Working Group on Relations with Other Faiths

The working group sits within the mandate of Uniting Faith and Discipleship and works collaboratively with other units of the team.

1.         INTRODUCTION

Engagement with the diverse cultures and faiths in our wider Australian society is becoming more and more a necessity in terms of Christian mission, theology and relationship. The cultural and religious landscape is no longer just a changing Australian phase but it is now becoming an integral part of our Australian identity. As a church and as Christians we can no longer afford to keep ourselves insular and separate from what our national home has become. Our churches are located within suburbs where there are diverse cultures and religions in both the city and rural settings. Our neighbours are increasingly, Jew, Hindu, Muslim Buddhist, Sikh – rather than Christian. According to Garry Bouma, Anglican priest and Australian sociologist of religion, in his book Being faithful in diversity ‘diversity is the new normal. It has become the new normal in the lives of most people.’ (Bouma, 2011, p. 15) The challenge according to Bouma in dealing with this new normal for Australians is that ‘these issues are relatively new as the society is gradually changing from being mono-cultural to being multi-cultural and multi-religious’. (Bouma, 2011, p. 15)

One of the effects of migration Bouma emphasises is the revitalization of faith brought about by the presence of other faiths in the public space, a claim supported ironically by John Perkins, President of the Australia Secular Party. In a paper titled “Creating a better Australia: reinventing secularism”, Perkins observes,

while society has in many ways become more secular, the public profile of religion in society has seemingly also become more pronounced. As the power of established religion apparently declines, there has been a resurgence in diverse forms of religious expression.(Perkins, 2006)

What has also become more obvious in our work and encounters with people of other faiths is that Australian society is not only made up of people from other religions, but also those who have no claims to faith and who wish to be a part of the dialogue simply because the national space is one that is shared by those who identify with Australia as home. What this effectively highlights is the need for the church to engage with religious diversity in its many varied forms both within the context of local congregations and in the public space. Being faithful as a church in an age of cultural and religious difference involves exploring new ways to understand and engage in mission. This is now being demonstrated in how we form our candidates for ministry, resource our congregations and offer hospitality to those who have a different Faith or those who do not profess a faith.

The RoF WG believes that interfaith relations are an integral part of the mission of the Church. Thereby, the Working Group seeks to serve and resource the church by

promoting knowledge and understanding of other living world faiths and their communities in a multicultural and multifaith Australia.  It seeks to develop wherever possible a commitment to promote respect and tolerance for the integrity for the beliefs of other faiths, cultures and traditions. This desire not only arises from our common humanity but also a desire to live in peace and goodwill as neighbours in our communities and the world.

2.         WHAT WE DO

Provide information, policy and resources on appropriate positive relationships with other faiths to the Assembly.

Raise awareness within the church of the presence of other faiths in the community, and of their particular needs and place in Australian society.

Develop resources that may be appropriate for congregations and other bodies to use in multi-faith discussions and occasions of worship.

Maintain contact with people of other living world faiths.

Provide advice and assistance to all councils of the church as requested.

Collaborate where possible with other agencies and groups interested in multi-faith relationships.

Reflect on the theological basis on which inter-faith dialogue should occur and develop statements and resources for use by the church when working with people of other faiths.

3.         ASSEMBLY KEY DIRECTIONS

The Working Group’s projects and priorities in this triennium are to be viewed as long-term goals. They relate to key areas of the life of the church: Education, Resources and Theology. In this triennium the RoF WG focussed its ministry and mission on the following Assembly Key Directions (b) and (d)

Believing that God is calling us to fresh obedience to be the people of God in Australia at this time, in the coming triennium to:

b) engage in Jesus’ ministry of peacemaking within the world and the church by:

developing resources that will assist our members and councils to develop skills and strategies to live together in peace in a multicultural, cross-cultural and diverse UCA;

working with people of other faiths to promote mutual respect and understanding;

helping our members learn to live and act as peacemakers, as taught and modelled by Jesus;

In addition the Working Group on Relations with other Faiths commits to (d):

(i)   the articulation of our doctrine in a way that communicates clearly to our members;

(ii)   articulate and celebrate our identity as the Uniting Church in Australia;

(iii)  the education of our members to better know, own and share their faith;

The above Assembly Key directions are realised through our various projects and activities carried throughout this triennium and outlined below. They are for us an expression of being faithful in a diverse society as well as seeking and exploring new forms of relating that move the church beyond the old paradigms of exclusivism and relativism.

