Through interfaith work to community cohesion in Birmingham

Reflections on a six-week internship in interfaith work in Birmingham (UK), its challenges for faith communities and its importance for wider community cohesion in a superdiverse society.

Our globalised society becomes more and more cultural and religious diverse on a local, regional and global level. Therefore, this diversity must be taken into account whenever universal norms and aspects of global ethics are considered. But this diversity is not only something to consider on a theoretical level, which the last article on this blog was about, but it is something which influences our daily life. Very often we quite naturally accept the positive aspects of this, like a wider range of culinary possibilities, while other aspects are received less positively and can lead to conflicts in our societies. Examples for these conflicts are the ongoing discussions about burqa bans in Western Europe or the recent row over the education on same sex relations in a Birmingham primary school, to mention just two. Both examples highlight challenges for community cohesion in our diverse societies with direct implications on a local level.

For this reason I was very fortunate to spent six weeks in February and March this year on a placement (internship) with the Director for Interfaith Relations for the Bishop of Birmingham. During this time, I could experience interfaith work in one of the most religious and cultural diverse regions in Europe and learn more about the challenges and opportunities of cultural and religious diverse communities on a local level.

After a short overview about my activities in Birmingham, I will focus my reflections on the connections of interfaith work and community cohesion, on possible tensions through this work in Christian communities, and on the importance to include people of no specific faith into interfaith engagements. Finally, I will close with some thoughts on the importance of the concept “love your neighbour” for community cohesion and on a possible problem with the term “interfaith”.

Exploring interfaith Birmingham

The area of the Diocese of Birmingham covers the city of Birmingham, the second most populous city in the UK, and further parts of the West Midlands and has a population of nearly 1.5 million people. The whole diocese is highly cultural and religious diverse with around 25% of its population belonging to a faith other than Christianity and further 20% affiliating themselves with no faith at all.i For this reason, this superdiverse diocese, where all world’s faith are present, is the only Anglican diocese in the UK to employ a full-time Director of Interfaith Relations as the Bishop’s interfaith advisor.

As part of my internship I visited 12 so called “Presence & Engagement” (P&E)ii parishes, interviewed 10 members of the clergy and one missionary, and talked to many more ordained and lay people. The parishes I visited where situated all over the diocese between Blackheath in the West and Hodge Hill in the East, Handsworth in the North and Hall Green in the South. (See map below.)Diocese of Birmingham2

Thus, my internship covered not only large parts of the urban areas of the diocese but also very religious, cultural and ethnic diverse areas. Here are some examples:

  • In the parish of St. Paul, Blackheath, live “only” ca. 13% people of a faith other than Christianity, but 23% people of no faith and 20% with BAME background. The nearly 60% Christian population is divided into 12 different denominations.

  • The population in the parish of All Saints, Small Heath, is ca. 75 % Muslim.

  • In the area of the missionary outpost Christ Church, Sparkbrook, there are 80 % people of a faith other than Christianity and 72 % live in the parish of St. Christopher’s, Springfield. In both cases, the people are mainly of Muslim faith but with significant minorities of Hindus and Sikhs.

All these four parishes are in deprived and socially difficult areas.iii

  • Very different examples are the parishes in the bohemian and mainly middle and upper class suburb of Moseley, St Mary and St Anne, with 32% respectively 42% of the population being of a faith other than Christianity, again mainly Muslim with significant Hindu and Sikh minorities, and in addition 20-27% of people of no faith.

Besides my time in the parishes, I spent one week with the charity “The Feast” in Sparkhill, which works with young people of different faiths in schools around the city, doing holiday clubs and other activities. For its work The Feast developed the Guidelines for Dialogue, to give young people some guiding how to talk openly and positively about their faith and to make friends across cultural and religious boundaries.

I was also able to attend a faith leader conference at the Progressive Synagogue Birmingham, two sessions of an Abrahamic faith-leaders learning community at the Central Synagogue Birmingham, many more different meetings with my supervisor and to visit two Gurdwaras, two mosques and the Al-Mahdi Institute, a Shia research institute.

Challenges in interfaith engagements

Birmingham is not only a multicultural city with people from nearly 200 countries, but also a city quite segregated by ethnicity and/or social status. English is not the first language in some neighbourhoods and approximately 50,000 of Birmingham’s inhabitants don’t speak English at all. Riding on a bus in areas like the Stratford Road between Sparkbrook and Sparkhill felt a bit more like being in South-East Asia than just 3 miles South-East of the Birmingham city centre. It was there for the first time since living in South Africa, that I travelled as the only white person on a bus on several occasions. Other areas of the city like Sally Oak in the South-West have a mainly white population or are quite mixed like the before mentioned Moseley where the population is not segregated by religion or ethnicity but by social classes.

This segregation means for Christian parishes in mainly Muslim areas, that maybe 50 people meet for a Sunday service in a church, which was built at the end of the 19th century for 450 people, while the mosque a few streets away with a capacity of 3,500 people is nearly full for Friday prayers. In such a situation, one would not be surprised to find dwindling Christian congregations feeling in a state of siege and while there are congregations who feel like that, this was not the situation I mainly encountered in Birmingham.

