The working group sits within the mandate of Uniting Faith and Discipleship and works collaboratively with other units of the team.
2015 marks 30 years of the Uniting Church’s declaration in 1985 of being a multicultural church. Migration has brought over 199 nationalities to Australia. Dr Philip Hughes confirms that at the time of the 2011 census there were more than 170 religious groups identified in Australia. These changes bring important missional questions and challenges for the church in terms of its identity, faith and mission. It raises the ongoing but critical challenge of how mission is understood and practised in a various pluralistic contexts. The global and Australian landscape is rapidly changing and the necessity of strong interfaith relationships remain a necessity. In the light of recent violence world-wide and in Sydney at what has come to be known as the Sydney Martin Place siege ‘Living with the Neighbour who is different’ and the issues of genuine religious encounter and creating a peaceful Australian society have never been posed so strongly for our nation and the Churches.
The Uniting Church in responding to the changing nature of Australian society declared itself a Multicultural Church in 1985 and in 1989 the first Assembly working group on Relations with other Faiths (RoF) was established. These two landmark moments demonstrated the Uniting Church’s vision in not only acknowledging the nature of the changing Australian society but also recognising the church’s responsibility in meeting those challenges practically, pastorally, and missionally. This work is critical to the mission of the church and requires ongoing theological and pastoral reflection and practical engagement with people of other faiths
The Relations with other Faiths Working Group (RoF) believes that interfaith relations are an integral part of the overall mission of the Church. Thereby, the Working Group seeks to serve and resource the church by promoting knowledge and understanding of other living world faiths and their communities in a multicultural and multifaith Australia. It seeks to develop wherever possible a commitment to promote respect and tolerance for the integrity for the beliefs of other faiths, cultures and traditions. This desire not only arises from our common humanity but also a desire to live in peace and goodwill as neighbours in our communities and the world.
2. OPERATIONAL GUIDELINES
The working group serves the mission of God through the church in the following ways:
- Provide information, policy and resources on appropriate positive relationships with other faiths to the Assembly.
- Raise awareness within the church of the presence of other faiths in the community, and of their particular needs and place in Australian society.
- Develop resources that may be appropriate for congregations and other bodies to use in multi-faith discussions and occasions of worship.
- Maintain contact with people of other living world faiths.
- Provide advice and assistance to all councils of the church as requested.
- Collaborate where possible with other agencies and groups interested in multi-faith relationships.
- Reflect on the theological basis on which inter-faith dialogue should occur and develop statements and resources for use by the church when working with people of other faiths.
3. RELATIONS WITH OTHER FAITHS (RoF) ACTIVITIES AND PROJECTS IN RESPONSE TO PRESENT AND FUTURE CHALLENGES
The working group’s priorities in the current triennium relate to the following key areas of the life of the church, mission, interfaith dialogue and solidarity. In this triennium the working group continued its work in strengthening interfaith relationships, locally and nationally, its understanding and practice of mission in a pluralistic context and the development of resources that enable meaningful theological reflection on interfaith dialogue and relationships. The working group continues to resource the church though the Relations with other Faiths (RoF) website. It provides news and media from round Australia and each synod, Assembly statements and policies, and national and international theological resources. The website continues to be an important focus and the primary way in which the Relations with other Faiths (RoF) resources the church and the wider community on interfaith issues. It was launched at the 12th Assembly in July 2009 and subsequently was given a special commendation by the previous Federal Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs.
There is no other church in Australia that has a website devoted solely to interfaith.
