The G8 Religious Leaders Summit 2010 is now over and I have 24 hours to kill before flying to the earthquake zone of Toronto (!) for the connection to London. And England have got through to the last 16 of the World Cup. (I simply draw attention to my prayers and make no further comment…)

Despite requests for a ‘sharper and shorter’ statement from the Summit, the draft text kept growing. It really is impossible to do textual work on a committee of 60-odd sensitive and opinionated people. The organisers did a superb job of working the process, but some battles are beyond anyone’s competence.

One of the interesting elements to have become evident during the conference is the power of the ‘local’. I know I have banged on about this in the past, but it bears repetition. Any group of high-flying leaders can make statements on a grand scale – and feel that saying something achieves something – but it is usually at local community level that real change comes.

Every community has its own narrative and each community has to take seriously the history and culture that has brought it to where it is. This summit was begun and ended by the Anishnaabe people whose experience since colonialisation in Canada has been appalling. This morning we went to the university theatre in Winnipeg and had a presentation of excerpts from a musical called Strike. A general strike in 1919 not only shaped Winnipeg, but has become iconic as the event that brought together diverse ethnic, national and religious immigrant communities in a common cause (human rights). This memory defines the place even now and the musical is performed annually.

Before the final statement was handed to a Canadian Government Minister, I did the final keynote address to the summit. My brief was to suggest how we can go forward from here as the G8/G20 moves next year to France, in 2012 to the USA and to the UK in 2013. I had no script, so promised to write up the substance of it here.

Starting with the need for religious leaders (and their communities) to share a common space – however uncomfortable that might sometimes be – I went on to use Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ distinction between a ‘covenant of faith and a covenant of fate’. Diverse faith communities recognise a covenant of fate – we share common challenges and opportunities in the world – and we need to take seriously the urgency of our common demands.

This recognition sets the context for a summit like this one: we can see our role as religious leaders contributing to being the memory and the conscience of our political and economic leaders. This means that we can set a wider or deeper moral context for their policy-making. Religious leaders need to be more confident about this: more so than any politician anywhere, we are rooted every day in real communities with real people where we see the effects of sweeping policies on real flesh and blood.

This is not to say that only religious leaders or communities can set this context for reflection and thinking; but, it is to say that religious leaders need ot be more confident at valuing the difference their people make on the ground to the lives of millions of people.

However, grand aspirations, however eloquently expressed by religious leaders at a conference such as the one just concluded, are inadequate. Aspirations need to be confronted by hard ‘how?’ questions. Political leaders will not be inspired to take seriously passionate statements that do not demonstrate that their authors understand the realities with which their political leaders have to live. Any statement needs to be written through the eyes of the intended audience (if you see what I mean).

The way ahead for summits such as this (the sixth)? Well, the following points might be made:

  • We do not know if the G8 will continue to meet as it does at present. It might well give way to the G20. But the G20 in Toronto is causing huge local disruption and costing over $1.2billion. Questions will be asked about the effectiveness of what amounts to a very expensive and disruptive photo-opportunity. Religious leaders need to be light and flexible enough to ask new questions about how to engage most effectively in influencing the minds and priorities of political leaders – whether the G8 or G20 (or some other shape) continues or not. We must not lose sight of what we want to achieve and not simply perpetuate a familiar forum.
  • Effective engagement might need some different thinking. For example, we might need to recognise that by the time the G8/G20 meets, the decisions have already been made, the negotiations had and the priorities established. Running a parallel summit has obvious visibility attractions, but it might be illusorily incapable of having the desired effect. To this end, we might need to (a) meet with a smaller group earlier, (b) engage the media in raising the issues, (c) keep statements light and tight, and (d) find imaginative and creative ways of engaging.
  • If political leaders are to be leaders/shapers of a future (rather than simple reactors to crises), we might be able to find ways of encouraging as well as challenging, creating the space in which harrassed political leaders can be enabled to reflect on the worldview/vision from which policy and priorities can be derived.

The other point I made in passing was that the eclectic pragmatism evidenced by the approach of some of the young people present (who were intelligent, committed, articulate and great company) is inadequate. Put briefly, the question they ask is: ‘Does it work?’ when the really serious question is: ‘Is it true?’. Our young people are sometimes presented with a view of religion that encourages a pragmatic pick ‘n’ mix that avoids distinctives, contradiction or conflict. It is vital that we ask serious questions about truth, maintain our confidence in arguing our case (respectfully and humbly), listen to the experience/world view of others, and treat each ‘faith system’ with the integrity it demands.

Anyway, England has won – Germany looms on Sunday – and the British Government has been praised (and applauded) here for ringfencing international development aid. A good day to be English…