4.         ROF ACTIVITIES AND PROJECTS IN RESPONSE TO PRESENT AND FUTURE CHALLENGES PEACEMAKING AND MISSION THROUGH INTERFAITH DIALOGUE

Living with our neighbour who is different can either be viewed as a threat or it can be an occasion to offer hospitality and create more respectful relationships. It is an invitation to a fuller Christian life as local communities become committed to the task of peacemaking and the reconciliation that can be achieved in local neighbourhoods and communities. Interfaith dialogue is one way of seeking to live out this commitment to peace.

4.1        Asia Pacific Regional Interfaith Dialogue (RID)

The Asia Pacific Regional Interfaith Dialogue forum is an initiative of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs together with the governments of New Zealand, Indonesia and Philippines. The first of these Forums was held in Yogyakarta, Indonesia in 2004. Each year since then the sponsors have taken turns to host the forum in their region. This growing partnership, between government and religions, signals an understanding by some governments within the Asia Pacific Region that social cohesion cannot be sustained with the strict divide of religion and state. The objective of these forums is to bring people within the region together, to share ideas, challenges and to foster deeper understanding and relationships between faiths. Each forum concludes with a collective statement and a plan of action whereby delegates are encouraged to share with their individual faith communities and to apply the principles whenever possible through action. A member of the RoF WG has represented the Uniting Church each year at the forum. Statements of the Asia Pacific Regional Interfaith Forums can be found here.

4.2        Australian National Dialogue of Christian, Muslims and Jews (ANDCMJ)

The Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) through a representative of the RoF is involved in the Australian National Dialogue of Christians, Muslims and Jews. This is a joint initiative of the Australian National Council of Churches on behalf of its member churches together with its founding dialogue partners, the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) and the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ). The dialogue was officially launched in March 2003. Its purpose is to provide opportunity for the national bodies of each faith to come together to build understanding and harmony in the Australian context. The objectives of the ANDCMJ are:

To be a model of how different faiths can live harmoniously together in Australia

To build understanding, good will and a sense of community between people of different faiths

To explore and learn about each other and our faith traditions

To share our knowledge and insights with others

To work together to achieve common goals in Australia

To support each other in times of difficulty

The ANDCMJ meets three times a year with each faith community taking it in turn to host the dialogue. Discussions are usually based on thematic theological concepts with perspectives from all three traditions. Occasionally and when the need arises the three bodies may make a joint statement of solidarity to the community on an issue of injustice or intolerance. For more information on the ANDCMJ please visit the following website.

4.3        Uniting Church National Jewish Christian dialogue group

This Dialogue has been occurring for 20 years. During the years since the last report to the 12th Assembly the dialogue Group has continued its established pattern of meeting twice a year for a day long gathering in Melbourne and Sydney. The format of each day’s proceedings has also continued as before, with a morning and afternoon session devoted to agreed topics .Normally there is a formal presentation from each side of the dialogue and then discussion will occur in the afternoon. Over the past three years we have covered a wide range of issues: sin and repentance; Easter, Passover; prayer, religion, resurrection and the future; and ‘God- talk’ within a postmodern era. At more recent gatherings we have instituted a more personal time of reflection in which member of the dialogue spoke about what they cherished in their own tradition. We have also reflected upon what value we placed in each other’s tradition

During the last three years it would be reasonable to suggest that the last two years had witnessed a diminishing in tension in the two groups, in particular the issue of Israel/Palestine. In previous times it was frequently raised by the Jewish group, and this quickly led to a defensive and robust apologia for the actions of Israel

4.4        Israel/Palestine Relations 

At meetings in late 2010 and early 2011, the Uniting Church in Australia Assembly Standing Committee (ASC) began to engage with matters relating to Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories in the West Bank, and action previously taken in relation to this by the World Council of Churches (WCC), the National Council of Churches in Australia (NCCA) and other denominations worldwide.

