In recent decades, theology and religious belief have become simultaneously more public and more personal than ever before. People have the option to decide for themselves which faith, or none, they believe, while social media has allowed discussion on religious matters to take place between groups of people who previously would have never interacted.
At the recent Thinking Faith conference at Cumberland Lodge, members of the Church of England came together to discuss the role of public theology, and in particular the role of the Church, in modern, multi-faith British society. Two things stood out to me during the debate, both related to the idea of diversity.
Firstly, it struck me that represented in the room was a very diverse set of people, conversing with each other and sharing their opinions. Although all members of one Church, there were people from many different backgrounds and circumstances, who had different ideas and approaches to their faith. This is the case throughout the Anglican Church, which includes a wide range of traditions and people.
It is certainly true that the Church of England faces new challenges in existing within modern society. However, while listening to the various discussions at the Thinking Faith conference, I felt that already in the Church there are relationships built between people who approach their Christianity in diverse ways and hold differing opinions, and yet are united by the values that they hold in common. Taking this ability to unify through diversity, the Church can meet the challenges of modern society using the skills which it already possess, such as finding common ground and acting upon it. Peace, harmony, and social justice are values around which both religious and secular society can partner to create a better society for all.
Secondly, a strong theme of the discussion was the assertion that multi-faith sensitivity does not mean the eradication of self and the denial of one’s own beliefs. Multi-faith sensitivity is often understood as a feeble kind of religiosity, or that recognizing the validity and importance of other religious groups somehow decreases the value and legitimacy of one’s own. Yet I felt that the testimonies of several speakers during the conference showed that this is not the case. One person described a program in which faith leaders from Judaism, Islam and Christianity were meeting together. Although the initial stages of the program had been challenging, the rewards of building dialogue between the various groups had shown the importance of the project for all involved. Working across religions can both help to better understand one’s own faith and to engage meaningfully with those from other faiths. While listening to several presentations, I reflected that holding the tension between being distinctive and inclusive is a position which takes a lot of work; one must be well rooted in one’s own faith teaching while also taking the time to understand that of others.
I felt the discussion demonstrated that recognizing the commonalities of various faiths is not the same as declaring that all religions are inevitably identical. Rather, appreciation and discussion of differences and commonalities allows for an honest relationship in which commonalities are celebrated and built upon, and differences understood and respected. As one speaker put it, it is possible to be avowedly Christian – or of any other faith – without being triumphalist or exclusionary. It is possible to be both outspoken, and respectful.