The city of Chelmsford in which I live is overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly nominal Christian. There is, however, a small but growing Muslim community. As a result we have two mosques – a larger one for the Sunnis, and a very small one for the Shias. Four years ago the Shias wanted to redevelop their mosque, and as a result a protest march was organised by the so-called ‘English Defence League’ against the redevelopment. Interestingly Christians in the town were divided: while city’s church leaders supported the mosque, there were a small group of people in my church who were uneasy about it. As one church member stated on a Facebook page: “Saying Muslims have the right to worship is no different from saying sinners have the right to sin. It may be true, but that doesn’t make it right.”.
This was the context in which I spoke to my church and made the following points::
- From the very beginning Baptists have argued for religious freedom – not just for themselves, but for everybody. In 1612 Thomas Helwys, the first Baptist leader, published A short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity, in which he argued for freedom for worship for all, and by all, he meant not just Baptists, but “heretics, Turks, Jews”. This plea for religious freedom for all was in fact the first such plea in English. Down through the centuries Baptists have continued to argue for religious freedom. This was why, for instance, a former President of the Baptist Union, Sir Cyril Black, went to court and publicly argued for the right of the Buddhists in Wimbledon to build a temple in his road.
- If we wish to win for Christ people of other faiths, then we need to understand them – and to understand them means that we must listen to them, and not just condemn their beliefs. To use the jargon, we need to enter into dialogue with them. I find it significant that William Carey, the founder of the Baptist Missionary Society, and a pioneer missionary in India, spent a good deal of time helping to translate the Ramayana, which is one of the key Hindu texts.
- We need to recognise that Muslims along with Christians and Jews are fellow ‘children of Abraham’. We do have things in common with Muslims – not least our shared belief in one God: Allah and Jehovah/Yahweh are one and the same. Clearly there are major differences, not least regarding Jesus: for Muslims Jesus is simply a prophet, whereas for us he is the Son of God. However, in our approach to British secularists, in a n umber of ethical areas Muslims can be our allies rather than our foes.
- None of this takes away the fact that Muslims have persecuted Christians and have been guilty of all kinds of atrocities. However, our record as Christians is not one to be proud of: here I have in mind not just the Crusades of the past, but also the burning of the Koran by American pastors.
- In a fractured world, building bridges with our Muslim neighbours, is no longer optional.
Around this time I began to seek to build bridges with one of the local mosques. We met with the leaders of the mosque and sought to engage in dialogue. Sadly we did not get very far. Rightly or wrongly there were other items on our agenda. And then I retired.
However, the other Sunday, as an ordinary punter, I attended a most unusual inter-faith event: it was a cricket match between the Sunni Mosque and the Anglican Cathedral. Each side was given 25 overs in which to bat. Somewhat amusingly the Muslims well and truly thrashed the Christians, but they did so in a gentlemanly manner: for instance, as soon as a Muslim batsman had put 25 runs on the scoreboard, he gave way to another member of the team. At one point they even allowed a Cathedral batsman who was out first ball, to have another go! During the match the Muslims served tea and cake – and samosas; they also made up amazing chocolate milk-shakes courtesy of Rolo and Snickers. At the end of the match they then provided curries of various kinds – it was a delicious meal.
As I reflected on the occasion, it seemed to me that a game of cricket is an excellent medium for developing inter-faith friendships. Cricket is a leisurely game – and is quite different in character from other sports. Whereas in a football or rugby match the spectators tend to be totally caught up in what is going on, a cricket match offers opportunities not just for watching two teams but also for conversing with the spectators. During the four hours of the match I found I was able to ‘work the crowd’ and talked to a wide range of people, both Muslim and Christians. Although my conversations with the people from the Mosque did not go very far, I felt that at least a foundation for friendship was being established. The one snag was that the match took place at the end of the season, and so we may well have to wait until next summer for the conversation. But at least it was a beginning.