Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Inter-faith day: Visit to a synagogue and discussing interreligious dialogue

It's been awhile since I've blogged so here I am! We've been very busy recently, meeting new people and learning new things so expect a few blogs explaining what we've been up to.

Meeting God in Friend and Stranger

Last Friday we spent the day with Katharina Muller, who is involved with interreligious dialgoue at the Catholic Bishops' Conference in Eccleston Square. The day began with a session on Meeting God in Friend in Stranger, which is a document put out by the conference on inter-faith dialogue and issues arising from this. During the session we broke down each section dealing with a variety of issues including inter-faith marriage, dialogue between religions and the importance of lay people engaging in dialogue.

The MGFS document was released in 2010 by the Conference, to remind Catholics that we are all called in our Baptism to engage in dialogue with others, even those of other faiths.The document particularly stresses the importance of the lay people, the grass roots, to enter into talks with other faiths and that dialogue can occur in everyday life - not just in Church or between religious leaders.

We also touched on Nostra Aetate, a Vatican doument from 1965. The document is the Church's declaration on the relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, which we were directed to if we wanted to read more on the topic.

Bevis Marks Synagogue

After the enlightening discussion we hopped on the tube to Liverpool Street, to the Bevis Marks Synagogue (1701), the oldest synagogue in the UK and home to a Spanish and Portugese Jewish community.

At the synagogue we were given a talk on the history of the community and the building. The man giving the talk (he sounded like Alan Sugar!) explained how the community had mostly moved away now to Maida Vale, but that Bevis Marks had a growing service attendance, mostly young professionals, due to its central location.

He gave us a potted history as well as the architectural facts about the building. The architect, Joseph Avis, a Quaker, designed the building around the same time as the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire. His Quaker background seemed evident from the hard pews! There was also an impressive ornate Ark, which contains the Torah scrolls, and seven candelabra (one for each day of the week). The man created a lovely image of the synagogue lit by candle light alone for weddings during the winter months.

Pointing out a roped off seat the man explained it was for Sir Moses Montefiore. I knew only a little about him before the talk, so it was interesting to hear about his good works. The seat is kept free in tribute to him, and only when there is a Jewish London Mayor - who is 'blessed' at the synagogue rather than St Paul's Cathedral - is someone allowed to sit in it. Prince Charles had the honour for their tercentenary service and Tony Blair for their service marking the 350th annivesary of the settlement of the Jews in Great Britain.

It sounds silly but I hadn't really thought about how other religions also have different strands. Just as Christianity has Catholics and Anglicans, Methodists and so on, Judaism, Hinduism and Islam have separate strands too. It was apparent by the end of the day how different these strands can be, and I found this an important lesson to take away in how I view other faiths. Our experience at the synagogue was an enlightening one, and I found it strange why I hadn't really ever visited another religions place of worship before.

Over a fish lunch (inspired by the Archbishop's pastoral letter) we discussed what we'd learnt, while lamenting our Lenten abstinences - although I did shamelessly enjoy a rather nice piece of fish. Katharina suggested perhaps we could have another inter-faith day, and next time visit a mosque. If the inter-faith session is anything to go by it should be an interesting experience! I'll look forward to it.

Until next time!


P.S The Conference's website has some links if you're interested in reading more about interreligious dialogue...

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