4. INTERFAITH DIALOGUE
Interfaith dialogue is a way through which understanding of other faiths can be developed and deepened. It is a critical and important way of maintaining contact with people of other living faiths. Relations with other Faiths (RoF) engages in interfaith dialogue in the following ways:
4.1 Australian National Dialogue of Christians, Muslims and Jews (ANDCMJ).
The UCA through a representative of the Relations with other Faiths (RoF) is involved in the Australian National Dialogue of Christians, Muslims and Jews. This is a joint initiative of the National Council of Churches (NCCA) on behalf of its member churches together with its founding dialogue partners, the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) and the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ). The dialogue was officially launched in March 2003. Its purpose is to provide opportunity for the national bodies of each faith to come together to build understanding and harmony in the Australian context. The objectives of the Australian National Dialogue of Christians, Muslims and Jews (ANDCMJ) are:
- To be a model of how different faiths can live harmoniously together in Australia
- To build understanding, good will and a sense of community between people of different faiths
- To explore and learn about each other and our faith traditions
- To share our knowledge and insights with others
- To work together to achieve common goals in Australia
- To support each other in times of difficulty
The Australian National Dialogue of Christians, Muslims and Jews (ANDCMJ) meets three times a year with each faith community taking it in turn to host the dialogue. Discussions are usually based on thematic theological concepts with perspectives from all three traditions. The topics covered within this triennium were: ‘Prophets and Prophecy, Blasphemy, How do we love our neighbour; Women and Leadership, and the Sanctity of the Body.’ Space was also given at two of its meetings where questions from each group were posed to each dialogue partner. Throughout the last triennium both Sef Carroll and WilmaViswanathan were members of this dialogue.
Occasionally and when the need arises the three bodies may make a joint statement of solidarity to the community on an issue of injustice or intolerance. For more information on the Australian National Dialogue of Christians, Muslims and Jews (ANDCMJ) please visit the following website: http://www.ncca.org.au/departments/interfaith
4.2 Uniting Church National Jewish Christian Dialogue Group
This national Dialogue group is now entering its 24th year. During the last triennium the dialogue has continued the established pattern of meeting twice each year for a day long gathering, once in Sydney and once in Melbourne, at alternating Uniting Church and Jewish venues. The format of meetings remains similar, with morning and afternoon sessions devoted to agreed topics as well as a brief time of introduction / catch up and a time of general business / matters of concern. Over the past three years we have read selected psalms and the book of Job together and discussed our understandings of these scriptural texts from our own faith perspectives and traditions. We have discussed issues including Marriage, ‘Australian values’ and interfaith understandings and practices as well as continuing to explore the faith, beliefs and motivations for interfaith dialogue of the members of the group. It is pleasing that the Dialogue has progressed to such a point of mutual trust and openness that the most recent dialogue meetings have been devoted to discussing ‘difficult questions’ which have included such subjects as sin and the fall (Genesis 3), New Testament interpretations seeming to validate anti-Semitism, theological concepts of ‘the land’ and issues relating to the Israel / Palestinian conflict.
Whilst the mutual trust and respect within the dialogue is strong, and the value of continued development of a strong relationship between the Uniting Church and the Executive Council of Australian Jewry are strongly affirmed by both sides it would also be honest to acknowledge that the relationship is regularly strained by differences of opinion and statements arising out of the ongoing issues as regards to Israel and Palestine.
The past triennium also saw, very early in its time, the resignation of long term Uniting Church members and more recently convenors of the Dialogue, Rev Dr John Squires and Rev Elizabeth Raine. Their contribution to the work of the dialogue is strongly acknowledged by Uniting Church and Jewish members alike. It is highly unlikely that the Dialogue would have survived times of tension and disagreement without the extensive efforts made by John and Elizabeth in helping the Dialogue to understand the feelings and statements of the Church and helping the wider church and Assembly understand some of the feelings and concerns of the Jewish community. We thank them for their academic and theological rigor, their wisdom and devotion to strengthening the relationship between the Uniting Church and the Jewish community, and their friendship and leadership in the life of the dialogue.
5. INTERFAITH RELATIONSHIPS
The Relations with other Faiths (RoF) Working Group members are active practitioners. Most are involved in interfaith activities, dialogue and projects in their respective Synods. These projects and activities can be accessed through the Assembly Relations with other Faiths (RoF) website http://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/resources/local or directly through the Synod website in each synod. The Working Group on Relations with other Faiths (RoF) meets annually to share stories and challenges arising nationally and in each synod as well as plan the work for each year. A small executive meets three to four times per year and is based in Sydney. Relations with other Faiths (RoF) members were involved in many interfaith events over the course of the triennium. The following events name a few of those activities.
