News 2008: Interfaith Network Annual Conference

Interfaith Network Annual Conference, 30th June 2008

This year’s annual conference was held in the Glazier’s Hall beneath London Bridge. NBO’s delegates were Revd Modgala and Yann Lovelock, who have compiled this report. Also attending was Ven. Seelawimala, the new Primate of the Sri Lankan Sangha in Britain, who was so impressed by the glasswork on display that he made enquiries about the possibility of a stained glass Buddha for the Chiswick Vihara.

The general theme of the conference was “Face to Face and Heart to Heart”, a variation on the title of the consultation paper on interfaith dialogue (Face to Face and Side by Side), and anticipating the launch of the resulting Government Interfaith Strategy on 21 July. Below are notes on the morning and early afternoon presentations.

•             Talk 1: Valuing Dialogue – Harriet Crabtree, Director, Inter Faith Network

News of work done in various groups encouraging dialogue so as to understand differences and disagreements while also finding common ground. Aims are to have equivalent and just dialogue to build a positive, respectful society. There have been new initiatives at all levels and explorations of different forms of partnership. IFN’s “Soundings” initiative will look at patterns of involvement and at groups not in membership, including non-religious belief groups. This will address anxieties about inequalities in dialogue in the changing social and legal landscape (a theme also addressed in the AGM).

•             Talk 2: Dimensions of Dialogue – Dr Nawal K Prinja, Vishwa Hindu Parishad; IFN Co-Chair

Dr Prinja spoke about how flawed media accounts of faith matters are so we need more direct dialogue. Hinduism stresses unity within diversity. “Issues need to be tackled with sensitivity” so that we can live with eternal and natural laws. The current ongoing Hindu-Jewish dialogue is inspired by how the Jewish community provided a role model of how to integrate into the social, economic and political system without losing their own religious/social identities.

•             Talk 3 David Gifford – CEO Council of Christians and Jews

Second oldest interfaith initiative in the UK. Dialogue is about learning and building relationships. The journey is the most important so it’s best not to jump in at the deep-end and not to have a one-sided agenda. Remember we all come from a particular perspective, so start where we are. And guard against being too cerebral.

•             Talk 4 Sughra Ahmed – Advisor, Women in Faith; Research Fellow, Islamic Foundation

The Women in Faith Network aims to encourage predominantly young Muslim women to engage in interfaith activities via a broad-ranging course. There were challenges both in confidence and practicalities like child care and safety. Found a need to go slow and think long term. Also to have practical support and encouragement of participants: a major key is to make them feel important and to feed the growing faith that they can do the work.

•             Talk 5 Dialogue on the menu – Stella Opoku-Owusu, IFN Project Officer

This pre-lunch talk focused on how different interfaith group initiatives used food as a focus to bring people of all ages together via picnics, community meals, family twinning, formal settings and classroom learning.

•             Talk 6 Young People and Dialogue – “Shared Futures project”

Susan Moss introduced the project, which brings together pupils from single faith schools and engages them in many different forms of interaction as well as training teachers in how to handle situations and building friendships between teachers so they could help and advise each other. Two participants, Jasdeep Singh Degun and Ushna Moghal, showed slides and talked with great enthusiasm about the work of the Yorkshire & Humber Youth Interfaith Council. They looked at issues of faith and identity, justice and discrimination, that they learnt about from living with people of other faiths. They were doing this “for the benefit of all our communities”.

Workshops followed on a range of issues, facilitated by various members of the Executive. Themes here included The Art of Dialogue; Dialogue in Public Life; Reasons for (and against) Engaging in Dialogue; Faith Communities and Dialogue; Young People and Dialogue; From Joint Action to Understanding; A Practical Dialogue on the Environment. Each of these chose one over-riding conclusion to bring to the plenary session. A fuller report of all points raised will be sent to members later.

During the late afternoon AGM, some 15 new local interfaith groups were voted into membership. Among the 38 members voted onto the Executive were Ven. Seelawimala and Yann Lovelock as Buddhist representatives. It was reported that discussion concerning the widening of faith affiliation had been ongoing in the Executive during 2008 and the Director had also talked to the UK Pagan Alliance, which had been pushing for admission. IFN’s lawyers had been consulted about the implications of the new equalities legislation and it seemed that a wholesale rewriting of some parts of the constitution may be necessary. Meanwhile a mechanism for admission of new members requiring 75% agreement by the Network’s voting membership at an AGM was passed without opposition.