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A new method of dialogue

Interfaith discussions and studies are fine - but are we asking the right questions? By Alec Gilmore



With an ecumenical movement which for 50 years has been encouraging everyone from Catholics to Quakers to familiarise themselves with other traditions, Christians are not unfamiliar with inter-church dialogue. Overall the response has been positive but has recently stalled, as in a cul-de-sac, which is not good news as we find ourselves in a new world where the zeitgeist has moved on from inter-church to inter-faith.  

While some will yawn and some (for good or ill) will see it as a convenient escape from unfinished business, the more thoughtful will ask what the last 50 years have taught us about the process so as to avoid the mistakes of the past. In which case, one question worth addressing is whether we have been addressing the wrong questions? Or maybe failing to ask the right ones?

The situation is not new and there are those who have form on this, notably Anglicans and Catholics whose Friends of Reunion goes back to the beginning of the 20th century but with little change on either side as status quo trumps creative thinking, let alone positive action.

I found myself ruminating on this after attending a seminar at the University of Chichester on 'Jews and Christians in Dialogue', the fruit of research for a major SCM publication, Deep Calls to Deep, edited by Tony Bayfield (click here for review). The seminar, however, was not so much the fruit of the research (too much for one seminar) but the experience of two participants, Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah of the Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue and Stephen Roberts, an Anglican Christian and Senior Lecturer at the University of Chichester. Along with seven other couples chosen by Bayfield, they were paired to explore specific aspects of Jewish-Christian Relationships .

Deep Calls to Deep

Elli and Stephen were given the broad issues of Modern Western Culture. Their remit was not to achieve a particular objective but simply to reflect with each other on their own particular tradition and experience. Starting points might be where are we coming from and how to find a way of talking to each other, one possibility being joint textural study. Two specific points quickly emerged.

One, with Liberals and Orthodox on both sides, how to bridge the gap between them, and on this they found that a joint study of biblical texts, especially those which included the contentious, was a useful bridge.

Two, whatever they discussed, Modern Western Culture always turned up like a Third Partner and this 'elephant in the room' proved vital. The way their different traditions had engaged the third dialogue partner proved especially emotive.

A session spent unpacking assumptions led Elli to address the fundamental question as to what is Judaism and what it means to be Jewish, with some interesting discoveries for her and insights for the rest of us. Stephen was led to a critique of modernity and its impact on the religious community life with issues of time, speed of change, sense of place, meeting and global culture.

An extended discussion which followed was an expression of appreciation not only of the ideas, but also of the method of achieving it, with Elli expressing the hope that the method might become a helpful mode for other similar discussions.

Having questioned at one point whether it was worth a 40 mile round trip for I-knew-not-what, I came away inspired and refreshed and with a desire to share it with others. It is something which could put new life into much humbler, more local and less formal meetings on interfaith matters, which today are of increasing importance.


Image | Unsplash

Alec Gilmore is a Baptist minister


Baptist Times, 08/11/2017
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