Learning to share sacred space across the divides

By Simon Barrow
August 19, 2013
Religious buildings can be, and usually are, regarded in a very 'tribal' and territorial way. Yet at its heart, the religious impulse (if it is to be saved from the destruction its distortion can so easily produce) is about discovering the universality of the divine in the midst of our particularities.

Certainly, Jesus broke apart and challenged the ethnic and faith divides of his day, using as his supreme exemplar of a goodness a person from the 'wrong' group, a religious heretic. Calling a Samaritan 'good' was not something a highly pious Jew of his era would settle to readily.

For this reason, as Richard Rohr once wonderfully put it, "in my exclusive devotion to Jesus I have had all my religious exclusions fundamentally challenged."

That was one of the thoughts in my mind as I listened this evening (19th August 2013) to the Rev Canon Dr Isaac M Poobalan (St John the Evangelist, Aberdeen, Scottish Episcopal Church) and Dr Emad Jodeh (University of Aberdeen, a leader in the local Muslim community) discuss the extraordinary experiment in their home town: a place within a Christian church for Muslims who would otherwise have nowhere to go to pray.

What follows is the 'live blog' that I made as the conversation unfolded. I am sure I have missed nuances. I hope I have not misrepresented anything or committed major omissions. I found the discussion profoundly hopeful. It revolves around questions like, "What does it mean to pray?". "what does it mean to give ourselves to God?" and, "What does it mean to be neighbours in faith as well as in practicality?"

My overall reflection is that the way one handles crossing religious divides is conditioned to a large extent by whether one sees religion as a matter of right behavour and prayer, or right formulation and proposition.

Ultimately, I would hope that the two would go together. For a Christian, good doctrine provides the truthful grammar of faith in practice, and is never to be despised (as so easily can happen according to the liberal spirit). Nevertheless, there should be a sense in which we can and must hold what we passionately believe to be true in a way that remains open, rather than closed, to 'the other'. If not, we turn 'truth' into a prison or a weapon.

That said by way of a personal introduction, here is one take on how the conversation went:

"It was the first Friday in December, and a bitterly cold day in Aberdeen," the Rev Canon Dr Isaac M Poobalan said, introducing the move in ownership at St John's in Aberdeen to a charity. The sequence of events that followed involved a local businessman finally converting a room in the new church centre as a prayer room.

It was then that the people of St John the Evangelist, Aberdeen, came to the realisation that this could mean people of another faith community coming close to them, in their midst in fact, for the purposes of prayer.

Dr Poobalan said that he felt mixed emotions when he met Muslims praying in the care park while Christians had a comfortable space. Something needed to change, he believed.

Inter-personal relationships, the character of the historic building that was being converted, and other concerns came to the fore. It was a true challenge of faith and hope.

Dr Emad Jodeh, meanwhile, has been living in Scotland since 2007. "For me as a Muslim, it is not an issue praying in a church," he said, "but I have a problem with Muslims praying on the streets or outside the mosque... because it becomes a matter for applause." (There is a similar concern expressed in the teaching of Jesus about praying to attract attention, rather than as a matter of devotion).

Dr Jodeh gave some historical examples from Yemen, Palestine and elsewhere of space being made for Christians to pray, and effectively for communities around churches and mosques to co-exist peacefully.

"If there are moves for people to use religions for their own end, that is a problem," he added. In so saying, he affirmed the side-by-side relationship of Muslims and Christians.

The difficulty, he suggested, was that some people in Europe had built up an image of Islam that was negative, and they saw events in the light of this.

"Has there been any initial hesistancy and resistance to these developments [in Aberdeen]?", asked the Rev Dr Harriet Harris, who was chairing the conversation.

Dr Emad Jodeh responded that statues (including those in graveyards) and the presence of alcohol on the premises would be a problem for Muslims and an obstacle to prayer. Thankfully, he added, the pictures in the church were not immediately visible when he prayed -- as this would violate the prohibition on images.

The Rev Canon Dr Isaac M Poobalan said that "the call to love God and love your neighbour... that was the basis upon which I first responded... and hence I wanted to do something."

One initial response to the situation of the effective homelessness of local Muslims in relation to a place to pray regularly was, "that's not our problem." But the understanding of hospitality shared from his Middle East experience by Christian biblical exegete Dr Kenneth Bailey opened up a different response.

In the first instance, it was important that the use of common space for prayer should be established as a voluntary one. No-one should be forced, and people should certainly not be made to pray together.

The Church's Tractarian heritage included images (not least a stained glass window of the resurrection). Some artefacts could be removed. Others had to be lived with in different ways. It was not a case of trying to outlaw each others' traditions, but of accommodation to different sensibilities.

The call for prayer was another issue. "Hearing it inside St John's... it felt something is happening beyond our reach. It felt right, holy... that this is where we are meant to be," said Dr Poobalan.

Likewise, he asked a Muslim about his feelings about the the stained glass window of the resurrection facing Mecca. "What stained glass window?" was the response. "It does not bother me, I am praying to God. It is a face of prayer...".

