Friday, June 09, 2006

Oxford's 3rd Friendship walk for peace

Thursday, 8 June,evening: Part two of a day of Interfaith connections

I was fortunate with my transport connections when I returned from the Interfaith Marriage & Families Consultation at Birkbeck. I managed to get back to a warm and sunny Oxford around 6pm, which gave me time enough to grab an iced fruit crush at 'Coffee Republic' and then join the peace walk gathering at the Oxford Synagogue, which was the starting point.

It was not difficult to spot with hundreds of white balloons floating above the crowd. The format of the evening's event was simple: it consisted of prayers, refreshments and walking. At it was focused on the Middle East, it had naturally an emphasis on the 'Abrahamic Faiths' of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. However, among the generally greater numbers this year, I could discern quite a few more Buddhists, including a monk from Thrangu House, and a monk and nun chanting and striking a peace drum from the Nippon Myohoji temple in Milton Keynes plus several members of Rissho Kosei-Kai.

The organisation, mainly through St.Mary's Church, was marvellous, especially considering that the original date was around the 24th May (which actually turned out to be rain soaked) so everything had to be rescheduled from scratch.

It's a light-hearted walk, a much needed contrast to the dark heavy clouds that hang gloomily, seldom alleviated by any of the mass media. As we went along, we even got waves from the University's Central Admin offices. It would be nice if somehow you could keep hold of the good will and develop projects then and there. Although this doesn't happen (yet), there are many conncetions and people make new friends.

For myself, I bumped into Chris, new intern for the International Interfaith Centre, with whom I hope to share some ideas about developing the IIC Web site - it's time to overhaul it's ancient design of more than 8 years old, whilst keeping it informative and maintainable. At about the same time I met Martin, who it turned out had written a letter in the Oxford Magazine, to which I had wanted to respond. Now I could do so in person! We chatted a little about where there are special places in churches for meditation etc.

On a more domestic note, I connected with one of artists in Art Weeks, who has Austrian ancestry and she was sharing important information about Sacher Torte (chocolate patisserie) in Vienna - there is apparently the officially designated coffee shop, but that's not where you can find the best! As we came along Broad Street, an elderly Lancastrian lady came along to join us - she couldn't walk very far "unless the weather's cold" so just accompanied us to Radcliffe Square, in front of St. Mary's. I think this was typical for the day.

We proceeded down the High [caused a few traffic jams], and finished at the Central Mosque, where there were further prayers and plenty of refreshments. Gradually the crowd dispersed, the white balloons to be seen scattered across the city as people wended their way home.

Interfaith Marriages network meeting

A few months ago, I listened to a presentation by Heather al-Yousuf and Rosalind Birtwistle on interfaith marriages, particularly about the Inter faith Marriages Network. The work is sponsored by Churches Together, which indicates that this is not a fringe activity, but has become a core concern, reflecting the fact that many marriages are with partners from another faith background.

I had shared a little of my own interest in interfaith and mixed faith background and was subsequently invited to join this consultative meeting on Thursday, down at Birkbeck College, London. [I managed somehow to get there on time, even though I got my local bus times wrong, changed my mind about catching the Oxford Tube (it's taking a long diversion to avoid roadworks in Headington), missed a fast train to Paddington; and when I came out of Euston Square tube station I headed off in the wrong direction until I looked up to see where the sun was! Anyway I arrived safely.]

It was quite a contrast to the PLE meeting I attended in Manchester on Tuesday, a quite technical meeting concerning e-learning (I work in IT to earn a living). First thing I noticed was the composition of people: in Manchester, there were about 16-17 people, all male expect for one of the organisers; and all based in (and ethnically from) Europe or North America apart from myself being half Oriental. On the other hand at this meeting in London, there were 30-40 people, a far more even balance of male/female; ethnicities covered Europe, Middle East, South Asia, and Far East. Next thing I noticed was that in contrast to Tuesday's array of laptops, there was not a single computer in sight - even I had managed to leave all my computers at home :-) However, both meetings were conducted in constructive and friendly atmospheres.

As people introduced themselves, it was also noticeable the range of backgrounds among the people, all with some angle on this issue: rabbis, imams and priests, all had experiences of members of their congregations coming up and seeking advice; a marriage guidance professional; a psychotherapist; people involved in such relationships (the youngest person to 'share' was just 3 months old!); interfaith advisors; and also academic researchers, interested in the sociological, cultural and anthropological issues.

There is enormous scope for discussion, but basically there are two broad areas: the scriptural/theological side and the pastoral/practical side. In the presentations, discussions and sharings, there was amply conveyed the tension between keeping a tradition pure and undiluted, whilst not being unduly rigid in interpretation; it's the common theme of what is really at the heart of a spiritual and religious tradition.

If sticking rigidly to rules, then some situations seem on paper irresolvable. For instance, if a Jewish girl [not of a liberal tradition] wishes to marry a Muslim boy, then rules state that their children have to be on the one hand brought up in their mother's tradition AND on the other in their father's tradition. In practice, it seems that something can work out if the relationship is not completely symmetric, but has a complementary nature (sounds ying-yang to me).

We were given a quick introduction to the work of the Inter faith Marriages Network Web site, particulalry some of the responses. It was asked how many had come from priests et al, the ones responsible for guidance. More generally, who are the ones giving advice and guidance? They too need to be well informed.

In the afternoon discussion focused on four areas:

  • Supporting interfaith couples and families
  • What about the children?
  • Civil & Religious Law
  • Spiritual life of the couple and family
I took part in the one about the children. This is where the implications of interfaith marriages really sharpen into focus, where couples need to consider very carefully. There was some attempt at trying to produce 'successful templates' but I expressed considerable doubts about this; each case is unique, but from my own experience complementary [asymmetric] relations are probably more likely to work. In practice, there's normally one person more firmly committed to their faith and that can naturally mean they take the lead in certain aspects of the child's religious instruction - the distinctuion was usefully made between the formal identification with one particular tradition and the education in both.

I sense this meeting was a solid platform for a lot more co-ordinated work in this area. Three main ways of taking things forward in the short term were:

  1. Support for couples, using the vehicle of the Internet, particularly Web, but also perhaps mailling lists
  2. Raising the profile of such networks
  3. Taking the work into communities, building links etc.
I expect there'll be published some official reports from the meeting.

After the meeting, there was a quick dash back to Oxford for the second half of the interfaith connections day...