Anthea Ballam writes: I’ve been involved in two events, days apart, that shone a searching light on the whole ethos of ‘interfaith’, and served to remind me how important it is to be grounded in love.
After a series of unexpected happenings, I found myself whisked up to the steel and concrete world of MediaCity in Manchester last week, to be a voice on BBC Radio 4’s faith programme – Beyond Belief. The programme turned out to be a powerful and sometimes angry discussion on the virtues of the interfaith movement. It will be broadcast on 20 March at 16.30, and then available as a podcast.
The catalyst for the three-way discussion were events in January when a reading from the Qur’an in Glasgow’s Cathedral involved the telling of the story of the birth of Christ. The reading, which was given by an Imam, stated that Jesus was not the son of God. The fuss that followed was unprecedented, and included a torrent of hate mail, a great variety of very ugly abuse, and also the resignation of one of the Queen’s chaplains, who happened to be one of the guests on the Beyond Belief programme – Gavin Ashenden.
The three-way conversation also included me in my role as an interfaith minister, and Sohaib Saeed, who is a prominent member of the Scottish Islamic community. I already knew Gavin Ashenden, having been on his religious radio programme on local radio in the past. There is, however, a world of a difference between being a polite, if sleepy guest on Sussex Radio at 7am on a Sunday morning, and taking on the mantle of the interfaith cause on a BBC Radio 4 discussion.
Almost immediately, Gavin started with a tirade against the interfaith movement and its ethos, which I was not able to let go. The unfolding argument became more and more angry. Afterwards I began to think that the attack on the interfaith movement could (for some priests) come from a similar defensive impulse as the antagonism towards female ministers and same-sex marriage.
I prayed before the broadcast that what I was going to say would be right, loving, fair and just. The studio discussion lasted one hour, and will be edited down to a 30 minute programme, so I don’t actually know what parts of it will be broadcast. I can only say that I replied to Gavin’s points to the best of my ability, with the guidance I was given.
A couple of days later I read the prayers at a Brighton and Hove Council meeting (in my capacity as Chaplain to the Mayor). I had invited a prominent member of the Islamic Women’s Group to read from the Qur’an, and can you imagine my feelings when she said that she wanted to read the passage of the Qur’an that deals with the birth of Jesus!
After a quick intake of breath, I wrote the following introduction to her reading: “Asmat will be reading a very special extract from the Qur’an, the description of the birth of Christ. This is so important to us for three reasons. Firstly, it shows the difference in perception of Christ in the Islamic tradition, and yet it reveals how cherished and respected he was. Secondly, it emphasises the message that he and his family were refugees. And thirdly, in reciting this version of the birth of Christ, we can, with open hearts appreciate the beautiful difference in our cultures and traditions, and yet still love them for their difference… something that I believe is intrinsic to His teachings. And in saying this, we recall John 15: “This is my commandment: That you love one another, as I have loved you.”
The reading went down well… proving that it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it… and doing it with love makes all the difference.