Interview: The Christian Muslim Forum 15 November 2013
As part of our interfaith special, we speak to Julian Bond, Director of the Christian Muslim Forum that issued their ‘Religious Festivals Statement’ in 2006 and headed the #StGeorge4All campaign. Here he reflects on his experiences, the achievements of the Forum and the challenges of working with faith, diversity and pluralism.
JB: The Christian Muslim Forum began as the Archbishop’s Initiative for Christian-Muslim Relations, within the Church of England. Our first chair was a bishop in the Church of England, with chairs revolving every two years for our first five years.
However, we later took the decision to treat the co-chairs equally, thus moving from a representative of one faith taking the lead role to joint leadership. This better fits our ethos of equality of both faiths in our organisation. The co-chairs are drawn from our presidents.
The presidents are mainly clerics or scholars, or high profile interfaith practitioners. We are conscious that some of these positions are less likely to be held by women (or not held at all). We took the decision to improve the representation of women in the Forum, appointing our first female Muslim president in 2010.
The status and recognition of presidential candidates is important so that people of both faiths can be satisfied that recognised leaders/spokespeople are included in our organisation.
I am still in the process of producing an article on the significance of having a Muslim chair of an interfaith organisation which began as an initiative within the Christian community.
OR: Muslim and Christian leaders are drawn from diverse strands within both faiths. Why is this important and how does it affect interfaith cooperation and understanding?
JB: As both faiths are diverse it is vital that their diversity is represented. This brings benefits within our organisation; we can listen to a variety of voices and not be dominated by a single tradition. It also enables us to engage with the diversity of those outside the Forum and facilitate our communication. It is also helpful to have traditions represented which have significant similarities across the faiths. However, the greater significance is that we have a sense of bringing the broad range of both faiths into our dialogue and are able to engage more effectively with issues that have a particular impact on some traditions. Our diversity draws us together across faith differences; in both faiths we have a wide spectrum of theological positions and these can be quite similar to each other, even though central doctrines are very distinct. This was very evident in our internal conversations on same sex marriage where there was a wide range of views amongst both faith groups. As we are non-sectarian we explore what we are able to say together with agreement while also highlighting areas where we have different views which do not prevent us from working in harmony.
OR: How do you reconcile the zeal of personal faith with the need to work together? Aren’t the two drives, faith and pluralism, exclusive?
JB: Our faith encourages us to work together and we are committed to pluralism; our outlook on our society is pluralistic. Nevertheless we retain the exclusives of our faith. It is the zeal of personal faith which drives much of our work and relationship-building amongst ourselves. We developed the ‘Ethical Witness Guidelines’ precisely out of this space. Faith and pluralism go together.
OR: How have the accomplishments of the Forum matched your expectations as director? What practical effects do you see from the Forum in the future?
JB: Some of our achievements, such as the guidelines above, productive gatherings of leaders and other resources that we have produced have been exactly what I hoped the Forum would achieve. However, it is my nature, and the organisation’s, not to be satisfied when there is more to do.
In our work we seek to increase the number of those supporting and participating in our initiatives, some of our events are very well supported; with others we struggle to find sufficient participants. We are seeking to encourage more Christians and Muslims to work together practically at a local level and are aiming for this to be a very significant part of our work, through our Near Neighbours programme.
One way in which we have sought to extend the scope of Christian-Muslim reflection beyond the usual participants is by holding Christian-only events, a new departure for us. We have now held three in the last two years, all of which have been very successful and well-attended.
We have also found, in another change of approach, that linking with significant days in the calendar has generated additional interest, e.g. St George’s Day (23 April 2013, patron saint of England) and national Eid greetings from the churches to the Muslim community at the end of Ramadan 2013.
OR: What is the single most practical effect you have seen from the Forum?
JB: When I first answered this question 18 months ago, I wrote that the biggest effect of our work had been the positive response to and media interest in our ‘Religious Festivals’ statement (first issued in 2006). This arose out of secular concerns in the UK that celebrating, or even referring, to Christmas could be offensive to people of other faiths. Our statement responded to these concerns and generated a huge media interest, including outside the UK. The statement’s impact continues each year at Christmas-time and it has begun to change attitudes.
Revisiting the question now when the Forum has embraced the use of social media (including blogging), I would point to the launch of ‘When Two Faiths Meet’ (our Christian-Muslim marriage guidelines and report) launched during Inter Faith Week 2012 and our #StGeorge4All campaign.
In recent years we have seen increasing cooperation between churches and mosques encouraged by the Forum but also by our partners at the Islamic Society of Britain, Muslim Council of Britain and the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board.
OR: Do you have any final words about the Forum and Christian-Muslim relations?
JB: The challenge for interfaith is prophetic – to disrupt the norm and urge us to practice our faith by changing society creating harmony. Faith is for everyone, not against people. This is our vision; we aim to create safe spaces showing the best of our faith and encourage good relationships.
An important part of our work is to persuade people to engage with ‘the other’. In doing this we are not creating anything new. One of the first Christian-Muslim dialogues took place in the Prophet Muhammad’s masjid (mosque) in Madinah.
From our beginnings we were very keen to point out that the impetus for our work could be found in the riches of each tradition.
We do not want to be the optional extra, but to show what Christians and Muslims look like when they respond to their traditions, when they live up to the values of their founders.
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