Instead, many members of the clergy and of the congregation are more concerned about the wellbeing of their neighbours and community cohesion in their neighbourhoods, leading them to active engagement and ongoing considerations how they can participate and serve their mainly non-Christian communities. To reach these aims, different parishes choose from a wide range of different interfaith engagements like organising various kinds of interfaith groups on a grass root level, running English classes or running whole community centres including nurseries and community services. An immanent and several times by clergy explicitly mentioned theme in all these activities is the mission of “the cure for all souls” inside the parish boundaries, and a self-conception of the clergy as an “honest broker” for the whole community. Both concepts are closely connected to the special role of the Church of England as the established church in England.

But while these kinds of engagements make an important contribution to community cohesion, they can lead to internal tensions. For example in parishes belonging to the more evangelical tradition in the Church of England – these parishes constitute the majority of P&E parishes in Birmingham – tensions develop around the so called “great commission”. The great commission is the instruction of Jesus to his disciples after his resurrection, reported in the gospel of Matthew (28:16-20), to spread his word to all nations and make them disciples. Evangelical theology traditionally emphasises this Bible passage as applicable to all Christians and thus it is taken very seriously, especially by Christians from this tradition as an integral part of their Christian identity. But how can this instruction go together with serving the community and working for community cohesion?

Both aims depend on the acceptance and active support of the non-Christian groups in the community. Obviously, this support cannot be expected when the major aim behind the engagement of the Christians is always the evangelisation of their neighbours.

Most evangelical Christians in P&E parishes are well aware that active evangelisation and interfaith work to serve the community and support its cohesion cannot go together. They know that they cannot engage authentically with their neighbours when always having a hidden agenda of evangelisation in the back of their minds. They know that as soon as non-Christian communities would become aware of an open or hidden agenda of evangelisation they would withdraw their support to all activities and would stop their members to engage with the Christian parishes. Any chance of a positive contribution to community cohesion would be unthinkable of.

In his book “Vibrant Christianity in Multifaith Britain” Andrew Smith offers a way out of this dilemma. Being an evangelical Christian himself, he takes “the great commission” seriously while putting it into context of Jesus’ most important instruction, to love your neighbour. He establishes an awareness for people who are the “target” of evangelism and for their communities. He asks his fellow evangelical Christians how they would feel, if they would be ripped out of their usual social and cultural setting or if one of their leaders plus some members would leave their congregation to convert to another faith. From this perspective Smith asks, how evangelisation and the instruction to love your neighbour can coexist.

Part of the answer is based on his own experience through his work in interfaith relations. He explains that talking about ones own faith in a positive way to people to whom you have a friendly relation is acceptable to most people of other faiths, can be very enriching to your own faith and still allows for yourself to believe in your faith as the true and only way to God. Furthermore, it still allows for wishing that your neighbour or friend could see this truth and could also follow the way you follow. But because all this happens in a positive atmosphere, it invites the person of another faith to do the same, to talk about their faith in a positive way, and to express their own wish for you to follow their path to God, which is for them the true and only one. Nevertheless, many evangelical Christians still describe this tension as an ongoing discussion and process of negotiation in their communities.

People of doubt or no faith

While interfaith engagement by definition is about people of different faiths meeting, talking and working together, several encounters made me aware of the importance to take two other groups of people into all considerations. One group are people of no faith, the atheist and agnostics. The other group, which I call “people of doubt”, are people who may identify loosely with a faith but have many doubts about what and how they believe and who have difficulties with identifying with one specific religion. The reason to include these two groups is twofold.

People of doubt or of no faith are already part of interfaith engagements, because they also see the importance of interfaith engagements for society cohesion and for the development and education of children in a superdiverse society. But these people get easily into situations where they feel pressured when attending interfaith activities. This happens through the assumption by the majority of the participants of interfaith activities, that every participant belongs to a particular faith and leads then to conclusions like being white and British means being Christian. Through this, people of no faith or of doubt get into situations where they are identified as specific religious people and may feel quite uncomfortable with correcting this assumption because of group dynamics. This can even be the case with people, who are normally quite confident about their beliefs and doubts regarding religion. A comparable problem arises when there are prayers been spoken or a grace is said over a group before or after an event. People of no faith may be among the group without being noticed and are now patronised through praying over them. The same applies to people of doubt, who may also feel uncomfortable with prayers being spoken over them or being included in a specific form of prayer. Of course, an awareness for this diversity will make the whole situation more complicated. But the conclusion must not be to drop prayers or talk about faith on interfaith meetings at all. Obviously this would not make much sense. But the awareness could lead to different kinds of prayers, maybe moments of silence instead of formulated prayers or at least a short announcement before a prayer starts to give people the chance to opt out of the situation. In my opinion this is the same awareness, which one already encounters with regard to Christian prayers, when people of other faith are also present in the group. In these situations many Christians choose to pray just to the one God without mentioning the trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) explicitly, which makes the prayer quite acceptable at least to many Jews, Muslims and Sikhs.