"Prayer mats were rolled up during the week... It was not a problem, until it got out [in the media]," Dr Poobalan said.

An audience member asked about the resonant impact of the Aberdeen experience in Abu Dhabi, given the oil industry link. Has this been mutual?

"The mosque and the church were already side by side," replied Dr Jodeh. "The impact has been good in Aberdeen. It is a relationship of humility rather than money or oil or gas."

Dr Poobalan said that the folk on the vestry were not primarily concerned with the oil industry, but with being Aberdonians and members of the Episcopal Church!

As part of their own history, Episcoplians were at one time not allowed to pray in numbers of more than four to six in Scotland, he recalled. The history of sacrifice and the pilgrim calling of a people on a journey therefore shaped their response.

How can we prevent the hijacking of our faiths for sectarian purposes, the speakers were asked? "How can churches and mosques defend themselves, and what's being done?"

The Daily Mail had followed up a Passiontide press conference with the Press and Journal, and this did produce some angry responses from some quarters. Since then, "other people have tried to identify what has happened with the mosque and church in Aberdeen as some kind of solution to the world's problems," said Dr Poobalan.

Actually, he suggested, the issue is local calling, finding faith at a deeper level - making the love and mercy and graciousness of God real in lives as well as in the petition of the heart. "If we make our lives what we believe and vice versa, that is all we need."

"We did not have any problems from Christians," added Dr Jodeh. "There are some groups, they use the name of Islam" who have difficulties, he said. "But as Muslims we do not compete with Christians... it is the opposite: we want to build good relations. As a Muslim I have to do good... If others have problems, that is not my problem."

Dr Poobalan went on: "Who I am is certainly shaped by my parents... by living side-by-side [with Christians and Muslims]. Growing up and living and working together influenced me... and spending four years in Abu Dhabi... Hospitality, that's where our faith becomes more meaningful and purposeful - rather than what we are told we should believe. God made a beautiful garden, and two beautiful people to live in it... that is still in God's heart. During Ramadan this year, I fasted alongside my brothers. I went to the Gospels, and found that Jesus assumed that all religious people fasted..."

"At the Feast of Atonement I realised, fasting is about at-one-ment...". He added that he wanted to be both strongly committed to the Christian faith and to neighbourliness, not to the idea that these are antagonistic.

An audience member, a Muslim, said that he and his brothers and sisters are praying five times a day for all the Abrahamic faiths - Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

In Glasgow, St Mary's Cathedral is dedicated to Mary, who is a significant figure for many Christians and Muslims, an Episcopalian from the congregation there noted.

But what of those who opposed this sharing of sacred space in Aberdeen? Mostly they used Christian language, with a lot of hostility on social media. The loudest opponents were extreme groups from the far right. Hard-line Christians objected to what they saw as syncretism.

"You are denying the Holy Trinity", some said. But this was not at all the understanding of the Christians involved. It was about opening a space for encounter with God in prayer, not doctrinal disputation.

"When Jesus' summary of the law into love of God and neighbour becomes the basic, fundamental factor, then things change... I'm not trying to resolve all the doctrinal arguments," said Dr Poobalan.

Some negative responses were essentially legalistic, reducing religion of the heart to mere contending arguments. Others were rooted in deep suspicion of neighbours, or misinformed impressions.

There were also Muslims who opposed the move to share space in the church, objecting to its images and what it represented, added Dr Jodeh.

Responses in the local Presbytery were mixed, and an attempt at the Kirk's General Assembly to stop church buildings from ever being used by other faiths failed, one respondent from the Church of Scotland in Aberdeen noted.

Praying alongside one another and praying together are different activities, it was pointed out. Some are comfortable or at least accepting of the former, but not the latter. Genuine encounter is about neighbourliness and spiritual openness, not an attempt to abolish difference or disagreement within and between faith communities.

At the end there was an important exchange about the role of women. What if the priest at St John the Evangelist had been a woman. Would this have made a difference? It was acknowledged that because of the history of both faiths, it could have. But Dr Jodeh made it clear that he would have responded in the same way.

Just Festival, also known simply as Just, where tis conversation happened, runs from 2-26 August 2013. It is based at St John's Church, Edinburgh, and some 27 other occasional venues, and combines artistic and performance style events with conversations, talks, films exhibits and other ways of exploring how to live together creatively in a mixed-belief society.

Just Festival, also known simply as Just, runs from 2-26 August 2013. It is based at St John's Church, Edinburgh, and some 27 other occasional venues, and combines artistic and performance style events with conversations, talks, films, exhibits and other ways of exploring how to live together creatively in a mixed-belief society.

* Full booking details for the migration discussion here (http://tinyurl.com/n3hz2fq), or buy a ticket at the cash box office at the venue.

* For more information on Just Festival, visit http://www.justjust.org and http://justfestivalnews.blogspot.com

* Ekklesia is a sponsor of Just Festival. Our news, reporting and comment is aggregated at: www.ekklesia.co.uk/justfestival

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia and a media adviser for Just Festival. He is a theologian and writer, and has a background in ecumenical and interfaith engagement.
Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.