Recently we congratulated Rev Sue Emeleus who graduated D. Min. in Canberra. (Dr Emeleus is shown with Dr Emeleus at Dr Emeleus’ graduation!) Previously Sue spoke of what motivated her commitment to interfaith dialogue. In the following panel contribution at the Asia Pacific Interfaith Forum on Women, Faith and a Culture of Peace Sue describes How Inter-Faith Dialogue happens in the Women’s Inter-Faith Network (WIN) in Sydney.
In August 1999 the Catholic Bishops in Sydney organised an interfaith conference. A Muslim woman looked around the room at the end of the conference and said “Wouldn’t it be good if we met regularly”. A Jewish delegate, Josie Lacey, took up the challenge and requested that regular meetings be held in Polding House where Sr Trish Madigan, another delegate, had her office. The first meeting was held in October 1999. The Movement was officially launched at Parliament House in March 2001, with Dr Rachel Kohn the keynote speaker.
The group set about writing a Constitution which you can find on WIN’s website http://www.fecca.org.au/Interfaith/index.html Very early in their meetings together, Rev Helen Richmond set out some principles in an address she gave:
Whether we are first, second, third or fourth generation migrants to this land we are all relative new comers in comparison to the Indigenous people who have been here for 40 000 years or more. We begin by acknowledging indigenous custodians of place where we meet. “Let us pause to give thanks for those who cared for this land since time immemorial and ask the Creator for wisdom to learn another way of relating to each other in this land.”
Max Warren, an early Christian voice for interfaith dialogue said: when we approach people of another culture or faith we should first take off our shoes for the place we are approaching is holy ground.
We live in critical times when the relationships between our faiths have been threatened by violence.
(Speaking about her Christian tradition) Much of what we inherited from our history and tradition is not only wrong but is dangerous. We need to critique our tradition to see if it is liberating good news.
One important way we can work towards peace is to build relationships between people so we begin to truly see, hear and know each other. It is a humanising endeavour. It involves learning to trust one another, letting the “other” who is different, whom we have learnt to fear or despise, or, at best, just tolerate, be embraced as a fellow human being…We need to take seriously our differences, but also to see beyond our differences to our common humanity; to celebrate the variety of God’s creation.
How our Sydney WIN group Works
At present we meet in Parliament House for two hours, on the fourth Thursday morning of each month.
WIN members come as individuals, representing their Faith, but not representing an organisation. We receive funding from no other group, and are not part of any other organisation. Other organisations that do not engage in dialogue have invited us to join them, but so far we have resisted. We have, however, accepted the hospitality of FECCA for the purpose of setting up our web page.
We have tried different denominational venues, but all feel more at ease in a venue that does not belong to any of us. It required having a sympathetic member of the Parliament House staff. Other groups have found local councils to be receptive of the idea.
Membership is limited to two members from each faith group, or sub group, ensuring that all are represented and heard, and that no single Faith dominates. Others may come as observers, with the agreement of all members (we communicate regularly by email), but it is hoped that after observing the way we work, such observers will be encouraged to set up their own WIN group. On a number of occasions we have had journalists as observers.
Our Constitution requires a convenor to stand down after two years, but a convenor may return later for another two year stint. Convenor and secretary are elected annually at the AGM meeting. We do have a treasurer, but there has been little cost involved in any of our activities.
We begin with a short period of silence, introduced by one of our members (usually our Hindu member, Mataji, who has been with the group since the beginning.) I feel during those “minutes of silence” that there is a Presence palpably with us.
The first hour of each meeting is usually taken up with reports of activities that members have attended, and descriptions of future activities to which members are invited. A highlight has been attending celebrations of each faith, or special inter-faith gatherings, as you will see on the slides.
The second hour is vital. Each topic is addressed by a different member in turn. It took my first two years to finish hearing about the spiritual journey of the person speaking. There is no confrontation or debate, but deep listening and open ended questions which allow the presenter to give more of herself and her understanding of her own faith. At first we had two speakers in the second part of the morning, but as our confidence in each other deepened, we realised each speaker needed at least an hour.
We took another year to hear what each member’s understanding of Prayer was from her Faith’s perspective. Death and Dying took a similar time, and we recently finished many months’ exploration of Mysticism. As long standing members have begun to leave and new members replace them, we sometimes return to earlier topics.
On occasions we have organised larger multicultural events. The one at Government House in 2005 (our Governor Marie Bashir is most sympathetic, and an MP was chair for that day) resulted in the formation of a number of new WIN groups. At that function, each faith group performed an item of singing or dancing or something characteristic of that faith. You can see from the slides that people went to a huge amount of trouble to prepare and present the most delightful array of items.
The photo of a large group of those inter-faith members at Government House is an indication of the closeness of the women who come.
Sub groups of members have also worked together to present forums or panels in such places as high schools who wish to add something to their religious studies programme. Students are invited to submit questions which any panel member may address from her faith’s perspective.
My own participation
Inter-faith dialogue is not something I heard about in my own Anglican Church in Sydney. When I took a break from Anglicanism one Sunday, I visited a Quaker meeting in Wahroonga. In discussion at morning tea, one of the Quaker friends asked if I would like to join the Sydney WIN group as they did not yet have an Anglican. In my six years there I have formed deep friendships, and learnt a great deal about my own faith as I have had to think through many issues. Of course I have also come to understand and appreciate much about other faiths as well.
When I preached my first sermon in the church where I now work on Sundays, a number of my friends from WIN came and added a blessing in the liturgy. In the slide you can see the group with me and my Anglican priest colleague. My church at Paddington is wonderfully inclusive in their attitudes to others. But it is not typical of Sydney Anglicanism.
The Importance of Dialogue
a) First, some quotes from Laurence Freeman (Director of World Community of Christian Meditation)
Faith can only deepen and mature in dialogue, and through the attempts to share it. Fear of dialogue is the virus that breeds intolerance, and ultimately unleashes verbal or physical violence against those different from us.
(After a pilgrimage with others of different faiths) Our pilgrimage gave us that taste of the first fruits of that new friendship between religions which must be the defining characteristic of this new millennium.
No text is sacred if used to abuse, violate, or trivialise humans and other earth creatures.
b) Leonard Swindler’s ground Rules for Inter-religious dialogue.
The primary purpose of dialogue is to change and grow in the perception and understanding of reality and then to act accordingly.
It is necessary that each participant enter into dialogue across the faith line, but also with one’s co-religionists. (I have found this latter group to be much harder to dialogue with than my inter-faith group).
Each participant must come to the dialogue with complete honesty and sincerity.
Each partner must assume a similar complete honesty and sincerity in other partners. No trust: no dialogue.
Each partner must define herself. Only the Christian can define from the inside what it means to be a Christian. But as I learn, I will change and hence continually deepen, expand and modify my self definition as a Christian, being careful to remain in constant dialogue with other Christians.
Summary so far
Dialogue is the defining characteristic of WIN.
Multicultural events are not dialogue, although they may include some.
Groups with a disproportionate number of any one group do not encourage honest dialogue.
Dialogue as described here is a long, fairly slow process. In eight years we have not seen more than one new group per year, on average. But the members of these groups are also members of countless other groups, so the fruit of our dialogue may be hard to measure just yet.
Our friendships have deepened, we care about each other’s families, we attend each other’s celebrations and family events. And each of our own faiths has deepened.
We are always interested to hear about other groups, and how they work.