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In 2001 the Archbishop of Canterbury began a strategic initiative, realized in 2006 by the launching of The Christian Muslim Forum—designed to bring together people of faith from Christian and Muslim religious traditions across England, building bridges of understanding and friendship.  Remarkable to me is the unique structure of its leadership, evenly trading between Christian and Muslim clergy.  They are an organization operating in a professional manner, using their remarkable energy and motivation to make neighborly peace a reality, and are an excellent model for others to follow.  The director, Julian Bond, was kind enough to take a few moments to answer some questions about the Forum, and share an overview of past activities.

Leadership roles revolve, and include a broad spectrum of Christian and Muslim clergy.  Why is this, and how does it work?

The Christian Muslim Forum began as the Archbishop’s Initiative for Christian-Muslim Relations, within the Church of England (read more here). Our first Chair was a Bishop in the Church of England. The Chair position revolved every two years for our first five years. However, we took the decision last year to treat both of the Co-Chairs equally, thus moving from a representative of one faith taking the lead role to having joint leadership. This better fits our ethos of the equality of both faiths in our organisation. The Co-Chairs are drawn from our Presidents.

The Presidents are mainly clerics or scholars, though they may also be high profile inter faith practitioners. We are conscious that some of these positions are less likely to be held by women (or not held at all). We have taken the decision to improve the representation of women in the Forum and appointed our first female Muslim President last year. The status and recognition of Presidential candidates is important so that people of both faiths can be satisfied that recognised leaders and spokespeople are included in our organisation.

Muslim and Christian leaders are drawn from many sects within their respective faith traditions.  Why is this important, and how does it affect inter faith cooperation and understanding?

As both faiths are diverse it is vital that their diversity is represented. This brings benefits within our organisation, we can listen to a variety of voices and not be dominated by a single tradition. It also enables us to engage with the diversity of those outside the Forum and facilitate our communication. As well as these factors it is helpful to have traditions represented which have significant similarities across the faiths. However, the greater significance is probably that we have a sense of bringing the broad range of both faiths into our dialogue and are able to engage more effectively with issues that have may a particular impact on some traditions.

How do you reconcile the zeal of profound and personal faith with the need to work together?  Why aren’t the two drives, faith and pluralism, exclusive?

It is our faith that encourages us to work together and we are committed to pluralism, our outlook on our society is pluralistic, nevertheless we retain the exclusives of our faith. It is the zeal of personal faith which drives much of our work and relationship-building amongst ourselves. We developed the Ethical Witness Guidelines precisely out of this space, faith and pluralism go together.

How have the accomplishments of the Forum matched your expectations as Director, as well as the hopes of those involved?  What practical effects do you see from the Forum in the future?

Some of our achievements, such as the guidelines above, productive gatherings of leaders and other resources that we have produced have been exactly what I hoped the Forum would achieve. However, it is my nature, and the organisation’s, not to be satisfied when there is more to do. In our work we seek to increase the number of those supporting and participating in our initiatives, some of our events are very well supported, with others we struggle to find sufficient participants. We are seeking to encourage more Christians and Muslims to work together practically at a local level and are aiming for this to be a very significant part of our work, through our Near Neighbours programme.

What is the single most practical effect you have seen from the Forum?

The biggest effect of our work has been the responses to our ‘Religious Festivals’ statement. This arose out of secular concerns in the UK that celebrating, or even referring, to Christmas could be offensive to people of other faiths. Our statement responded to these concerns and generated a huge media interest, including outside the UK. The statement’s impact continues each year at Christmas-time and it has begun to change attitudes.

Review of 2011

January

‘Telling our Stories’: As we begin our sixth year and have seen our work deepening we have been reflecting that we think we know about each other’s paths of faith but often we don’t really. So what could we do about that? Tell each other our own stories … We will be asking people from many different backgrounds to tell us their journey in life and faith and share their backgrounds, challenges and concerns. Topics: Faiths and the family; Beyond stereotypes; What are the challenges that we, and our families, face?

A Christian-Muslim-Humanist ‘Trialogue’ – an interesting conversation between representatives of three different worldviews, an exploration of how we can talk together effectively and whether there a religious/humanist divide.

March

LIFE – the final phase of our Women’s inter faith and the environment project and the LIFE pack

Mill Towns, Religion and Understanding – an event at Bradford for leaders, taking place in an Islamic seminary (a first for us) and the Cathedral

May

‘Our families in Times of Change’ – a family event (yes we did have a number of children present) reflecting on our experiences of family and religious issues, including inter faith relationships.

June

Trade Justice campaign and statement with the Christian Muslim Youth Forum in partnership with MADE in Europe, at Lambeth Palace.

‘Minding the Gap’ a seminar with a range of experts exploring how mental health services relate to people of faith and faith issues.

October

‘Christian Engagement with Islam’ –  a new departure for us, a single-faith event, for Christians new to, or cautious about, engaging with Muslims.

‘A Place for Faith Schools(?)’ – a day seminar exploring whether whether people of faith should support faith schools.

November

‘Mosque and Church’ – a youth-focused event for Inter Faith Week. Dialogue with young Christians and Muslims in West London and walking between the mosque and the church in the middle.

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