THE MONKS being the Benedictines of Ampleforth Abbey, a monastery on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors, who hosted a day conference to help Christians to a better understanding of Islam. The first question on the ‘feedback’ sheet – everybody has to give feedback on every experience they’ve ever had these days – was “Did the day meet your expectations?” Not having had any, that was an easy one: it far exceeded them.
So much depends on the professionalism of the leaders of such events: I don’t know about Muslims but many Christian organisations in my experience (except the evangelicals) rarely see professionalism as an appropriate aspiration, perhaps associating it with success in the commercial world, as if that were a sin. Or maybe they’re just not very good at it and think that bumbling along is good enough.
Chris Chivers and Anjum Anwar were a very long way from bumbling. Chris is Canon Chancellor of Blackburn Cathedral. Originally a music scholar, he’s responsible for education and interfaith development at the cathedral, and Anjum is dialogue development officer there. She’s not only the first but the only Muslim to work on the staff of a cathedral anywhere in the world. The two have worked closely for some years on building understanding between the various faiths in the city, winning many accolades and not a few souls, one assumes. Anjum spoke of the five pillars of Islam – Shahada (profession of faith) Salat (prayer) Zakat (alms-giving) Sawm (fasting during Ramadan) and Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) – and invited questions on every aspect of the faith including the role of women and the controversial issue of the full veil.
It was all done with humour and goodwill, with neither making feeble claims to perfect harmony in their working relationship, and each staking their territory politely, but firmly. At inter-faith services, said Chris, he used to wonder if he should end the prayer “Through Jesus Christ our Lord,” or would it offend the other faiths? “But I always do – they’d think I was nuts if I didn’t.”