Date: 07 July 2014
I was honoured to have been invited to be a guest speaker at Islamic Relief’s 30th anniversary reception, Welcoming Ramadan, on Friday 20 June at Old Trafford in Manchester. My speech follows, below. I was there to extend friendship and support to the local Muslim community and beyond ahead of the most significant event in the Islamic calendar. The celebrations highlighted that during Ramadan thousands of volunteers, mosques, community organisations and personalities get involved and organise activities to enhance interfaith and community cohesion.
The event also celebrated the unrivalled generosity of the British community to Islamic Relief. The charity is the largest Muslim faith-based NGO in the world, with an annual turnover of £160m and working in over 40 countries. Experienced at responding to international emergencies, it is a leader in humanitarian relief and is the only Muslim faith-based organization to be part of the Disasters Emergency Commission. Islamic Relief’s current campaigns include pressing for better humanitarian access to help those in need inside Syria, and urging donor governments not to slash vital aid to Afghanistan as foreign troops prepare to withdraw from the country.
Bishop David Walker, speech to Islamic Relief’s Welcoming Ramadan reception, 20th June 2014
The relief of those in need is a prime commitment held in common by the major world faiths. I am proud to be the guest of such a prestigious organisation as Islamic Relief, whose work is a powerful testimony to the generosity of Muslim people here and elsewhere.
I come tonight as the Bishop of Manchester. My roots and my faith have been formed in and are sustained by the Christian tradition, as represented by the Church of England. I am privileged to have the care of a diocese with a population of over two and a half million people, representing an English city with a worldwide reputation. But as well as being a bishop for the Church of England, I am charged with a responsibility, for seeing that the faith of all our world religions is not only respected but accorded its place in the public life of our society, as well as in our own families and our places of worship.
As a young student, preparing to take up public ministry, I had the privilege of serving in the Balsall Heath district of Birmingham. Part of my church duties were to knock on the doors of residents moving into newly built council houses, and simply to accept whatever welcome I received. There I learned at first hand of the hospitality of Muslim people, in conversation and in the drinking of tea. The area was quite poor, but the different faith communities worked together for its wellbeing. One of the rooms in our church was used regularly in the late afternoons for Muslim boys to have religious tuition. They had no nearby space available in any mosque or community building of their own. We also lent our newly built church to the nearby Sikh community, when they had an event too large to fit into their Gurdwara.
More recently, in the Dudley area of the West Midlands I have worked closely with my Muslim colleagues to support their planning application to build a new place of worship. And we have stood side by side to combat the efforts of racist groups, who were seeking to divide us. When they put on angry demonstrations, we responded with joyful parties.
My own journey of faith owes much to a Christian saint who lived some 800 years ago, Francis of Assisi. He was noted, among other things, for living in holy poverty and for his tenderness towards all God's creatures. Famously he preached to the birds and tamed a ferocious wolf. But perhaps the bravest thing that Francis did was to journey to a place where a Christian and a Muslim army were ranged against each other. Francis crossed the no man's land between the two camps, and befriended the leader of the Islamic forces, staying with him in his tent for several days. And whilst further conflict was not averted, the story of that human friendship has echoed down the centuries as a reminder that our common humanity within God's creation runs deeper than our political and religious divisions. It is no coincidence that when Pope John Paul the second wanted to bring together the leaders of the world's faith communities, some years ago, he chose Francis's home city as the venue for the gathering.
In the spirit of Francis of Assisi, I have learned over these years that we are challenged to move beyond mere tolerance towards genuine welcome to those who are different from ourselves. Diverse communities are better equipped to manage the complex issues and maximise the opportunities of the twenty first century. When we work together the job is easier and the results are better. That is true especially of the task of calling British society to welcome and respect religious faith. And it is true also of our efforts to combat poverty and human need across the world.
In the years that followed the Second World War there was a tide of change across much of Western Europe, one which led to societies becoming more secular in their outlook. At times that has been sold to us as the best way to ensure that different faiths can rub along together without conflict. However, I have yet to find any significant leaders of our faith communities who would hold to that vision. What we want is not a world where faith has been relegated to the private sphere of home, family and place of worship, but a world where the importance of faith, the foundation stone of the majority of human lives, is acknowledged. Indeed, as our cities and communities become ever more diverse in the range of faiths who live among us, it becomes more and more important that our society is religiously literate and that the insights of faith, of all our faiths, are given due weight in the public sphere.
Schools based on faith values are justifiably more popular than average among parents of all religious backgrounds. And it has become clear in recent days that the political attacks on a number of Birmingham schools are being largely orchestrated by those who are opposed to all religion in education. And charities based on faith values are equally prominent and popular. Even those who have little personal religious faith or practice recognise that organisations such as Christian Aid and Islamic Relief are better placed, both by their core values and their network of contacts, to deliver aid where it is needed and to minimise the opportunities for monies raised in this country to be subject to the forces of corruption.
So tonight I am delighted to be here with you to celebrate the links between religious faith and charitable action. And my prayer is that occasions such as this will both inspire us to greater achievements in our work and serve as a wake up call to our wider society that we are here, are proud of our faith, and are ready to serve the common good.