5.1 Women’s Interfaith Network (WIN)
The Women’s Interfaith Network (WIN) has representatives from Aboriginal, Bahai, Buddhist, Christian, and Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Zoroastrian and Quaker communities.
In 2001, when Women’s Interfaith Network (WIN) was launched, the foundation convener Josie Lacey stated
‘Wars are being fought in the name of God and religion. I believe women have the ability to communicate and to show that religion can unite us. Women are not afraid to communicate, but society as a whole must learn to talk. I think it is the only way to overcome divisions and social destruction in our community’
Wilma Viswanathan, a long standing member of the Relations with other Faiths (RoF) Working Group and also a long standing member the Women’s Interfaith Network (WIN) core group leads and participates each month as Women’s Interfaith Network (WIN) discusses various topics. These discussions have included traditions and customs relating to marriage, different religious traditions of death and dying and how different faiths act on issues of peace. In 2015 Women’s Interfaith Network (WIN) which meets at the NSW Parliament House is undertaking various conversations about women’s specific involvement within their own faiths. Readings from different scriptures are able to reach across all boundaries, and speak of the essential equality between men and women, of love and compassion, unity and diversity and Aboriginal spirituality.
The Secretary General of Religions for Peace – Dr William Vendley remarked:
‘Religions must speak with the voice of ordinary people as well as their congregations to be a force for unity in the world. Dr Mustafa Ceric, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina, led his Islamic community towards healing and reconciliation after the bitter trauma of civil war. To do so, he first worked as a Muslim amongst Muslims using the riches of Islamic language, including its scriptures and traditions. And together with Roman Catholic Cardinal Puljic, Serbian Orthodox Metropolitan Nikolai and the Jewish leader Jakob Finci, Dr Ceric also worked in a shared public language to offer the exhausted nation a common vision of unity that called all to action. In the aftermath of the pain of war, bi-lingualism helped harness the powers of each religious community to co-operate to build the nation.
Both sectarian, religious and public languages are irreplaceably important for religious communities in our globalised world’
The Women’s Interfaith Network (WIN) group has learnt this art of speaking. Being able to speak at public events as one body, even as each religious tradition keeps its own beliefs, the Women’s Interfaith Network (WIN) is able to offer a common vision of interfaith harmony that reaches across many local faith communities, neighbourhoods and churches
In addition to learning about each other’s religious traditions the group has also organized and been part of several events.
In March 2014 Women’s Interfaith Network (WIN) organised an Interfaith Forum on Forced Marriage with Anti-Slavery Australia, in recognition of International Women’s Day. It was hosted by the Hon Gladys Berejiklian MP in NSW Parliament House. Women’s Interfaith Network (WIN) worked with members of Anti-Slavery Australia to plan this well-received event. The Guest speaker was Dr. Eman Sharobeem, a member of the Coptic Orthodox Church and Director of the Immigrant Women’s Health Service, who shared her insights and professional experience. Associate Professor Jennifer Burn, University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Faculty of Law and Director of Anti-Slavery Australia highlighted research about forced marriage in Australia and discussed challenges raised by new legislation criminalising forced marriage. An interfaith panel discussion then followed and was led by Josie Lacey OAM and founding Convenor of Women’s Interfaith Network (WIN), Chair of Religions for Peace NSW and a Life member Executive Council of Australian Jewry. Members of the Panel were, Mohini Gunasekera AM, Honorary Vice President Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils and Trustee of the University of Buddhist Education Foundation; Sr. Dr Giovanni Farquar, Executive Director of the Archdiocese of Sydney’s Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission; The Rev Glenda Blakefield, Assembly Associate General Secretary and National Director of Assembly Relations with other Faiths , Dr Saroja Srinivasam, Clinical Psychologist, NSW Department of Health; Zubeda Rahman, Treasurer / Project Manager of the Muslim Women’s National Network of Australia; and Judith Levitan, SCW LLB, Social Justice Sector, Foundation member of the Jewish Alliance Against Family Violence.
