Published this month, Encountering Islam explores how the Church can improve its engagement with Islam. We asked Richard Sudworth, the book’s author, a few questions.
Why did you decide to write the book?
The book comes from my passion and vocation to work alongside Muslim communities as a Christian minister. The study and research that the book represents reflects my own desire to make sense of how as Christians we can be faithful to our own tradition and yet learn lessons from our past so that the mistakes and violence between the faiths are not repeated. There are so many competing and negative images of Islam that would inhibit Christians from engaging; and conversely, limited accounts of how Christians could minister constructively and faithfully.
How would you sum up your argument in the book?
I guess I am wanting to share resources that have helped me navigate a course that can witness to Christ and also serve the common good. Don’t try and search for some new position, some mythical place of consensus and agreement: dig deep into prayer, worship, the eucharist and our Christian scriptures, and look for Christ at work already as you seek to witness, serve and collaborate with Muslims.
You’ve included ‘Anecdotes from the Field’. How do you think your own experience of the realty of parish ministry has shaped your understanding of Christian-Muslim relations.
I hope my own experience of parish ministry comes through in the “Anecdotes from the Field”. The Church of England seeks to coordinate the specific needs of parishes with significant faith others under the banner of “Presence and Engagement”. To my mind, that sums up the ideals of the parish principle: that we are to be present, and engaged. It’s the stuff of listening, inhabiting and receiving from others that happens whenever one takes seriously the Anglican vocation to place, as well as the doing of witness, service, social justice and the common good.
What examples ‘on-the-ground’ have you come across where Christian-Muslim relations work well?
In terms of models of success for Christian-Muslim encounter, I often cite the experiences of the Springfield Project, a Children’s Centre in Birmingham, which somehow manages to be a safe space for all faiths and none. The many clients who reflect all faiths and none are often struggling with various vulnerabilities, and the staff and volunteers serve them with the utmost professionalism. I’m reminded of a phrase of Rowan Williams that “the poor deserve the best”. In the midst of this environment, the Christian roots to the project are felt in the obvious availability of Christian prayer and the acknowledgement of Christian festivals. Paradoxically, this frees up those who are Muslim to be themselves. A confident and unashamed Christian faith that is not exploitative or self-seeking enables Muslim clients to be more fully who they are as Muslims.
And are there any examples which haven’t worked quite so well?
In my experience, the models of engagement with Muslims that have worked less have often made one of two errors. One error, which often comes from an insecurity about the Christian faith in the public square, is to so load the encounter with proclamation that the encounter becomes exploitative and instrumental. Muslims are being engaged with only because Christians can get something out of them by way of conversion. Our colonial histories should tell us that Muslims will detect any whiff of insincerity in our service. The opposite error is to believe that all issues of difference and conflict should be avoided and that some common ground that lies in a mythical mid-point between Christians and Muslims will establish the best relationship. Such engagements often run out of steam because they veer away from human realities and often neglect the life-giving substance of our respective traditions. These are the “tea and samosas” thin engagements that sometimes get bad reputations on both sides for not truly representing what is at the heart of Christian or Muslim communities. My qualification to the question would be that sometimes Christian-Muslim relations can go bad despite well-intentioned, faithful engagements. For me as a Christian, my responsibility is to risk witness and service, an openness to receiving Christ as much as to proclaim Christ, and even if things get sticky, to be faithful in reaching out beyond the church.
What do you think the future of Anglican engagement with Islam will look like?
I’d love to think that Anglican engagements with Islam could model hopeful and confident grassroots witness and service right across our country, and across the Anglican Communion. Constitutionally, i feel inclined to believe that things are always getting both better and worse. I see so much that can pointed to as good practice, such as The Feast, a charity that brings together young Christians and Muslims to share what is at the heart of their respective faiths in a context where difference is respected (http://thefeast.org.uk/). This charity has grown exponentially in recent years and has outposts in the Lebanon, Switzerland and Germany. These signs of hope will be needed to protect a faithful Christian vision in a context of growing Islamophobia and the ever-present threat of violent extremism.”
What sort of response should Christians have to attacks like the one in Westminster last week?
In my book I suggest that we must expect further atrocities and it is still shocking and distressing to see what happened at Westminster. The first priority for Christians must be one that is disciplined by our discipleship: where revenge and vilification of minorities or religious groups is utterly rejected. It has become somewhat of a cliché to propose a “politics of hope”, but that is something that we must offer. It is not inevitable that our cities be charged by fear or subject to restrictions on freedom and excessive surveillance. It is not inevitable that disillusioned and alienated men seek out extremism. It is not inevitable that violent religious texts hold sway. It is not inevitable that Christians and Muslims must always live in antipathy towards each other. Throughout the country, there are churches that are living well with their Muslim neighbours, and at times like this, their stories of hope need to be told.
Until the end of the month Encountering Islam can be ordered from our website at a 20% discount. Click here for more details.