The challenges facing Croydon’s interfaith initiatives

By - Tuesday 5th September, 2017

Bringing Croydon’s faith groups together will require risk-taking and imagination

Croydon’s Council’s supplementary planning document, ‘Places of Worship‘, takes seven pages to list 187 such places. If you’re reading this article, it’s unlikely that you’ve visited more than one. That’s because our town is divided by faith.

The process begins with our children. Faith-based selection creates classroom populations across the borough which are quite unrepresentative of Croydon’s diverse community, and the impact of separate schooling is life-long. Have grown up near and yet far apart, unfamiliar with each other and without a sense of shared identity, the faith groups don’t mix, but continue to operate in ‘silos’ (a term coined by Citizen writer Sean Creighton).

I saw its effect on Facebook recently, when a believer reflecting on faith integration in Croydon commented: “I notice that at [name of worship centre X] outsiders are welcome. I would like to see us at [worship centre Y] emulate them”. His words sound positive at first, but made me so sad that they led me to write this article. Who are these ‘outsiders’? They are fellow citizens of our town: Croydonians, Londoners, neighbours who share many of the same concerns. The welcome laid on at X is intended (quite openly) to attract then recruit new members, of course, but whether or not they sign on the dotted line, those of a different faith or none should surely not seem such strangers.

Religions are not hobbies, but ways of life

It is therefore encouraging to see attempts being made to bring Croydon’s believers together. Through Croydon Minster’s new ‘Friendship First‘ initiative, the Ahmadiyya Muslims’ interfaith programmeFaiths Together In Croydon‘s inter-sectarian bike rides and its participation in national Interfaith Week, public-spirited individuals are creating opportunities for faith groups to interact with one another. Their goal is better understanding, based upon knowledge. But the challenges of connecting are not always well understood.

When on August 19th, Croydon’s mayor tweeted: ‘What if we could get all faiths to have dialogue and eat together and discuss similarities and accept differences?’ I did wonder – and tweeted back – if she fully appreciated how fraught this subject can be. (If I’m wrong about this, Madam Mayor, I apologise.) But religions are not hobbies; they are ways of life for believers, their teachings not only deeply cherished but regarded as absolutes. ’Accepting differences’ is not so easy.

What if something that one faith holds true is understood by another as hate speech? Or if one group’s vision of an ideal society offends another to the core? Hearing what someone else believes is no guarantee of friendship or understanding between you. There needs to be something more: a willingness to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

The language of privilege can only alienate others

For genuine trust to grow, it’s vital to realise how things that seem perfectly acceptable to one person can sound to another. The uncomfortable truth is that the major religions created a world of ‘us’ and ‘them’ millennia ago when they arose to unify communities under threat. Setting believers apart was their agenda then, and this attitude persists. My own belief background, rejected long ago, spelled out to me in my childhood that faith is a hierarchy (with my group at the top, of course). Its pervasive language of unique and privileged status makes me uncomfortable to this day. I readily understand the mistrust it creates.

And no matter who’s right in the end, the future perfected world of religion is one in which not all will share. The major faiths agree that division will be enforced when the last trumpet sounds on judgement day. If modern believers hold a more generous and inclusive view than their holy books describe (which believing friends assure me is the case), they need to say so. Otherwise there is only ‘tolerance’ – a word that means putting up with what you don’t like – until we can be rid of one another. Tolerance fractures quickly when the slightest strain is placed on it.

What would interfaith unity really look and sound like?

I hope that the faiths of Croydon want to live together on equal, respectful terms. I think that some of their members may. It’s time for those people to make themselves known and to lead. The opportunities are now being created.

So I suggest a position paper from Croydon’s faith groups, to get the dialogue started. What would unity between them really look and sound like? Talking shops and brief interludes of togetherness are insufficient. How about regular visits between segregated schools, to learn and play together? Faith leaders meeting to address the issues of doctrine which members of other communities find most challenging? Flexibility where beliefs and practices hurt and offend those who believe very different things, for example in areas such as sexuality, marriage and the role of women?

And how about setting aside the requirement that believers should bring others into their faith? This last one tends not to get mentioned. It was taught to me as a child; as an adult, it’s hard to find it other than immensely disrespectful. The implications for good interfaith relations of people looking for chances to convert each other are obvious.

Tough stuff indeed. But if it’s going to mean anything, there has to be more to interfaith dialogue than a picnic in the park.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Peter Ball

    Just asking, is this relevant to the majority of the population who are non-believers and do some faiths believe that non-believers are inherently evil ?

    • lizsheppardjourno

      Hi Peter – yes.

  • Mark Johnson

    I’m a Non-believer but I think it’s relevant to us all that those of all beliefs and none in Croydon get on.

    • Peter Ball

      I would agree with you completelty Mark – but I do find it curious that when people talk about bringing people from diverse faiths together those who profess none or are explicitily atheist never seem to be mentioned.

  • Robert Ward

    Well done Liz, a difficult issue and some ideas on what to do.

    If religion was a purely private matter, just a question of which holidays you recognised, which brand of god you revered and how, then tolerance would be adequate. But faith relies on belief rather than proof and logic which rather easily leads to intolerance – I can’t prove that my faith is right and yours wrong but your very existence is a challenge to my belief. Add in that the church is a power base and it can become less about god and more about man. Mutual respect is what we need to work towards.

    P.S. As a Humanist I go to joint faith meetings (will be going on Sunday) and make the point that we exist too. It is however not unusual for me to be in a minority of one. To be fair my experience is that the Ahmadiyya Muslims are amongst the most tolerant and welcoming of people.

  • John Gass

    I’ve long thought – in large part because of personal experience – that no new religious schools should be allowed, and I’d like there to be a programme of, over an appropriate time-period, slowly removing the religious element of those schools that already exist.

    To muddle belief with knowledge is something that makes no sense to me and surely harks back to much earlier times when the Christian church held a position of wealth and exerted power that would be inappropriate today.

    Yet, in the midst of this, I think all schools should accommodate times for religious observance, which would take place outside of school and be family affairs. I can see that this is easier said than done, but I’m not sure whether any religious groups have ever come together to work out what is achievable and what compromises might have to be made.

    I hear so often of children being sent to schools, usually Christian in nature, despite their families having either a different faith, or no faith. I do understand that many of these schools have great academic records but I see this as being the result of selection, much as in grammar schools, rather than the religion causing better learning.

    Are my thoughts provocative? They’re certainly not meant that way… I see it as a route by which all schools would be more equitable and able to extend a non-judgemental welcome to all local families. Also, as an important by-product, a way that families could, outside school, strengthen their personal religious bonds.

    • Anne Giles

      Hear! Hear!

  • Steve Lawlor

    When I hear the word “interfaith” it immediately tells me “they don’t mean me”. As an Atheist, Humanist, non-believer, not believing in any god isn’t a faith. Interfaith is an alien word to me that says to me “You don’t belong”.