Multi-Faith Britain: An experiment in worship

Paul Overend reviews a new book by SoF Steering Committee member, David A Hart (Preface by the Bishop of Derby, 0 Books, £8.99, ISBN 1-903816-08-4).

‘These essays on the perspectives of the Bahai, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh faiths, demonstrate the ability of the great religious traditions of the world to learn from each other.’ Professor Roger Waterhouse, Vice Chancellor, University of Derby

‘…a fascinating and wide ranging collection of essays; a must for the spiritual person in Britain today’ Raj Bali, President, Derby Hindu temple

‘This wide-ranging volume has much to offer to all of us in the present religious situation in Britain today.’ Canon Eric James, former Director of Christian Action

Acclaim for this book has come from many sources, religious and civic, in a plural city that has had mayors elected from Sikh, Muslim and Hindu communities. The preface by Jonathan Bailey, the Bishop of Derby, explains its relation with the Derby Multi-faith Centre, of which he is the Chair of the Board of Trustees. The centre will seek to ‘provide an open forum where respect for the other and listening to others' stories will be a part of our business’, and this outlook the book pioneers.

The book is constructed in two parts, representing theory and practice. In the former are scholarly and reflective contributions by familiar names like Rabbi Professor Dan Cohn-Sherbok; Don Cupitt; and David Hart; and some names that have been less well known such as Ataullah Siddiqui—Senior Research Fellow at the Islamic Foundation, Markfield; Balbinder Singh Bhogal—Lecturer in Buddhism and Sikhism at Derby University; Pamela Sutton—a teacher who chairs the Religious and Pastoral Services Committee at the University of Derby; and Steven Rumelhart—member of the Druid Order, representing one faith tradition outside of the covenanted faiths of the Multi-faith Centre.

The second section brings together those engaged in their various faith communities, specifically chosen for being younger than 40 years, to present some contemporary outlooks. With David Hart again, these include Manos Hatzimalonas (who is indexed ‘Hatzimovos’)—a graduate of the Greek Orthodox tradition; Philip Knight—a religious studies teacher considering religious education; Arani Sen—an Anglican Christian priest of Hindu parents considering cross-cultural transition; Philip Henry—a convert to Buddhism and an adviser to the University of Derby; and Paul Weller, Professor of Inter-Religious Relations at Derby University; and Benjamin E. Kerr-Shaw, the youngest, and an able student about to embark on his theology and religious studies degree at Clare College.

These various articles provide a stimulating and varied read covering issues of pluralism, inclusivism, and tolerance. There are valuable considerations of the western concept of ‘world religion’ itself and of that in popular culture which fails the test of being classed ‘religious’ for the educational purposes of the school curriculum. They reflect a range of views, from Don Cupitt’s article, which Canon Eric James describes as ‘a characteristically stimulating and encouraging essay on Christianity and Tolerance’, and from an interesting insight into the development of Baha’i which encapsulates a multi-faith approach, to recognition of important differences in approach from an Islamic perspective. A valuable contribution on Paganism seeks to overthrow some prejudices held by non-pagans, and while acknowledging the diversity among pagan practices seeks to distinguish pagan and indigenous spirituality from the New Age. Arani Sen, on crossing religious traditions, and David Hart, on bridging religious traditions, display respect for two contiguous traditions without amalgamating them to a highest common factor. David Hart’s other contributions, his introduction which contextualises the volume, and a paper on the diversity of beliefs that we have come to know as Hinduism, complement the variety of excellent papers.

All the papers are necessarily introductory, and had space permitted all the writers could have usefully developed their insights further. Personally, I would have liked to hear more about our cultural concept of "religion" that both Balbinder Singh Bhogal and Philip Knight address. But also, what have each writer or tradition to say on ethics, on contemporary politics, on each other? Clearly, the volume cannot predict the work of the Multi-faith Centre, but it does provide an excellent opening of the ground to be explored.

Today’s Britain, be it Derby or the Millennium Dome, is a multi-faith Britain, and this book ably brings together difference and diversity, and enables each tradition to hear the other. Perhaps the last word is best said by the youngest contributor, Benjamin Kerr-Shaw, who suggests that, ‘A faith that does not claim to grasp the ultimate truth, but only reflects, examines, and appreciates the splendour of the diverse universe around us is perhaps the faith we must now choose. It is a faith in each other.’