The Women’s Interfaith Network (WIN) network also actively participated in an International Interfaith Summit: ‘Achieving World Peace with Religious Harmony and Conflict Resolution’, convened by the World Fellowship of Buddhists, held in Bangkok. Also Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, Muslim and Jewish members attended the Great Synagogue in Sydney to hear musicologist Dr Joseph Tolz speak and present: ‘Out of the Depths: Musical Heritage of European Jews in Australia’. This meeting was organised by the NSW Council of Christians and Jews. Relations with other Faiths (RoF) Working Group member Wilma Viswanathan is an active leader in this network and regularly reports on these events to the meetings of the Working Group.
5.2 Iftar Dinner
The Uniting Church partnered with the Affinity Intercultural Foundation to hold the first Iftar dinner (breaking the fast) on New South Wales Uniting Church premises. On 14 July representatives gathered at St Stephens Uniting Church to share a meal. Buddhist, Christian, Jewish and Muslim representatives gathered together to share hospitality and stories of faith. The theme was sacred hospitality. Sacred hospitality is not only the sharing of each other’s faith traditions; it is the welcoming of those who are different and sharing in one another’s lives. Attendees received Christian Blessings, Prayers and Grace, a Muslim call to prayer and a recitation from the Koran.
Geoff Boyce a long standing member of the working group and previously the Chaplain to Flinders University SA was appointed by the University as ‘Oasis’ Coordinating Chaplain in 2013. Geoff continues to lead the team of chaplains at ‘Oasis,’ which is a welcoming and enabling multfaith and multireligious community. Oasis is a community of diversity where radical hospitality is practiced, where the stranger can enter and then become a friend instead of an enemy. The centre recognizes and affirms diversity and also recognizes that religion and culture are closely intertwined and difficult to separate from each other. Further it recognizes that religions are multicultural, and that the multicultural is also multireligious.‘Oasis’ is an image and a metaphor suggesting refreshment and nourishment and is open and available to any traveller passing through. Further stories about these important multifaith and multicultural relationships, at the Oasis centre can be found on the Relations with other Faith’s website.
6. THE CHALLENGE OF INTERFAITH SOLIDARITY IN TIMES OF CRISES
In the aftermath of the Sydney siege and different challenges in local communities and cities members of the Working Group have participated and led interfaith activities, services of prayer and solidarity http://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/about/news. In the aftermath of the Sydney siege Glenda Blakefield was part of the organizing committee of a service where various interfaith leaders including the Grand Mufti of the Australia Muslim community gathered to show the necessity of interfaith solidarity, friendship and respect in the aftermath of such an event. It was a moving service where people spoke from their hearts and the victims of the siege were honoured by a simple candle lighting ceremony.
The outgoing Convener, Rev Seforosa Carroll represented the Uniting Church on an interfaith panel on ABC24 Weekend Breakfast. The other panellist was Dr Yassir Morsi from the University of South Australia. The conversation centred on the events of that week (Sydney Martin Place Siege, the Cairns tragedy and the Pakistan schoolchildren shootings) and the role and relevance of religion in the contemporary context and in local communities.
7. RESOURCING THE CHURCH
As part of our commitment to being faithful in discipleship while also being able to celebrate the myriad of differences within our society, one of Relations with other Faiths (RoF) integral tasks is encouraging friendship with people of other faiths within the local neighbourhood and beyond. The Working Group is therefore committed to providing resources for the church either through its website (http://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/) or the provision of visual aids, reading material and tool kits. The following resources are those developed within this triennium.
7.1 Interfaith September
In September of each year congregations within the Uniting Church in Australia are encouraged to create a community of hospitality, conversation and friendship with people of all faiths within their neighbourhood. Interfaith September was first launched in September 2011. In 2014 the resource was revised with a new set of theological reflections written by Rev Dr Clive Pearson and as well a new suite of video / audio resources. The resource is simple to use and is a great medium through which to use to reflect theologically on interfaith relations and also to venture out and begin new relationships with the neighbour who is from another religion in the neighbourhood. The new resource can be accessed here
7.2 Friendship in the Presence of Difference resource
Due to changes in staff personnel and for brief periods, the absence of a project officer, the supplementary resource for the “Friendship in the Presence of Difference” statement could not be completed in this triennium. The resource is partially complete and its completion is expected within the upcoming triennium.