In July, 2011, the Assembly Standing Committee (ASC) resolved, on behalf of the Assembly, to join the boycott of products produced in the illegal Israeli Settlements within the Palestinian Territory of the West Bank. This resolution was made in answer to a call for peaceful action from Palestinian Christians (Kairos Palestine, 2009), and in response to a request and resolutions from the National Council of Churches (NCCA)

Further, the Assembly Standing Committee (ASC) invited church members and congregations to consider taking action with two main purposes. The first, encouraging the governments of Israel and Palestine to move more seriously and effectively towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict between them and second encouraging the Australian Government to use its influence more seriously and effectively towards a resumption of peace talks between Israel and Palestine, towards an end of the occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories and of the blockade of Gaza, and towards a two-state solution with secure internationally-recognized borders, in accordance with United Nations resolutions.  

Rev. Glenda Blakefield and Rev. Gregor Henderson were requested to resource members and congregations as they considered this invitation. This resource would take the form of a kit which would include:

An Information Paper
Question and Answer paper
World Council of Churches (WCC) and National Council of Churches (NCCA) resolutions
A Moment of Truth: A Word of faith, hope, and love from the heart of Palestinian Suffering (Kairos Palestine, 2009)
Jews and Judaism: A Statement by the Uniting Church in Australia Assembly 2009   and ‘Light Eternal’ a Study Kit
Response Form

These resources can be found here.

At the time of writing this report these resources have been distributed throughout the church and there has been no adverse reaction in the Uniting Church or the UCA Jewish Christian Dialogue.

Muslim religious practitioners were happy to be a part of the consultative process for the development of these resources as were Jewish religious representatives. Robust discussions occurred regularly with representatives of the Jewish faith in the development of these resources.

4.5        Women’s Interfaith Network (WIN)

The Rev Sef Carroll and Wilma Viswanathan are Uniting Church members of WIN.

The Women’s Interfaith Network (WIN) is a gathering of women of different religious traditions who meet and work to promote harmony, understanding and respect among the followers of the various world religions.  It operates from a conviction that mutual understanding and respect for different religious expressions proceed from building personal relationships, co-operation and discussion.  The Core group meets in the NSW Parliament House every month.  Win has representatives from Aboriginal, Bahai, Buddhist, Christian, and Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Zoroastrian and Quaker communities. At WIN meetings members report on functions they have attended and issue invitations to special activities of their faith group or of their own family and friends to which WIN members are invited.  Most of the agenda, however, is to listen to members talk about chosen topics from their own faith perspective.  Topics over the years have included – Ceremonies, practices  and rituals connected with death and dying, prayer, introducing a favourite book, or passage or article from members’ faith traditions, role models who have influenced members in their faith journeys.  The present topic is:  the contribution of each member’s faith towards peace in the world. These talks are followed by questions and lively, but sensitive discussions. A number of members participated in the Parliament of World Religions in Melbourne in 2009. They have also attended interfaith conferences in universities, major venues in Sydney and interstate.   WIN members support each other by attending activities of each other’s faith groups and even personal celebrations and rituals such as funerals, baptisms/blessings, and celebrations to mark special occasions. All WIN members are leaders in interfaith conversations in their own communities. 

4.6        Strengthening relationships at the local level

The RoF WG members are active practitioners. Most are involved in interfaith activities, dialogue and projects in their respective Synods. These projects and activities can be accessed through the Assembly RoF website or directly through the Synod website in each state. The RoF WG meets annually to share stories and challenges arising in each Synod as well as plan the work of the WG for each year.

4.7        Resources

As part of our commitment to being faithful in discipleship while also being able to celebrate the myriad of differences within our society, one of RoF’s integral tasks is encouraging friendship with people of other faiths within the local neighbourhood and beyond. The WG is therefore committed to providing resources for the church either through its website or the provision of visual aids, reading material and tool kits. The following resources are those developed within this triennium.

4.8        Interfaith September

In September of each year congregations within the Uniting Church in Australia are encouraged to create a community of hospitality, conversation and friendship with people of all faiths within their neighbourhood. Beginning with the launch of ‘Interfaith September Sunday’, (4th September 2011) congregations will be invited to select an activity to complete throughout the month. This might be as simple as completing a four-part book study or as ambitious as hosting an interfaith festival. Resources for several potential activities are available on the Relations with Other Faiths website. Throughout the following weeks, congregations will be taken on a journey of reflection across the anniversary of September 11, the International Day of Peace, and how these themes relate to interfaith relations. The month will culminate in congregations bringing their chosen activity to live on ‘Interfaith Community Sunday’; when neighbours become friends and a deepened understanding of each other blossoms.