My second reason are negative comments made to me about people of no faith. More than once people of faith argued that they prefer relations to people of another faith than to people of no faith, because people of no faith promote their atheist beliefs aggressively and that they have much more commonalities with people of another faith than with people of no faith. But is this true?

While there are of course aggressive atheists, who see religion as a problem they have to fight against, many people who call themselves atheist or agnostic are not aggressive about their beliefs at all. Fundamentalists can be found everywhere, in religious as well as secular circles and to generalise from particular encounters with people of no faith who behaved aggressively, makes fruitful future encounters with people of this group difficult. But one should consider that sometimes one might share more values with people of no faith than with people of faith, whether of ones own faith or a different one. Values like gender equality, LGBT+ rights, religious freedom and human rights in general may sometimes have a wider acceptance in secular parts of the society than in specific religious ones and these commonalities may be more important to oneself than a common belief in the effectiveness of prayer or the existence of God.

Love your neighbour

Our societies’ trend of becoming more diverse won’t change in the next decades. While the speed of this development varies between the countryside and smaller towns on the one hand and big cities like Birmingham on the other hand, it comes together with the unavoidable trend to urbanisation. In the future, more and more people will live in more diverse communities and the diversity of cities like Birmingham will even increase. In the 2021 census it is expected for the city that the minorities will become the new majority

While this diversity can be beautiful and bring many opportunities, it is also absolutely challenging for community cohesion, especially when it is combined with deprivation, like in many neighbourhoods with big immigrant communities. Therefore, the interfaith work in Birmingham is an essential factor for community cohesion and a peaceful future especially in these neighbourhoods. Whether this work is done by grass root interfaith groups, community centres run by parishes, charities like “The Feast”, who bring the future generations together, or faith-leaders of different faiths studying their scriptures about different topics together, all this leads to people getting to know each other, building relations and starting friendships. People who get engaged with each other in this way are on the path to establish bonds of love with their neighbours. Diverse societies need more than just superficial contact and tolerance between diverse groups of people to keep the peace within them.

We are reminded of this fact especially this month with the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide as one of the most horrific examples for a complete breakdown of community cohesion in human history.

Knowing ones neighbour, sharing meals and having real and trusted relationships are the best way to achieve real community cohesion. Through these relationships a bond of love can be established, which is resilient against challenges and cannot easily be destroyed by populist and demagogues who need the diversion in societies for their success.

These engagements with people from a different faith or culture can lead to tensions in ones own community, as the example from the Christian evangelical traditions shows. But this should not discourage anybody from getting involved in interfaith work for many reasons. For Christians it is one way of fulfilling Jesus’ instruction to love your neighbouriv and every religious person can grow in ones own faith and spirituality through these encounters. Additionally, I would also emphasise the ethical necessity of this work for a peaceful future for diverse societies and finally one should not forget, it is after all real fun.

But to reach community cohesion, all people willing to engage need to be included in this work. Therefore, especially when interfaith events are combined with social action but also in general, an awareness for people of no faith and people of doubt is important. If they feel pressured or patronised because of missing awareness, they might not stay engaged in the future. This could make it necessary to think about terminology.v “People of no faith” still believe in something positive and do not define themselves only through the delimitation towards people of faith as believers in God. They may believe in the common humanity of all humans, the ability to reason or something else, which may not or is not supposed to fit in any religious category. So the term “people of no faith” understood as people without any belief can be derogatory and problematic. This obviously leads to the further question, if the term “interfaith” is a suitable term for the overall aim behind it, namely to love your neighbour. But this is a question for further thought.

Final Note: 

I am tremendous thankful to my supervisor Dr Andrew Smith and the Church of England Birmingham for making this internship possible. It was a fantastic experience. Furthermore, many thanks to everybody else I have met during this time, whether they were people of faith, people of no faith or people of doubt. Thanks to all of you for your hospitality, and your openness and willingness to share with me your faith, your beliefs and your interfaith experiences.

All data is taken from the Presence & Engagement website of the Church of England, which is based on the UK census 2011. (http://presenceandengagement.org.uk/birmingham; last access 19/04/2019)

ii A P&E parish is a Church of England parish in the UK, where more than 10% of the population self-identify in the census as being of another faith, and which is therefore part of the Church’s Presence & Engagement program. (http://presenceandengagement.org.uk/content/about-presence-and-engagement).

iii  The data regarding the social and economical situation in the parishes comes from the look-up-tool on the website of the Church Urban Fund. (http://www2.cuf.org.uk/lookup-tool; last access 19/04/2019). Many thanks to Fr. Julian Sampson for the recommendation of this tool.

iv  Six more reasons for Christians to get engaged in interfaith work by Rev. Tom Wilson can be found here: https://scmpress.wordpress.com/2019/04/08/7-reasons-why-im-involved-in-interfaith-work/

v  This question was inspired by the discussion at my final presentation in the Church of England office in Birmingham on 19/04/2019. Many thanks to all participants.

Feature Image Copyright: Birmingham Skyline by Barnyz is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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