. It was therefore ‘normal’ for me to participate both in traditional Christian services, igniting a deep love of singing the sublime church music in choirs that is expressed so beautifully within the traditional stone buildings of our Churches and Cathedrals, as well as being educated in the Methodists’ reasons for departing from Anglicanism, whilst my soul delighted in the open heartedness of Wesleyan hymns that directly expressed a beautiful spirituality of the pure celestial fire that became woven into my own vows on ordination to kindle a flame of sacred love…

Exploring two apparently contradictory spiritual paths at once became something of my norm, as I grappled with trying to understand the apparent differences between Buddhism’s Emptiness of ‘No Self’, alongside the ‘Self’ of Hindu Advaita Vedanta during my Sivananda Yoga Training at an Ashram. Ever curious, Tibetan Buddhist teachings ignited a passion for further insight into psychology as interwoven with spirituality and I stumbled across the Sufi inspired Transpersonal Psychotherapy training at CCPE. This was undoubtedly the most intense and arduous transformational process that I have ever been through – a veritable Crucible of being transformed in the Alchemical fires of psycho-spiritual insight; a burning away of the gross nature of the ‘base metal’ of our fragile human egos and stepping into the Alchemic ‘Gold’ of the ‘True Self’, our Essential Soul-Self, prior to the conceptual thinking mind of ego, whose fragile identity rests like ‘castles built on sand’, over-identified with the roles we play in life and the narcissistic gratification of needing our own image of ourselves to be constantly reflected by others – Oh! How the ego feels wounded when people do not see us the way we see ourselves! Discovering the ‘True Self’ beyond ego concepts, identity and its self-fortifying defense mechanisms is one of the deepest gifts and turning points of my ‘inner journey home’.

Whilst my training and subsequent teaching at CCPE was undoubtedly a ‘turning point’, life had some further twists and turns that altered my course and I happily became a Mother of three beautiful daughters. Motherhood, in all its nitty-gritty practicalities, has brought me ‘down to earth’, into a more grounded spirituality, in the perpetual ‘ask’ of ‘giving yourself over’ to the everyday demands of children. However, my soul had ‘itchy wings’ and, with the proverbial lost-confidence of motherhood, I walked quietly into an Intro Day at OneSpirit Interfaith Foundation, beautifully held by Rev Jackie Amos Wilkinson. I was struck by the distinct understanding of ‘Ministry’ (which also valued motherhood) and its encouragement to follow our hearts into the calling of our own vocation in life.

Another fascinating, yet arduous-at-times training process ensued with OneSpirit but I can honestly say that ordaining as an Interfaith Minister was one of the greatest blessings of my life. Curiously, I ordained in the same building (The Great Hall, University of Reading) where I graduated with my Law Degree as ‘Bachelor of Laws’ aged 21!  During my ordination, I cast my mind’s eye back to my younger-self of university graduation and could see that my life had symbolically come ‘full circle’ to a healing in my own psyche in a symbolic ‘ouroboros’ in the connection of head and heart, in an ever deeper ‘owning’ of my ‘True Self’ as an ordained Interfaith Minister.

Reflect on the interfaith aspects of OneSpirit training – what made it unique, and do you still use some of the aspects covered in your working/home life?

The Blessing of the OneSpirit training is in its all-embracing love of the Divine, for people of ‘All Faiths and None’, howsoever we name ‘the God of our Understanding’. It enables free spirits, united in our open-minded, open-hearted love of the Divine/Life/Source/Mystery to meet like-minded kindred spirits, to grow together in stepping up into our True Selves as Interfaith Ministers; for our broad-minded, free-spirited faith finally to be recognized, validated and given a legitimate platform from which our souls can fully flower in the service of the Divine…This is unique…and its Blessing in my Life is ever-present in the call to ‘step up’ that bit more, for God in Interfaith…in a way that continues to ask me to reveal more petals of my flowering ‘True Self’, one with God…

There have been discussion in recent years that the term ‘interfaith’ is past its usefulness, and how traditional ‘interfaith’ events haven’t moved with the times. What are your thoughts on this?

Yes, this is a fascinating question for our times and for OneSpirit as an organization as the very ‘contours’ of ‘Interfaith’ are certainly changing fast in our modern contemporary multi-cultural pluralistic society. This very question of the broad spectrum of the way in which the word ‘Interfaith’ is understood is the very crux of my essay, as I was upfront about addressing such changing contours in my essay, in saying that ‘whatever one’s personal views are about the burgeoning spectrum of belief about what Interfaith means, represents and stands for, it is important, in my view, that it is gently, more consciously, acknowledged that such a spectrum does exist. We must recognise that there are differences in Interfaith views that range from (i) dialogue, respect, tolerance and understanding between faiths to (ii) inter-spiritual theologies of Unity/Oneness and (iii) beliefs in the universality of all faiths as a potential ‘new ‘interfaith’ religion’ in itself, although Rev Christopher Lewis says, ‘there is no new religion called ‘Interfaith’, even if some people appreciate the insights (and worship) of many religions.’ Interfaith Worship can encompass all dimensions of Interfaith.’ Therefore, it is perhaps not that ‘Interfaith’ is past its usefulness, so much as a narrow definition of it being ‘past its usefulness’. If we adopt a broad definition of Interfaith, it holds a plethora of burgeoning opportunities in Interfaith vocation. I have no doubt that OneSpirit will lead the way in ‘moving with the times’ in celebrating the broadening shift in the contours of Interfaith Understanding!