Congregations are invited to explore and celebrate the development of these friendships in the presence of diversity and difference through:

Interfaith September resources for ministry agents

Resources for worship, themed for each Sunday throughout the month

A ‘tool box’ to assist congregations with their chosen activity

A DVD to facilitate interfaith engagement

4.9        Joint work with other units of Uniting Faith and Discipleship

In 2006, the Uniting Church in Australia National Working Group on Relations with Other Faiths produced the DVD ‘Getting Started: Why engage in interfaith relationships?’ It was followed by another production in 2009 titled, ‘Neighbourhoods of Difference: The Uniting Church in Australia and Interfaith Relations’ which, was launched at the Twelfth Assembly in July 2009. In 2011, the Working Group began work on another educational resource, partly a collaborative effort with Multicultural and Cross Cultural Ministry.

This new DVD may be used by study groups, individuals or congregations who wish to ‘dip their toes’ into interfaith engagement. While previous DVDs have answered the questions of why we engage in interfaith relationships, and the what and how the Uniting Church works in this area, this new DVD will focus more on individuals’ personal faith journeys. It asks of interviewees ‘why is interfaith interaction important to you’ and ‘where is it found it your journey of faith?’

It is hoped that viewers of the DVD will come away with an understanding of the multiple possible motivating factors for interfaith engagement, by having heard about the personal experience, personal reflection, and initiatives of the individuals featured.

By watching this DVD, it is hoped that, in some small way, viewers will have an interfaith experience. This is an important function as some viewers, for a multitude of reasons, may be limited by circumstance in their ability to meet and form friendships with those of other faiths.

It is hoped that members of the Uniting Church will view this DVD and be encouraged to explore their own faith. It is also hoped that the DVD will appeal to those outside the Uniting Church, and be of benefit also to a broader/wider audience.

5.         ROF INVOLVEMENT IN THEOLOGICAL EDUCATION

Although the Working Group is not directly involved with theological education offered by the Uniting Church’s theological colleges, it supports the value and importance of offering courses on religious pluralism and Interfaith Dialogue as a means of strengthening competencies and skills in relating cross culturally. The United Theological College offers the following two courses, Christian theology and religious pluralism and Interfaith Dialogue, both of which are taught by the Chairperson   of the working Group on relations with other Faiths and a member of the  working Group Rev. Matthew Wilson. Both courses are offered as electives every second year and are open to lay, ordained and candidates for Ministry. The Interfaith Dialogue course was well attended when it was last offered in January 2011 as a week-long intensive. This course deals with both aspects of interfaith dialogue – the theory and the theology and the practice of interfaith dialogue. As part of the course students are introduced to different religious places of worship as well as meeting and conversing with practitioners and theologians of other faith traditions. Feedback received from those who attended the course was very favourable and affirming, highlighting the need for opportunities to learn and acquire skills and competencies in cross cultural living.

6.         OTHER INTER-FAITH CONVERSATIONS

As part of the working groups’ commitment to respond to the challenges of living in a multicultural and multifaith Australia, the group has begun a series of conversations with the Hindu Council of Australia, sharing in faith forums and participation in local harmony day events. These events can be developed in response to a violent occurrence in a local community. The Hindu community has been targeted by racial violence in some local government areas.  Early discussions have also begun with the Buddhist Council of Australia.

7.         THEOLOGY OF INTER-FAITH RELATIONS
FRIENDSHIP IN THE PRESENCE OF DIFFERENCE:

As part of our operational guidelines to ‘reflect on the theological basis, on which inter-faith dialogue should occur and develop statements and resources for use by the church when working with people of other faiths,’ the Working Group undertook the task of revising the 2000 resource “Living with the neighbour who is different.” The resource received in 2000 at the 9th Assembly from the Doctrine Working Group was also developed into a study booklet. It has proved to be a very necessary and successful theological resource for the church. As the resource was written prior to September 11th, the Working Group on Relations with other Faiths  felt it was time to reflect theologically on its implications in the Australian context and to take into account the changing scholarship post September 11th. This theological reflection process began in 2007 with a joint colloquium between the Working Group on Doctrine (WGD) and Relations with Other Faiths which laid the foundation for further exploration. In 2009 the Working group on Relations With other Faiths (Rof) agreed to commission the Rev Dr Keith Rowe to author another statement on interfaith relations on its behalf. This process began in early 2010 with ongoing conversation with the Working group on Doctrine (WGD), the Working group on Relations with other faiths, (ROF) and other appropriate parties, including a variety of cross cultural participants and interfaith practitioners. The result of this process is a resource to be presented for consideration at the 13th Assembly titled “Friendship in the presence of difference: Christian Witness in Multifaith Australia

