The Meissen Commission was set up almost twenty years ago with an agreement between the Protestant Churches of the Federal Republic of Germany, the German Democratic Republic and the Church of England (neither federal nor democratic!). The national committees meet three times a year, but we join up once a year, alternating between Germany and England. Last year we were in Meissen, this year in Blackburn.
One of the focal points of our work at the moment is to learn from our different experiences how we address and live with Islamic communities in our respective societies. Following the Archbishop of Canterbury’s lecture on Sharia a couple of years ago, I was in Germany doing meetings and promoting one of my books that had just come out in German. Hard questioning and discussions made me realise why the Germans were so upset at what they thought Rowan was proposing. (In a 45-minute radio interview in Hannover I kept repeating that he hadn’t ‘proposed’ anything – he had posed a question…)
Germany has a written Constitution (Verfassung) – a Basic Law (Grundgesetz). This means that everyone is subject to the same law and this renders this element of ‘public space’ neutral. I had to explain that in England we have no written constitution and that we have what can best be described as a ‘negotiation based on precedent’. Furthermore, Islam in Germany derived from the (mainly) Turkish Gastarbeiter, whereas in England Islam is connected with the consequences of colonialism and involves communities from a wide variety of countries. (Yes, I realise it’s a bit more complicated than that, but sometimes you have to simplify it to understand it.)
The central theme of this Meissen Conference is Islam and our engagement with Muslims in our different contexts. So, we visited Blackburn Cathedral this afternoon and had a long and stimulating session with Canon Chris Chivers and Anjum Anwar, Dialogue Development Officer and the first Muslim employee of a Cathedral. This was followed by a rivetting session this evening with Dr Michael Ipgrave back at base. I now feel a renewed sense of pride in and gratitude for the Church of England – for three main reasons:
1. We still try to maintain a presence in every community in the country (in some form or other – including buildings, schools and people). We don’t just go where we think we’ll ‘grow’ our numbers, but stay where we need to serve. Anglican ecclesiology starts not with ‘the church for the sake of the church’, but with ‘the church for the sake of the world’. So, when an area becomes inhabited almost entirely by people of another faith such as Islam, we don’t leave and go away. Presence matters – even when it is immensely costly – which is why we have C of E schools with 100% Muslim population. Christian presence is important in such places – and it also gives us an unparalelled understanding of what is going on at the grassroots of our communities.
2. Presence by itself doesn’t do much. So, we engage in our communities and work hard to know and love our neighbours. This sort of engagement is risky business; any genuine encounter leaves you open to change and some people don’t want change (unless it is in those with whom they disagree). Engagement in such areas does not bring the great rewards of big numbers of bums on pews, but it is vital to the witness of the Christian Gospel that Christians engage fully in their communities in terms of service and love. Engagement creates relationships.
3. Such Christian communities – often very small – bear witness to the great Christian gift of hospitality by sharing themselves, their time, their lives with communities of people who are not like them. This is, again, where hospitals and schools come in.
A couple of years ago the Church of England produced a short booklet as an attempt to describe its theological approach to Presence and Engagement. Called Generous Love - an Anglican theology of Inter Faith Relations, it is more than worth a read.