You bravely and directly address ‘the elephant in the room’ in Interfaith Circles, in saying that, ‘The very question of whether or not we are all ‘madly in love with the same God’ is at the heart of my inquiry into Interfaith Worship as a desirable practice. Can you expand on this?

Good question! As I was contemplating how to go about writing my own essay on Interfaith Worship, for the readership of The World Congress of Faiths’ International Journal, Interreligious Insight, I was faced with many possible approaches (and styles) for writing it. I decided to address the ‘Elephant in the Room’ about whether we are all ‘madly in love with the same God’ precisely because this ‘tender nub of faith’, as I put it, is often avoided and by-passed (perhaps for fear of causing any offence) but also because this very question is at the very heart of the changing contours of Interfaith understanding that range from more traditional Interfaith Dialogue for increased tolerance and understanding, as well as more ‘Pluralist/Universalist’ levels of understanding of Interfaith, such as with the OneSpirit Interfaith Foundation. In writing about Interfaith Worship specifically, I felt it was essential not to bypass the question of who/what we are all ‘worshipping’ and to be brave in exploring how that ‘Elephant in the Room’ impacts all sensitivities and considerations in Interfaith Worship as a desirable practice.

What constitutes for you a true interfaith worship service? What are the vital aspects that are required from your perspective?

Interfaith Service at the Chapel of Harris Manchester College, Oxford, for the Oxford Unitarian Chapel Society

Deferring to the insightful Essay (of the same title) by Aamir Kaderbhai, who was the other joint-winner of the World Congress of Faiths’ Essay Award 2019, and which is published alongside mine in the same journal of Interreligious Insight, he refers three traditional types of Interfaith Worship Services highlighted by J. Frank Henderson, as (i) a single-faith service which is held in accordance with the traditions of that one faith, with Interfaith guests invited, (ii) a multi-faith service, where members of different faiths gather to worship together, but independently in their own ways and (iii) an explicit ‘Interfaith’ service in which members ‘participate in the same worship proceedings, affirming what they have in common to whatever extent that is possible’. I would suggest that all of these different traditional and contemporary types of Interfaith Service styles are true Interfaith Worship Services in their own ways. In my own essay, I write that Interfaith Worship can encompass all dimensions of the spectrum of Interfaith and can address ‘themes’ or mark certain Interfaith Days, such as Inter Faith Week or mark multi-cultural, inter-faith services in the wake of a tragic event.

The vital aspect has to be ‘experience’ in doing a variety of different kinds of Interfaith Services in order that the Service is tailored to meet the needs of each congregation (in the same way that Interfaith Ministers will be flexible in adapting to the beliefs of a family in creating bespoke, ‘Rites of Passage’, such as Weddings or Baby Blessings or Funerals) and my own experience has come from also being a Worship Service Leader in the Unitarian and Free Christian Church, as well as speaking and participating in an Interfaith Service in an Anglican Church for Inter Faith Week. As Interfaith Worship Services were an optional, but not compulsory part of the OneSpirit training, maybe there would be room for more focused guidelines for creating Interfaith Worship Services in future?

What work do you feel needs to be done in faith, interfaith and secular circles to increase the positive visibility of interfaith worship?

I would love to see OneSpirit have a more visible presence with physical buildings for a full range of Interfaith education, including Worship Services. In many ways, the increasing connection between Interfaith Ministers and The Unitarian and Free Christian Church (UK) and Unitarian Universalists (US) which already draws on the Wisdom of other faiths, from the basis of its own liberal Unitarian Christian tradition and heritage is leading the way in terms of welcoming Interfaith Ministers to lead Worship.

It would be wonderful to build on the highly successful work of Alison Trower in the OneLight Gatherings in London, as these ‘gatherings’ herald another contemporary shift of yet more moving contours in ‘Interfaith’, as OneLight gatherings, led by Interfaith Ministers, take the form of reflective transformational ‘gatherings’ on broad, spiritual, even psycho-spiritual themes, perhaps beyond what would be considered ‘Interfaith Worship’ specifically. This is perhaps a further contemporary ‘shift’ of Interfaith contours in (what some call) the dawning ‘Aquarian Age’ which might see a swift yet subtle move from ‘Worship’ (in its traditional recognisable form) to ‘Circles of Inner Transformation’, through transformational spiritual heart-opening music, inner-reflection and meditation/contemplation in non-hierarchical circles of brothers and sisters who bring their unique gifts to share in a heartwarming and transformational, healing way, little by little, as the flowering of our souls, encased by ego-structures formed during childhood, dare to open more fully in the expression of Joy and Love to that Mystery of Life that is, at once, our own Being in the depths of our True Selves, one with God, Source, Light, Love, Life.

In a prior-sharing of my thoughts about this interview question with Alison Trower, whom I felt it was important to be credited for her work in the OneLight gatherings. Alison adds the following reflections from her own experience of co-holding the OneLight gatherings:

‘I cherish the experience of co-holding a sacred circular ‘space’ which values the role of everyone’s creativity and wisdom, and the rich and diverse experiences that feed into their spiritual inquiry. It is a space for questions and therefore discovery and one which hopefully nurtures a sort freedom to explore, delve and, crucially, to deeply listen. It is intended to be a kind of sanctuary, safe enough from judgements, to support emerging into authentic presence and selfhood and to relax into the physical body, breath and sensitivity – it is through this sensitivity that we connect with the sacred.’

Thank you Rev Jenny Miller for your time in sharing with us your thoughts on interfaith worship! If you would like to know more, you can contact Jenny on her website www.sundarispirit.co.uk. Jenny’s essay is also available to download here >>.

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