Working Group on Relations with other Faiths: members
Mr Geoff Boyce, Rev. Dr Manas Ghosh, Rev. Heather Griffin, Rev. David Pargeter, Rev. Marie E Wilson, Rev. Matthew Wilson

RoF Executive
Rev. Seforosa Carroll (Convener), Debra Porter, Wilma Viswanathan, Rev. Glenda Blakefield (ex-officio)

We wish to thank all the members of the Working Group on other Faiths for sharing their considerable expertise as practitioners and scholars in various areas of interfaith endeavour throughout Australia. We also wish to thank the administrative and educational project staff for their innovative, committed  and enthusiastic work in support of  the work of Relations with other Faiths. We give thanks to God to all who give of their time to this Working Group.

Rev Seforosa Carroll
Convener

Rev Glenda Blakefield
Associate General Secretary

 


 

APPENDIX 1

 

FRIENDSHIP IN THE PRESENCE OF DIFFERENCE: CHRISTIAN WITNESS IN MULTIFAITH AUSTRALIA

Executive Summary

This paper, is a follow up to a paper received and commended to the church by the Ninth Assembly (2000) prepared by the Doctrine Work Group, “Living with the Neighbour who is Different: Christian Vocation in Multi-faith Australia.”  This paper mindful of the changed global context after the events of September 9/11 is written to encourage UCA members and congregations to continue in the work of developing neighbourly relations with people within our multi-cultural society who are shaped by other faiths. It finds its natural home within the consistent desire of the UCA “to be a pilgrim people serving the reconciling and renewing purposes of God” (BU par 3).

Friendship is described as human relationship marked by respect, empathy and care, a cluster of qualities that approximate to Christian love. Engagement in respectful and thoughtful inter-faith exploration and growing friendship is welcomed as part of the church’s desire to participate in the healing and renewal of a human family created and loved by God, but sadly bearing the marks of human violence, injustice and misunderstanding. Engagement in such dialogue and developing friendship is built upon a fresh appreciation of the servant way of Jesus and the significance of the Christian understanding of God as Trinity.  This is the theological heart of the paper.

Friendship in the presence of difference is regarded as being a central Christian attitude and value. Engagement with those of other faiths is welcomed as a pathway on which we may rediscover the heart of the Christian way while also being enriched by wisdom others have to share. Distortions that have crept into Christian living and believing often become apparent in informed conversation with those who believe differently. Friendship in the presence of difference can be a significant doorway into the renewal of Christian discipleship and theology.

The paper makes reference to important issues of evangelism and pastoral care in a multi-faith society and affirms that if our society is to be built on firm and humane foundations the wisdom of the different faiths needs to be welcomed and engaged with at all levels of society. 

Every part of the church and every theological and spiritual stream within the UCA, together trusting in Jesus Christ as Lord and in the power of the Holy Spirit, have a positive and thoughtful role to play in the promotion of friendship in the presence of difference.

At its inception in 1977 the UCA expressed its intention to be a Pilgrim people serving the reconciling and renewing purposes of God.[1] The 1977 “Statement to the Nation” declared that the union of the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches in Australia was to be understood as “a sign of the reconciliation we seek for the whole human race.” [2] In the years since, through statements and actions across the Uniting Church, it has sought to work out the implications of this Gospel vision. In 1985 the reality of the UCA as a multi-cultural church was acknowledged and welcomed. In 1988 the Assembly rejoiced in the vision of a multi-cultural society “based on commitment to the ideals of equality of opportunity, tolerance, justice and compassion.” In 1994 the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress and the Uniting Church in Australia entered into a Covenant committing them “to discover what it means to be bound to one another in a covenant,” and “to work for the advancement of God’s kingdom of justice and righteousness in this land.” [3] In 2010 the Uniting Church in a new Preamble to its Constitution recognised the church’s complicity in injustices done to Aboriginal people and acknowledged that “the First Peoples had already encountered the creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony. The same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways.”