7.3 Publication of Great Spiritual Leaders: Studies in leadership for a pluralist society
On Saturday May 11th Rev Dr William Emilsen and Rev Seforosa Carroll hosted an interfaith seminar on the theme ‘Religious Leadership in a Pluralist Society’ at the NSW / ACT Synod Centre for Ministry. The objective of the seminar was to explore the notion and example of leadership in the founders of the great world religions and in some contemporary religious leaders in order to create ways of developing a more harmonious society. Presentations were made by scholars of different faith traditions. Ben Myers, Keith Rowe, Howard Wallace and Sr Eleanor Capper were among some of our Christian scholars presenting on the day. There were contributions from Sikhism, Bahai’, Buddhism, Confucianism and Islam. It was a thought provoking, and stimulating day. Other contributions from Zoroastrianism and Hinduism were part of the publication titled “Great Spiritual Leaders: studies in leadership for a pluralist society” which was launched in March 2014. The seminar and publication was supported by funding from the Faculty of Arts, Charles Sturt University and the Public and Contextual Research Center (PaCT). Copies of the book can be purchased from the United Theological College in Sydney.
7.3 Collaboration with other areas of the Assembly
One of the growing edges of the working group is exploring points of connections with other Assembly agencies and identifying ways of collaboration. The working group has cultivated a good working relationship with Multicultural and Cross Cultural ministry (MCCM). From time to time and when appropriate and where relevant the working has been involved in UnitingJustice Australia (UJA) submissions to the federal government on various issues. A recent and growing collaboration has been with UnitingWorld. This comes from the recognition that our overseas partners live in contexts of religious and cultural diversity and there is much that we can learn from their experience and wisdom.
Although the Working Group is not directly involved with theological education offered by the Uniting Church’s theological colleges, it supports the value and importance of offering courses on religious pluralism and Interfaith Dialogue as a means of strengthening competencies and skills in relating cross culturally. The United Theological College offers Interfaith Dialogue biannually and the Practice of Cross Cultural ministry in Australia annually. Both of these courses are taught by the Convenor of Relations with other Faiths (RoF) Rev Sef Carroll and are open to lay, ordained and candidates for Ministry. The Interfaith Dialogue course was well attended when it was last offered in January 2011 as a week long intensive. Feedback received from those who attended the courses was very favourable and affirming, highlighting the need for opportunities to learn and acquire skills and competencies in cross cultural living. Courses such as these are important as they help to inform and grow interfaith and cross cultural competency as well as enable and encourage theological reflection in these areas of mission and ministry.
8. WORKING GROUP ON RELATIONS WITH OTHER FAITHS (ROF) MEMBERS
Mr Geoff Boyce, Rev. Dr Manas Ghosh, Rev.Heather Griffin, Rev Marie E Wilson and Ms April Robinson.
Relations with other Faiths (RoF) Executive
Rev Seforosa Carroll (Convenor)
Ms Wilma Viswanathan
Ms Debra Porter (co-opted)
Rev. Dr Matthew Wilson
Rev Glenda Blakefield ex-officio
We wish to thank all the members of the Working Group on Relations with other Faiths (RoF) for their commitment, passion, and expertise given to the work of other faiths in their many and varied settings. We also wish to thank the Assembly communications unit, and the administrative and educational staff for their innovative, committed and enthusiastic work in support of Relations with other Faiths (RoF). I am completing my term as Convenor and have thoroughly enjoyed my time of twelve years, first as a member and then Convenor of the working group I have been inspired by the commitment and passion of the working group members to this important and challenging area in the life of the Uniting Church. It was indeed a great blessing serving the church and God’s mission in this area of ministry.
Rev Sef Carroll
Rev Glenda Blakefield
Associate General Secretary.