The Anglican Church of Canada could soon join a global movement on Christian-Muslim dialogue—but ‘A Common Word’ has already brought Albertans together
On Jan. 25, two men walked into the Al Rashid Mosque in Edmonton and confronted people arriving for Friday prayers. Clad in black, they appeared to be scouting the building and got into a dispute with community members in the parking lot. One wore a toque bearing the Arabic word for “infidel.”
Less than a week later, the city’s Markaz-Ul-Islam Mosque received a threatening hate letter, urging the mosque to close down and leave “or accept Jesus as your one true god.”
On March 15, the worst fears of Muslims who experience such intimidation came to pass in Christchurch, New Zealand, when consecutive mass shootings at two local mosques left 50 people dead and more than 50 others injured.
For the Rev. Scott Sharman, animator for ecumenical and interfaith relations for the Anglican Church of Canada, such incidents underscore the need for Christians to take a stand against hate and promote dialogue between the world’s two largest faiths.
At the November 2018 meeting of the Council of General Synod (CoGS), Sharman presented a resolution calling for the council to affirm efforts by the department of faith, worship and ministry to support Christian-Muslim dialogue under the banner of “A Common Word Between Us and You,” working in parallel with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) as a full-communion project.
A global initiative inspired by a letter signed by 138 Muslim leaders in 2007– 2008—subsequently endorsed by more than 200 Christian leaders, including former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams—“A Common Word” invites Christians and Muslims to come together for open dialogue and seek common ground to work towards peace.
CoGS passed the resolution put forward by Sharman, which directed faith, worship and ministry to develop a draft resolution calling for an official endorsement by the Anglican Church of Canada of the “A Common Word” statement. At its March 2019 meeting, CoGS voted to forward the motion to the upcoming General Synod in Vancouver.
The motion stipulates that the General Synod express its gratitude for and accept the gift of the offer by Muslim leaders; that the Anglican Church of Canada join other signatories to “A Common Word” via the signature of the primate; and that the church and ELCIC jointly initiate a program of ecumenical Christian-Muslim engagement in receptive communities across Canada based on this model.
“I think as Christians in this country—as people of relative freedom and privilege, as a people who haven’t had the same experience as religious minorities—we have an obligation and responsibility to make sure that other people of faith are safe and have freedom,” Sharman says.
Incidents such as the New Zealand massacre, the acts of intimidation targeting Edmonton mosques, and the two-year anniversary of the Quebec City mosque shooting “highlight again how important that is, and that this isn’t just a problem that exists in other parts of the world,” Sharman adds.
“I think the Anglican Church of Canada and other Christian churches in Canada really can model a different way of being in relationship and seeking to overcome stereotypes and false assumptions, and work towards understanding and peaceable relationships.” For several years, Sharman has been active in A Common Word Alberta, which since 2012 has worked to bring Christians and Muslims together in Edmonton.
Donna Entz, an outreach worker for Mennonite Church Alberta, co-founded the provincial organization, which takes the “A Common Word” statement as inspiration. Having lived in a Muslim village for 30 years in Burkina Faso, Entz has long had a passion for communicating with Muslims and learning more about the Islamic faith. She helped organize dialogues between Mennonites and Muslims in Edmonton, which eventually expanded into A Common Word Alberta.
“I think it’s always been important that we relate together,” Entz says. “It’s really a tangible way to go against the hate and the discrimination that in our political sphere seems to be more polarized.”
In Edmonton, the largest flagship event for A Common Word Alberta is an annual day of dialogue in the fall, hosted alternately by a Christian or Muslim community. Each year, the event attracts an average of 300-400 Christians and Muslims, largely lay people.
The dialogue includes prominent speakers from each faith tradition, who are invited to reflect on a theme or piece of scripture of common interest and to respond to each other. Participants are seated at tables with Christians and Muslims equally distributed.
Other highlights include recitations from the Bible or Qur’an; expressions of faith through poetry, art and music; and a shared meal, in which participants literally and figuratively break bread together—an act with deep spiritual roots and meaning in both Christianity and Islam.
“One of the unique things about A Common World Alberta is that it is an annual event that generally brings in the same people over and over again,” says Ibrahim Long, a Muslim chaplain and teacher who has attended the dialogue for five years.
“So we develop a relationship over time, and because many of us already involved are people who are involved in the community, we might actually bump into each other or ask to work with each other on other activities.”
Besides the day of dialogue, a growing number of groups are forming to maintain and build relationships on a more regular basis. Many Christians and Muslims are reading and studying scripture together through the Scriptural Reasoning program, which compares texts on common topics from their respective holy books.
Jane Samson, an Anglican lay reader at Holy Trinity Old Strathcona and a history professor at the University of Alberta, describes growing hate crimes as the result of complex global processes and events, from 9/11 and the Syrian refugee crisis to economic and technological changes.
“It’s a human problem—reacting to rapid change, reacting to new neighbours who are different from us,” Samson says. “That’s always been a human challenge. And now, we’ve got these global processes underway—economic dislocation, rural [and] refugee movements in the age of air travel. So along with the Internet, there’s a sense possibly [among] some people with being overwhelmed by change, and we see the reaction to that in the political sphere.”
The resurgence of racism, however, has also led to a pushback in the wake of violent hate crimes. The mosque shootings in New Zealand led to a global outpouring of support marked by vigils and donations to those affected by the attack.
In the case of Edmonton, Samson describes a prevailing sense of “good neighbourliness” based on a rich tradition of inclusivity and interfaith interaction. The city’s Interfaith Centre for Education and Action, for example, is one of the oldest interfaith centres in North America.
“We deal together with vandalism, whether it’s at a synagogue or a mosque or a church,” Samson says. The networking of different faiths fostered by initiatives such as A Common Word Alberta made itself felt in the wake of the January mosque incidents. Immediately afterwards, Edmonton mosques received support from Christians such as Entz, who texted messages of solidarity.
Long, who attends worship at Al Rashid Mosque, acknowledged that the entry by the two individuals, whom he described as “very threatening and aggressive,” was “a bit of a scare to the community.” Yet the messages of support soon boosted the morale of the mosque.
One of the relationships that Long has cultivated through A Common Word Alberta is with Sharman. The Anglican interfaith animator is currently looking into collecting resources from the Alberta experience to provide a “toolkit” for “A Common Word”-inspired dialogue between Christians and Muslims in other parts of Canada—an effort that elicited praise from the Muslim chaplain.
“When Scott contacted me about the idea that the Anglican Church is looking to officially provide a response to the ‘A Common Word’ letter and maybe provide this toolkit, I thought, ‘This is awesome. This is what we need to be working on right now.’”