The Assembly Task Group on Relations with other Faiths was formed as part of the church’s commitment to reconciling and renewing mission in 1988. The 2000 statement made key theological and missional statements that have stood the test of time and provide guidance for the church as it asks what it means to be followers of Jesus Christ in the presence of people of other faiths. 

  • “God is calling us to engage in conversation with people of other faiths.” “The development of hospitable and respectful relationships with those of other faiths is a proper response to Christ” who “calls us to live in harmony with all other people and so contribute to a world of peace, justice and hospitality.”
  • “Christians are called to love the neighbour who is different.” The movement from exclusion to the embrace of neighbours who are different is of the essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Christians discover the will and power to enact this gracious embrace of the neighbour as they become more deeply immersed in the indiscriminate love of God.
  • “God has placed the contemporary church in an ideal situation to engage in genuine dialogue with those of other faiths.” We no longer relate to those of other faiths from a position of assumed political and social superiority. From nearer to the margin of society we are free to relate to other people as servants of the unifying, reconciling purposes of God revealed and embodied in Jesus.
  • “God delights in diversity and seeks unity.” Diversity, woven into the heart of creation, is a gift of God. The unity God intends for humanity does not destroy difference but weaves difference into a single human mat.
  • “The Spirit is present in all of life.” “No part of life, no person is without the influence of the Holy Spirit…the Holy Spirit is present through the whole fabric of the world, yet is uniquely present in Christ and in the fellowship of Jesus’ disciples.  It does not follow, however, that the life and work of Jesus exhaust the work of the Spirit or exclude the presence of the Spirit in other faiths.”[4]
  • “The Centrality of Jesus Christ in Christian believing is not to be compromised” when we engage in interfaith dialogue.  Christ is the foundation of Christian believing and living. We live “in Christ” and our way of being with others should be consistent with the way pioneered by Jesus.

The 2000 statement invited the church to repent of forms of evangelism that reflected imperialistic ways of living and believing.  It suggested that as we move outside “our safe envelopes” to encounter God in the one from whom we differ, we may discover “the frontier of our own renewal.” In commending the statement to the church, Assembly requested that the “Uniting Church recognise as part of (its) mission in Australia at this time, the importance of fostering neighbourly relations with people of other faiths.” In a post 9/11 world with its polarising tendencies this has become an even more urgent task.

The 2009 Assembly adopted a significant statement on “Jews and Judaism.” The unique and binding relationship between Judaism and Christianity was recognised along with an acknowledgement and repentance for the many ways through which Christians over the centuries have contributed to the suffering of Jewish people. Reference is made to anti-Semitic attitudes promoted by Christian scholarship, embedded in Christian theology and cemented into Western life. This statement contributes to the Church’s ministry of reconciliation and renewal. It makes it clear that facing our own complicity in evil is a painful but necessary step within a ministry of reconciliation. Changes in the church’s liturgical life, interpretation of Scripture and theological formulations are all required.

In 2010 The Relations with other Faiths Working Group commissioned Keith Rowe to write an updated statement.  The title of this statement, “Friendship in the presence of difference”, is carefully chosen.  Real differences do exist in humanity. The gospel imperative calls us to live in friendship. Individual and corporate friendship robs difference of its power to divide, to foster distrust or to sanction violence. Friendship in the presence of difference is a gift greatly needed both in the Christian community and within the human family as a whole. The word ‘friendship’ is chosen because it includes a sense of growing relationship, empathy, warmth and care for others. While we may rejoice in similarities among the affirmations and wisdom of the various religions we do not want to deny the existence of very real and important differences. World religions differ in their understanding of the Divine dimension within life, the purpose of our living, the nature of human fulfilment and what it means to live together in a world of many faiths.  Our Christian uneasiness in the presence of difference is something we need to recognise and address. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it well: “In our interconnected world, we must learn to feel enlarged, not threatened, by difference”. [5] The possibility of the religions and people of religion being able to contribute to peace rather than conflict in our world depends on the capacity to relinquish the desire for uniformity based on what serves our comfort or power.

In spite of the pain we may feel at religion-based divisions in our world and nation we live within a gentle confidence that God uses human efforts in the fulfilment of God’s purposes. While all the great religions may be in need of renewal, re-establishing contact with life affirming, peace-loving, justice seeking and unifying impulses that brought them into being our concern is to identify and remove the log in our own eye in the spirit of the words of Jesus: “why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matt.7:3). We are particularly saddened when persons and groups claiming to speak in the name of Christ vilify those of other faiths, deny them the rights others enjoy or use them as scapegoats when addressing society’s problems.

