My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Sunday, 22 September 2013

A Common Word...and World Interfaith Harmony

In September 2005 Pope Benedict XVI gave an address at the University of Regensburg, where he had once been Professor of Theology, on Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections. Part of this Regensburg address, as it became known, was taken as provocative and insulting by certain parts of the Muslim community, and sparked mass street protests in many Islamic countries. Pakistan called on the Pope to retract what it called “this objectionable statement.” The Pope apologized to Muslims and assured them that the passage quoted did not reflect his own views. 

Relations between Muslims and Christians at that time were stormy and deteriorating. Into this climate a letter was launched, printed in The New York Times in October 2007, signed by 138 leading Muslim intellectuals and scholars. It extended a hand to the leaders of the world’s Christian churches and denominations, including His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, in a call for peace and harmony between the two religions worldwide. The letter, “A Common Word Between Us and You”, outlined the basis of this offering, in the spirit of the shared doctrine of love of God and love of neighbor on which dialogue could be opened.
The handshake was symbolically returned within just over a month, in a letter known as the Yale Response, also published in The New York Times (accompanied by the release of an Arabic translation in the United Arab Emirates). It was written originally by four Christian scholars, and then endorsed by more than 500 Christian theologians and leaders, representing many hundreds of millions of Christians across the globe. 

From this exchange of handshakes has grown an organization based on the expressed purpose to find common ways, in Christianity and Islam, to work together for the social good of all. Grievances are recognized on both sides of the faith divide; it is acknowledged that there are some irreconcilable differences of interpretation on both sides, some difficult questions to deal with.

Sixty leading Christian figures including H.H. Pope Benedict XVI responded to the document in the two years following its issue. A Common Word has been the subject of major international conferences at Yale University, the University of Cambridge, Lambeth Palace, Georgetown University, and other venues. University and college courses have been built around the initiative, it has spawned hundreds of articles and books, won various awards and led to the launch of the UN World Interfaith Harmony Week. Nearly half a million people have visited its official website to date. However, while millions will view the latest YouTube frivolity within hours or days, less than 13,000 have signed up on the Common Word site since 2007 to endorse its intentions and less than 600 people "like" its Facebook page. Now isn't that a tragedy?

We must all hope and pray that the momentum of this initiative is not lost and that the movement continues to fulfill its promise of ever more understanding and respect between these two religions.

Recent events yet again remind us that relationships between the Muslim and Christian worlds are undoubtedly of the greatest importance in forging a more peaceable future for us all, given the sheer numbers involved, and the grievances, differences, prejudices, and caricatures forged out of misunderstandings, which both religions can claim. Nonetheless, other faiths and belief systems must not be ignored. As Professor David F. Ford, Director of the Cambridge Inter-faithProgram has said:
“Our society is not simply secular; nor is it simply religious; it is both religious and secular in complex ways. If it is to work well there need to be huge numbers of conversations and collaborations across religious and secular boundaries.

From the founding of the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 to the latest A Common Word initiative in 2007 and beyond, has much changed? We have certainly failed to prevent dreadful wars and mass genocides, and we live under greater threats than could have been conceived possible a century ago. We have to continue promoting and forging peaceful dialogue between religions, so that we may come to understand that we are as one in our beliefs to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. This will need plenty of work by religious leaders, who bear an awesome responsibility for ensuring that this unifying message of love and peace trickles down to the mass population: because trickle down it must! And it will need responsible media. We need their cooperation and support in spreading awareness of the good work being done by religions across the world, in informing the general public of this huge social capital that seems to be largely unappreciated.

As individuals we are not let off the hook either. We have an equally vital role to play: in building on empathy and compassion, and love for all, seeking our own ways of bridging gaps, building up from grass roots. Think of stalactites and stalagmites meeting, of ideas trickling down through the hierarchies, and growing upwards from the masses, until we reach a point of coalescence, where there is a total fusion of ideas and actions, coming from different directions: 

all working towards the same common good.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Incensed by the verger

Someone asked me today what a verger does in the Church of England - so as well as referring her to the official website of the C of E Guild of Vergers (see also the site for the Episcopal Guild of Vergers) I dug out an article I wrote quite a while ago  for our parish newsletter on the office of verger- combined with some words about incense. It may seem like a strange combination of subjects - but here it is anyway. As a contribution to religious tolerance I guess it is relevant to the extent it may help people understand a little of some one else's religious practices and traditions - read on:

(In)censed by the Verger

Incense – verb – To cause to be extremely angry – to infuriate
                            To perfume with incense 
                            To burn incense as a ritual offering

Incense - noun – an aromatic substance such as wood, gum or spices that is burned to produce a sweet smelling perfume (which may or may not be found pleasant according to your point of view!).

