Author: Kat Brealey
Date: 08 February 2016
Rev Simon Bale is the Diocesan Interfaith Adviser for Bath and Wells. We caught up with him to find out a bit about his background and the work he's currently involved in.
Welcome, Simon! Apart from being diocesan interfaith adviser, what is your day to day role?
I am assistant curate in Highbridge, Somerset. I am in my final year of training after being ordained in 2013.
How did you get involved in interfaith work?
My more formal engagement with interfaith work goes back to the mid-1990s when I began working with the Hindu, Sikh, Jewish and Muslim communities of Bristol whilst I was a community organiser for a forerunner of CitizensUK. We worked together on many issues (with and without any particular ‘interfaith dimension), including helping to bring an Islamic School to the city (now ‘The Andalusia Academy’). My experience from the start, therefore, was with a broad range of Muslim communities, from Turkish, Pakistani, Somali and Bangladeshi backgrounds, for example, all working together to a common aim. This work then broadened, working to bring these Muslim communities into more mainstream community activity across the city. At the same time I was engaged with all major faith communities in the city on goals common to all, such as parental engagement in education, policing, living wage campaigns and more. From 2005 onwards I became significantly involved in the formation and development of the Bristol Multi-faith Forum, an organisation that continues to bring together all global faiths, and which I chaired for three years until 2012.
In your diocese, what are some of the key issues related to interfaith engagement?
Bath and Wells is not especially diverse. Compared to Bristol, where non-Christian faiths comprise around 15% of the population, in Bath and Wells the figure barely reaches 2%. Consequently, one of the key issues is visibility. Whereas people in the Diocese may hear about interfaith issues via the broadcast media, the potential for face to face encounter is markedly reduced. This can make interfaith seem a remote or even irrelevant matter, and this can tend to foster a sense of either ignorance or fear of the unknown. However, many of those I meet through my work as Interfaith Adviser are very keen to build relations across faith boundaries. Since the non-Christian faith communities can be quite small and isolated, one key issue is to help them be confident in showing themselves at all. This requires understanding and encouragement from the wider world as well as courage from the isolated communities of Muslims (in particular) and other faiths. Interestingly, one thing that keeps cropping up is that, whilst people may not encounter non-Christian faiths where they live, for many who work in larger conurbations such as Bristol and Bath, their working life may provide much more opportunities to work in interfaith settings.
As interfaith adviser, what are the main things you’ve found yourself doing so far?
My role is only ‘formally' for 2 hours each week, and so my activities are somewhat limited. A large part of what I do is responding to requests from schools and parishes to find (mostly Muslim) representatives to speak at interfaith sessions, collective worship and so on. I have been asked to advise on interfaith baptisms, and also on matters of burial and cremation. Increasingly, I am being called upon to speak to deanery synods across the diocese and have begun exploring how this level of interaction might lead to a more practical approach to ‘doing interfaith’ for church communities who feel on the edge of the big issues affecting society, such as refugees and asylum, and the relevance of faith schools.
What is it about the interfaith adviser role that excites you?
Unity extends way beyond Christianity. Contemporary society is so much more about sharing with all people and I am always excited to find examples of how people have joined in with the bigger picture, working together to build a world that strives for peace and good regardless of creed. There is both a practical and a philosophical/spiritual dimension to interfaith work. On the one hand it is good to stand together, facing each other, and to share in what distinguishes us in our various beliefs. Understanding the distinctive qualities of Islam, Sikhism and so on is powerful in bringing a greater understanding of all our spirituality. Then there is the value we get from turning around, still standing together, but looking out into the world and asking, “How can all our faith build a common good?” The answers are drawn from a shared understanding, and both dimensions are essential. Interfaith work is profoundly important in all our lives.
Thanks for your time Simon - all the best with your continuing work in Bath and Wells!