Interfaith friendship is both an important contribution to communal peacemaking and an important doorway into the renewal of Christian discipleship. In friendship with those who believe differently we are faced by sharp questions that drive us to a re-examination of our own faith and rediscovery of treasures in our own tradition that have been lost or become misshapen. It is a common experience that in the act of “crossing over” into the ritual or thought world of those who believe and live differently, and then returning again into the Christian community with new questions and insights, our faith is enriched and deepened. Often we are made aware of how through unthinking adherence to inherited or popularly held beliefs or attitudes we have effectively denied the way of Christ. 

Our most important task in the presence of other faiths is to rediscover Christian discipleship, as a reconciling, prophetic, hospitable way of life, as a witness and sign of God’s loving purposes for all humanity. Christianity has often been captive to perspectives which regard other religious traditions as inferior. These perspectives are not compatible with the servant way of Jesus and the peaceable kingdom to which the church bears witness.

The Christian confession that Jesus is the revelation of God has a central place in Christian theology and impacts directly on our behaviour towards others and in particular those who follow other paths. The central convictions of the church hammered out in a series of councils in the fourth and fifth centuries remain as primary markers in the church’s theological understandings regarding Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and the Trinitarian nature of God. The tragedy is that the Imperial auspices under which these councils were held tended to determine how the results would be interpreted. Titles applied to Jesus in the context of worship and that function as vehicles or symbols of commitment and devotion became used to suppress and /or deny the presence of God in other religious traditions and to imply the worthlessness of alternative wisdom. The servant way of Jesus, amply demonstrated in the Gospels and witnessed to by Paul, (Phil 2:5-11) was obscured as the church became a servant of Roman imperial power and Jesus came to be regarded as a reflection of an all-powerful and deified Emperor. The essentially counter-cultural emphases of the Gospels and of the Apostle Paul were lost as the church became infected by imperialist aspirations. In the early church Jesus’ status as Lord, Saviour and Son of God was a counter-cultural affirmation of the servant way of Jesus in comparison with the imperial power of Emperors who were described in the same terms. However, by the 5th century Jesus had been co-opted to serve the Empire’s search for power. The servant way through which Christians are to serve the purposes of God was largely repressed and instead the church sought numerical, financial and imperial success. Those of other faiths came to be regarded as enemies of Christ and in many cases were deemed to deserve death. Jesus, the servant of God’s loving purposes, became the judge before whom the faithful cringed or sought support through the prayers of his mother. The linkage between Christian doctrine and imperialistic behaviour needs to be broken if the Christian community is to be renewed in the faith of Jesus and enabled to contribute to the human adventure in a reconciling, healing, Christ-like manner. On the way to Jerusalem the disciples argued who would have the places of honour in the Kingdom of God only to be reminded that the way they were on was the path of the servant (Mark 10:35-45). In interfaith encounter we are called to be midwives of reconciliation rather than imperial judges of those whose way differs from ours.  It is patient and demanding work.

Christian openness to truth within other religious perspectives arises from our understanding of God as Trinity. The Trinitarian understanding of God is frequently misunderstood in interfaith conversation but it is our way of affirming God to be present within life as creative energy, present in Jesus and within the human adventure and as the spirit of unity drawing individuals and communities toward their fulfilment in love, justice and peace. God is present within the human struggle for fuller life and wherever love is served and life in community maintained. Understanding God in Trinitarian terms enables us to recognise there is plurality and relationship within the very life of God. To understand God as an emperor-like judge and ruler is to deny the essential revelation of God as love expressed in and through Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The life giving, healing and unifying God witnessed to in the symbol of the Trinity invites us to build trusting and life enhancing relations between the religions and to work together for the healing of the world we share, each contributing the wisdom and strength bequeathed to us through the same Spirit. A consensus is emerging among Christian theologians that the doctrine of the Trinity provides the church with the larger theological framework we need when considering other faiths and the positive role they play within the purposes of God. God, it seems, paints on a larger canvas than the one we have designed or inherited.

