Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:35 pm on 16th July 2001.

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Photo of The Bishop of Bath and Wells The Bishop of Bath and Wells Bishop 8:35 pm, 16th July 2001

My Lords, I should like to thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester for enabling this debate to take place. I shall refer to only one issue, which I believe to be important; namely, the relationship between the faith communities.

Part of my history is that I was co-founder of the Interfaith Network in the UK, and for 13 years I was Bishop of Stepney. Much of my time then was spent defending the rights of minority ethnic groups. It was a great enrichment of my life to gain so many friends from other faiths. One of the essential factors was the defence of those faiths in our communities--especially that of Muslims from Pakistan and Bangladesh and also that of Hindus and Sikhs. People usually speak of religion as a source of conflict; and, sadly, so it is. But I do not believe that that is inevitable in human history. That is the way in which people have often been divided, but there has to be another way.

During that time we learnt to share mutual understanding--learning and listening to each other, showing respect for each other and for each other's beliefs, and learning about the ways in which we lived. From such encounters we received so many examples of strength and encouragement. People's backgrounds, cultures and religious beliefs--the spiritual realities--are the things that make us what we are. I was interested to note that praying together was not a problem so long as we used no words. When the relationships are good, the communication improves. I have many profound and happy memories of people of all faiths coming together in an attempt to understand the will of God.

Of course, we also have much in common. Christians, Jews and Muslims have Abraham as their father. All could stand and worship at Hebron--if it were not for the war going on around them. We could all stand at the tomb of Abraham and find a common path to God. We share many moral standards--not all, of course; and the differences are important.

One thing that I learnt in East London was the tremendous reverence for God that existed in the communities there. I used to think how wonderful it would be if we saw 500 men who were Christians going to a local church to worship God--the pattern of prayer. All these things made a tremendous impact upon us. We have much to learn from each other as communities of faith. But, in our humanity, we build walls or barbed wire fences, or just hatred; we hurl abuse at each other, and in some parts of the world we persecute each other. We see only the differences. We forget what we have in common--which is so much greater.

I believe that life-long friendships, mutual humility and reverence to the faith of others can change the world. My great predecessor, Archbishop Huddleston, used to call it "the greater ecumenism". He was not someone who lived in cloud-cuckoo-land, but someone who lived very close to the centre of reality. He truly believed that the thing most needed by the world was religious tolerance and mutual understanding.

My point is a very simple one: religion should be seen not always as a cause of division, of hatred or of war. We should learn somehow from all the experience that we have that it has great potential for mediation and reconciliation. Who can doubt that Desmond Tutu's deep and happy faith played a huge part in reconciliation in South Africa after the most terrible wrong-doings? I just wish that the inter-faith movement could receive more attention throughout the world, because I believe that it carries within it the possibility of solving some of our very worst conflicts. I wonder whether there are ways in which these developments can be shared on a wider basis.