The Office of Verger (Virger, Custos, Sub-Sacrist, Serjeant of the Vestry, or even ‘Church Mouse’) is an ancient one and means ‘He who carries the Virge before the procession’. 

The ‘Verge’ or Virge is the rod of office (Latin - Virga; Old French-Vergier).

Incense could include for example camphor, cedar, clove, frankincense, jasmine, myrrh, musk, nutmeg, rose, sandalwood – to name a few. Numerous web sites offering many different types of incense and incense burner testify to its general popular usage but it is also employed widely for the purposes of religious worship,

Incense was used in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome and is mentioned in the Old and the New Testaments. It is also found in the major religions of Asia. The Babylonians used it while praying in the 6th and 5th century B.C. and the Greeks used it as protection against demons during the 8th century B.C.  When exactly it was introduced into the religious services of the Church it is not easy to say, but the earliest clear record of its use in public worship in the Roman Catholic Church is c.500 AD. By the command of God, Moses built an altar of incense on which the sweetest spices and gums were burnt, and the references to it in the New Testament would suggest an early familiarity with it in Christian worship.

With its perfume and high-ascending smoke it is symbolic of the Christian prayer which, enkindled in the heart by the fire of God’s love and exhaling the odour of Christ, rises up as a pleasing offering in His sight.

The Office of Verger

Vergers are committed Christians dedicated to serving Our Lord Jesus Christ and his Church.  There is a Guild of Vergers within the Anglican Church, founded in 1932, that exists to promote Christian Fellowship and spiritual guidance among vergers and to organise training in the work and for the ministry of vergers in all aspects. Its Patrons the archbishops of Canterbury and York take a very keen interest in the Guild.                   

In the Middle Ages a verger might have needed to use his virge to keep back an overenthusiastic crowd from the personage he was escorting.
However, the Verger’s duties have developed over the centuries, and now combine tasks which were often carried out by other individuals.

Today, Vergers can still be seen in their ceremonial role in many larger churches, university and school chapels and cathedrals, where they still carry the Virge and ceremonially precede the religious participants as they move about the church, for example moving to the pulpit to preach or the lectern to read a lesson. At local parish church level the role will vary greatly from parish to parish, and could include behind the scenes management of and preparation for worship and the care of vestments etc. and generally to be available to assist the incumbent and visiting priests in any way that may be required. Often this will include the setting up of services such as weddings and funerals, and of course the clearing up afterwards when everyone else has gone home!

One unusual duty traces back to the traditions connected with Pancake Day and the Pancake race.  In 1634 William Fennor wrote in his Palinodia "And every man and maide doe take their turne, And tosse their Pancakes up for feare they burne." But the tradition of pancake racing had started long before that. The tradition is said to have originated in the town of Olney in the Midlands. It is said that in 1445 a housewife from Olney was so busy making pancakes that the curfew bell took her completely by surprise. She ran out of the house to church still carrying the frying pan in her hand.
The Olney race is still held today; in fact, it has now gone international. Since 1950 the people of Liberal, Kansas, USA and Olney have held the "International Pancake Day" race between the two towns. The winner is the first woman to reach their church; she gets a "Kiss of Peace" from the verger there (who is presumably male!)  Perhaps the Olney tradition should be resurrected in Limpsfield with male contestants!!

It has also been known for the verger to act as the Thurifer – she who looks after and  passes the censer (the vessel containing the burning incense) to the priest for him to incense the altar or other object such as a coffin, saint, crucifix for example as appropriate.  Not forgetting the Virge to keep back the overenthusiastic crowds –

And this, I think, is where we came in!!