What of Christian evangelism? An important element in genuine friendship is the sharing of gifts. In genuine multi-faith friendship we share what matters most to us as people nurtured within a particular faith. The gift we bring as Christians is the good news of God’s love for humanity and for every individual as embodied and proclaimed in the ministry and continuing presence of Jesus Christ. This is our ministry of evangelism, our sharing, living and witnessing to the good news that has claimed us and within which we live. We share what matters most to us while also learning to appreciate what matters most to our friends. Both partners open themselves to greater truth and the broadening of the horizons within which they live. While learning from others we who follow the way of Jesus also have a gift to share for the revelation of God in Christ is distinct and has universal importance. While desiring the conversion of others to the way of Christ and his way of salvation we recognize that our words and deeds are not sufficient. When conversion occurs it comes when people led by the Holy Spirit respond to the grace of God. The way of living proclaimed and embodied in the ministry of Jesus needs to be woven into human living if the human family is to survive. The manner of our sharing the good news will always be consistent with the graciousness of the news we share. Hospitable friendship is the appropriate context within which we might share Christ and expand our understanding of the one who for us is life giver and embodiment of fulfilled humanity.

There are important pastoral dimensions to life in a multi-faith society.  The movement of peoples between religions is likely to increase through inter-marriage and as people discover the riches within other perspectives or become disenchanted with what they inherited.  The welcoming and farewelling of those who come into the life of the church or who move to another faith is an issue that needs to be explored with sensitivity.

The Uniting Church in its understanding of itself as a servant of the renewing and reconciling purposes of God and committed to the well-being of Australian society, is well placed to make a strong contribution to the development of friendship in the presence of difference among the many faiths and cultures in our society. Each congregation in its own area and each church member in their work and in their neighbourhood have a role to play in this vital task. Our doing needs to be associated with an ongoing reflection on what unnecessary roadblocks we place in the way of interfaith friendship. Synods, Presbyteries and Congregations need to be discussing these matters and sharing discoveries and hopes. Throughout the world Christians are engaged in an important and respectful discussion about what it means to live and believe as a follower of Christ in a divided world of many faiths, cultures and diverging hopes. It is less important that we arrive at a single view on these important matters than that we explore the issues together assisting one another to act in ways that are consistent with the servant way of Jesus.

A democratic society requires that diverse religious groups be invited to speak their deepest and most thoughtful truth into the public arena. In our judgement society needs the mature and thoughtful wisdom of the religions. For this to happen religious groups need opportunity and encouragement to live from and contribute to society from their deepest wisdom nourished in worship and reinforced in their own faith communities. The UCA supports the formation of religion based schools and community/worship centres that contribute to the maintenance of specific religious identity and the flourishing of the common good. We encourage UCA schools to develop neighbourly and supportive relations with schools of other religions.

The formation of interfaith councils, the provision of educational opportunities and the mixing of religions in the workplace suggest positive signs that Australians are learning to accept the reality of a multicultural and multi-faith nation. For many though it is not an easy journey. Prejudice, scapegoating and misunderstanding often prompted by isolation from people of other faiths or lack of knowledge of these other ways are still too common. Negative attitudes often feed on events and perspectives generated in other lands and brought to our shores via the media or within the scarred lives of those who have lived in places shaped by religion-fuelled conflict. UCA congregations and agencies have a role to play in encouraging informed discussion and reconciling action and challenging racist behaviours masquerading as law-abiding patriotism. We have a particular pastoral ministry to those who have come from lands where Christians are persecuted and not surprisingly find it difficult to move from distrust to friendship in the presence of difference.

CONCLUSION

As a church we are grateful for our developing friendship with those of other faiths. Christians have deepened their understanding of God and of the tasks we face together in our divided world in friendship and conversation with people of other faiths. We look forward to developing deeper friendships and discovering ways we can live together generously and work together for the common good.

We encourage politicians, decision makers and opinion shapers in commerce, industry and the media to grow in sensitive and accurate knowledge of the faiths within our society. Where religious beliefs contribute to conflict and division, we ask our national leaders to strive for understanding and reconciliation among those whose beliefs differ. We believe that lasting peace in our world is not possible unless the religious dimension of life is recognised.

Each part of the Uniting Church is invited to make the building of friendship in the presence of religious and cultural difference a priority missional objective. Whatever theological or spiritual stream of the church’s life we belong to we all have a positive role to play. Trusting in Jesus Christ as Lord and in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Uniting Church commits itself to cultivating friendship in the presence of difference.