It was a spring afternoon on a Sunday in Edmonton. A group of spiritual and religious leaders from a variety of different traditions—Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Baha’i—stood outside the front doors of Corbett Hall on the University of Alberta campus. We had been invited there to take part in an annual interreligious memorial service for students at the university who had died during that academic year. A service of prayer and remembrance, reflecting a wide diversity of traditions, had been carefully prepared, and was to take place on that day late in the month of May, with local leaders representing different communities of belief. We had arrived in the nearby parking lot roughly at the same time, and walked to the door together. The only problem was, we found it locked.
And then someone’s phone rang. “Where are you?” the person on the other end of the line asked. “It is 15 minutes before the service is set to begin at Convocation Hall, and half of the religious leaders taking part are yet to arrive,” they added, with some urgency. It was then that we realized the error. In one of the emails arranging the details, someone had mistakenly given the location on the U of A campus as Corbett Hall rather than the correct place, Convocation Hall. We were a couple of blocks away from where we needed to be, and there were now just over 10 minutes until the prayers were to begin. What else was there to do but start running together?
I have often wondered what onlookers must have thought as they observed this scene: four quite visibly religious people running together down a busy city street. Fortunately, we made it to the hall on time, and the memorial service went beautifully. In fact, something about the ordinary humanity of this strange, shared experience helped these faith leaders to see their connection to one another in a very tangible way, which paid dividends in common work we were able to do together in collaboration for some years following.
I tell this story in part because it is a good story, but also because it illustrates something particularly important. Although religions and spiritual traditions are diverse, and do make truth claims about the Divine which are distinctive and not the same, they do share in the common human experiences of a search for truth, a desire for meaning and a longing for relationship with the transcendent. They do this in different ways, and with reference to different texts and stories and teachers and ceremonies. Christians, of course, believe that this shared human seeking and striving is responded to uniquely and in fullness in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who was and is the Wisdom of God made flesh in human history. But embracing this truth by no means implies that we cannot also affirm the goodness and honourability of the journey of seeking and finding wisdom by others who are walking on other religious and spiritual paths. Indeed, it is these two important convictions held side by side which call the disciples of the Way of Jesus into dialogue with their interreligious neighbours.
Since 2010, the week of Feb. 1-7 has been observed by many across the globe as United Nations World Interfaith Harmony Week (WIHW). Initially proposed by Muslim leaders to Christian colleagues, WIHW has grown year over year to include people across the spectrum of spiritual pursuit. It is now an important annual occasion to recognize the critical role which religious understanding and friendship play in the peace of nations as opposed to the path of rivalry and violence.
In 2021 there are WIHW events taking place in various parts of the world, some close to where many Anglican Journal readers live. Most of these will be online due to COVID-19 restrictions—the pandemic itself serving to highlight the importance of good relations between spiritual and religious communities as a source of social cohesion, mutual concern for the common good and joint initiatives of care for those who are especially vulnerable. But of course, interfaith interchange is happening all over the place in Canada, in multifaith associations, in community service projects, in schools, in neighbourhoods, among families and friends and so on.
This year, the Anglican Church of Canada has been making an increased effort to lift up WIHW and other interreligious learning opportunities to greater attention and engagement by our churches and people. This is done in witness to the growing need for interreligious awareness and cooperation by Christians in an increasingly plural society across this land. Such dialogue and partnership with our neighbours of other beliefs is not something we invite people into in spite of their fidelity to Christ, but rather precisely because of that faith—as an expression of the promises of the baptismal covenant to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”
The first step in moving from suspicion and hostility towards those who are not like us is always to meet someone face to face, to listen and to learn. Usually, this leads us to being able to recognize some of ourselves in the other, which opens doors. In the case of our interreligious and inter-spiritual others, perhaps we can also come to recognize something of the movement of one and the same Spirit of God in the seeking of the other—the Holy Spirit whose desire is to lead each of us, in God’s time, and in God’s way, to the reconciliation of all things in the fullness of time.
Who, what, and where is your first step?
Canon Scott Sharman is the Anglican Church of Canada’s animator for ecumenical and interfaith relations. He holds a PhD in historical theology from the University of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto.