Alf Keeling Memorial Lecture

Rev Morris giving the 2011 Alf Keeling Memorial Lecture

Rev Morris giving the 2011 Alf Keeling Memorial Lecture

The inaugural Alf Keeling Memorial Lecture
was given by Rev Deacon Alan Morris at
St Ambrose Prep School, Hale Barns
on Thursday 15 September 2011.
About 60 people attended the lecture which
was entitled “Soup or Salad ?”.
Rev Morris explained why he thinks that a
multi-faith culture should not have all of the
ingredients liquidised together into ‘soup’ but
should consist of a range of different ingredients
each separate but more enjoyable together
with interfaith dialogue as the salad dressing
binding them together. 

We are grateful to Rev Morris for generously allowing us to include the text of his lecture below.

P9150106 - cropped

Rev Morris with Mrs Jean Keeling and Altrincham Interfaith Group committee members

 

Soup or Salad

For those of you who, on reading the title of this talk – Soup or Salad, believe that you have come to an interfaith version of Ready, Steady, Cook, now is the time discreetly to slip away. 

Though I’m sure that Alf Keeling would have enjoyed the thought of a cookery programme in his memory, the menu tonight is meant to satisfy an altogether different hunger, a hunger for mutual understanding and heartfelt friendship between the great faith groups in our country, a hunger Alf felt deeply and did much to assuage.

Let me open with a quotation from the Hebrew prophet, Elijah.  Elijah is waiting for a visitation from God and he is wondering if the voice of God is heard in the overpowering devastation of the earthquake or the tumult of the tornado.  The Hebrew scriptures say this:

There came a mighty wind, so strong it tore the mountains and shattered the rocks before the Lord.  But the Lord was not in the wind.

In fact, Elijah hears the voice of God in the gentle breeze and promptly worships him.

Fr David, Parish Priest of my parish of Holy Angels takes great delight in telling me that there are some members of the congregation who strongly suspect that I’m about to become a member of Hale Synagogue when I wear my yarmulke, that is those who haven’t already decided that I’m really an Anglican vicar with my plummy voice or a United Reformed minister with my decidedly Protestant sympathies.  Let me assure you immediately that I have no intention of leaving the Catholic Church, for all my deep involvement on behalf of the Diocese of Shrewsbury in interfaith and Christian ecumenical encounter.  But it is true that I spend a great deal of my time trying to build bridges between the faith communities of Greater Manchester and within the various parts of the Christian family itself, a family tragically so long divided.  I started this adventure many years ago before ever Bishop Brian asked me to take on the role formally as part of my ministry and I’ve now found it to be one of the most life-giving and rewarding dimensions of my diocesan role.  In particular, I’ve found that what appear to be chasms between us a mile wide shrink to manageable proportions the deeper one explores the beliefs of other parts of the Christian family and indeed other faiths.  That is definitely not to say that we are all the same really deep down or that beliefs don’t really matter.  But I’ve found that as I dig deeper I no longer have to shout to be heard across a chasm but can enjoy a civilised conversation across a much narrower crack.  The voice of the Divine is not to be heard in the mighty wind of confrontational polemic but in the gentle breeze of well-informed, respectful discourse.

Contrary to the expectations of the gurus of secularism, such as Richard Dawkins, far from the inevitability of it withering away, religion has come to dominate many a TV news programme and the headlines in our newspapers, though often for the very worst of reasons.  Even here in Manchester the relationship between religions has become an object of popular interest, so that recently I’ve twice appeared on local radio with representatives of the Jewish and Muslim faiths for hour long discussions.

Inevitably, as a Catholic Christian, I speak from a Catholic perspective, and in particular I’m rooted in the documents of the Catholic Church, especially in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, inaugurated by Pope John XXIII, which met in Rome in the early 1960s, but I hope that whatever I say will find resonances with you all.

Perhaps the greatest document to emerge from Vatican Council II in the middle 1960s was Lumen Gentium, the document on the nature of the Church itself.  And there, in the very first paragraph, we find the recognition that the Church is a sacrament or sacred sign of God’s eternal purposes of reconciliation, between God and creation and within creation between us, God’s creatures.  It follows that, for Christians, to be the Church is to be about fostering reconciliation, whereas not to be about reconciliation is not to be the Church.  Pope John XXIII, who initiated the Council, once famously said that whenever he encountered a wall between people he tried to take out a brick.  Whenever the Church fosters good relations and friendship she is fulfilling her mission of being the sacrament of uniting people to God and to each other.  Now the recognition that reconciliation between peoples is part of the divine plan, of which the Church is a sacrament, was like a pebble dropped into the pool of the Council.  Its immediate effect was to kick start a Catholic quest first for Christian unity in the document Unitatis Redintegratio, but the ripples rapidly widened to encompass a massive shift in mindset, firstly with regard to Judaism and then with regard to the spectrum of the other great world religions, which also figure prominently in the document, Nostra Aetate.  That document, Nostra Aetate, opened with the sweeping recognition that God was concerned with all people:

All men and women form but one community.  This is so because all stem from the one stock which God created to people the entire earth (cf.  Acts 17:26), and also because all share a common destiny, namely God.  His providence, evident goodness, and saving designs extend to all

This sense of our common humanity being the crucial first ingredient in our approach to the other faiths comes out most forcefully in the address Pope John Paul II gave to the Roman Curia – the civil service of the Catholic Church – after the 1986 World Day of Prayer for Peace at Assisi, when he said of the variety of religions he had experienced there that: The differences are a less important element, when confronted with the unity which is radical, fundamental and decisive.  That statement resonates most powerfully with one from William Penn, after whom the State of Pennsylvania is named, when he wrote:

The humble, the gentle, the merciful, the just, the devout and loyal souls all belong to one religion: and, when death takes away the masks, they will recognise each other, even though the different uniforms they wear here make them look like strangers

Without in any sense compromising the uniqueness that Christians attribute to the person of Jesus, Nostra Aetate acknowledged that whatever is good and beautiful and true within the other great world religions stems from the inspiration of the Divine Spirit: 

The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions.  She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men.

And furthermore the document proclaimed: 

Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, also their social life and culture.

For Catholic Christians the effect of these documents on the life of the Church in a plural world was utterly transformative.  The Council documents provided us with the keys with which to unlock the prison doors that had held captive for far too long the fostering of good relations between the great world faiths. 

But there was one dimension of that transformation that is often missed, and it is this.  The Catholic Church had recognised long before the Council that those outside the boundaries of the Christian family could be saved – but, perhaps, only by an act of divine merciful forgetfulness.  If you like, God would overlook the unfortunate fact that some people had been born in the wrong place or at the wrong time, and so, through no fault of their own, were unable to hear and embrace the Gospel.  And so, driven by the desire to make absolutely sure that non Christians were saved from Hell, there were heroic missionaries, missionaries  like St Francis Xavier who baptised over a million souls in his lifetime – in fact, he holds the record in the ecclesiastical Guinness Book of Records for mass baptisms.   Sadly, I have to admit that before Vatican Council II even the fate of non-Catholic Christians was considered, by some, to be suspect.  The story is told of the Episcopalian Archbishop of Dublin who asked his Catholic gardener if he – the archbishop – would be saved.  “Certainly, Your Reverence,” came the reply, “You’ll be saved by your invincible ignorance!”  Well, we’ve moved on from there.  We now recognise that the Divine Spirit is alive, well and abroad way beyond the boundaries of the Catholic Church, in fact, way beyond the boundaries of the Christian family; and that means that human compassion for the ultimate fate of our fellow non-Christian men and women no longer compels us to attempt to save them from eternal perdition by mass baptism.

That process of unpacking the implications of the Council documents, concerning the universality of the Divine Spirit goes on apace within the national and more local church settings, so that, this evening we are celebrating, here in south Manchester, an interfaith forum which is thriving and successful by whatever criteria you may wish to measure it.  And we are doing so in the blessed memory of Alf Keeling who devoted so much of his massive creative energy in the latter years of his rich and gifted life to the flourishing of this group.

2010 saw the publication of a document from the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales on Interfaith Dialogue, entitled Meeting God in Friend and Stranger.   The principal episcopal author, Archbishop Kevin McDonald, visited Hale in January 2011 to talk – in this very hall – to Christians and members of other faiths about this remarkable document.  I want to use the document as a template from which to speak on interfaith relations.

Meeting God in Friend and Stranger reflects on the magisterial document of Vatican Council II, Nostra Aetate, (which remember opened up the possibility of dialogue firstly with Judaism and then with the other great world faiths) and develops the teaching of NA in both theoretical and practical ways within the context of the Catholic Christian community of England and Wales; and it does so by drawing on the wisdom of later Roman documents.   

It opens with a discussion entitled What is Interreligious Dialogue?  In 1984 the Holy See’s department for dialogue with other world religions described dialogue in this way:

[Dialogue]… means not only discussion, but also includes all positive and constructive interreligious relations with individuals and communities of other faiths which are directed at mutual understanding and enrichment.   

In an address to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in 1990 Pope John Paul II described it even more briefly: Dialogue is not so much an idea to be studied as a way of living in positive relationship with others.   There can be no doubt that encounter with other world faiths is a challenging task for, as the document puts it: 

We must certainly enter dialogue prepared to be surprised and to change our minds, because in dialogue [with others] we [must] actually expect to find that God is already there, and that Christ has gone before us with ‘seeds of the Word’.  It is in dialogue that we meet and are moved to collaborate with the same Holy Spirit we have received ourselves. 

Furthermore, the document encourages us with these words: for a Christian, interreligious dialogue is a profoundly Christ-like work. 

Chapter 2 reflects on the rapidly changing religious profile of our country and the reality of diminishing overt Christian practice.   Last year I wrote the interfaith section of my own bishop’s Ad Limina, Five Yearly Report to the Holy See.  Part of that report had to be statistical.  The 2001 Census was the first to ask a question about people’s religion.  These statistics are by now somewhat out of date, but in round figures this was what emerged: 41 million described themselves as Christian (72% of the population); 1.6 million as Muslim (3%), 558,000 as Hindu (1%), 336,000 as Sikh (0.6%), 267,000 as Jewish (0.5%), 149,000 as Buddhist (0.3%), 159,000 as members of other religions (0.3%), 8.6 million as of no religion (15%).  4.4 million (8%) did not say.

These statistics reveal a rapid change in the religious balance of our country, a change which occasions fear in many, but the document – MgiFaS – is positive and reassuring:

to resent diversity in principle is to exclude ourselves from the possibility of being enriched by what others might have to offer.  This does not correspond to a Christian, and especially a Catholic, vision.   

However, while recognising the legitimacy of the religious pluralism found in England and Wales, Meeting God in Friend and Stranger, following the Declaration from Rome, Dominus Jesus, is clear that Catholic Christians have not abandoned their belief that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is a unique and precious gift.   

As I’ve mentioned, Nostra Aetate was originally conceived by Pope John to be a document solely devoted to exploring our relationship as Christians with the world of Judaism, because, of course, Christianity is historically rooted, and remains rooted today, in the soil of Israel.   However, while about half of NA is still devoted to Jewish/Christian relations, the Fathers of the Council wisely decided to expand the document to encompass the other major world faiths, particularly Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.   This is what Pope Benedict said of Islam on his visit to Turkey in 2006:   

Following the Biblical tradition, the [Second Vatican] Council teaches that the entire human race shares a common origin and a common destiny: God, our Creator and the goal of our earthly pilgrimage.  Christians and Muslims belong to the family of those who believe in the one God and who, according to their respective traditions, trace their ancestry to Abraham.  The human and spiritual unity in our origins and our destiny impels us to seek a common path, as we play our part in the quest for fundamental values so characteristic of the people of our time…

By reference to the magisterial text from the Council, Lumen Gentium, Meeting God in Friend and Stranger reaffirms the Catholic Church’s belief concerning the divine source of what is found to be good outside the Christian dispensation:

Whatever goodness and truth is found in [other world religions] is considered by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel, and bestowed by him who enlightens everyone, that they might in the end have life (LG 16).   

And, while re-emphasising the Christian view of the unique and indispensable nature of the revelation of God in Jesus, the document records that,

the Second Vatican Council, and subsequent papal teaching, affirm the active presence of the freely given, saving power of Christ (‘grace’) outside the visible, institutional confines of the Church.   

A quite remarkable feature of the teaching of Pope John Paul II is the prominence he gave to the activity of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those who belong to other religions.   In the encyclical Redemptoris Missio (Mission of the Redeemer) he says,

 it is the Spirit who sows the ‘seeds of the Word’ present in various customs and cultures, preparing them for full maturity in Christ (RM 28).

Meeting God in Friend and Stranger courageously faces up to the question of the mission of the Church in a religiously plural society.   In particular it says this: 

We cannot emphasise too strongly that interreligious dialogue is not a covert form of proselytism (dishonest or aggressive persuasion).  .  .  .  In dialogue we are not trying by underhand means to convert the other person.  Dialogue is an honest witnessing to our belief, and a sincere listening to the belief of the other person.   

It establishes evangelisation in a much broader context: 

Christians evangelise, and the Church as such evangelises, whenever by Christ’s power and the Holy Spirit, in any way whatever, they enable the Reign or Kingdom of God to permeate the minds and hearts, the cultures and activities of the world of their time. 

Inevitably there will be those within our various Christian denominations who feel that we betray our vocation to Christian mission if we do not try to win converts.  To them I would say this:  because we believe that in Jesus we have the perfect exemplar of what it means to be human, the Christian mission, both within the family of the Church and beyond the Church to the rest of the world, must be to enable men and women to become ever more perfectly human, as God the Father intended us to be from the first.  Whenever we do this by helping the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the lame to walk or simply by showing kindness and compassion to a weary traveller passing through this world we fulfil that dimension of Christian mission through enabling a lost soul to rediscover his or her humanity in all its fullness.  As the document puts it:

Christ demands that we hold out the hand of hospitality to the stranger.  And, furthermore, the work of evangelisation is much wider than [winning converts]. 

The latter chapters of Meeting God in Friend and Stranger are concerned with giving practical guidance on such matters as interfaith activities, interfaith education and interfaith marriages.   And, crucially, it urges us to conduct interfaith relations fraternally in partnership with the rest of the Christian family.

I have an image of what we are trying to achieve in interfaith relationships which I hope is helpful.  It is the image of the soup versus the salad.  In a soup one normally pops all the ingredients into a liquidiser and what emerges is a product of even colour and texture.  That is not what we are aiming for in interfaith work.  No, we are aiming for an interfaith salad.  The various components of the salad – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and so on – retain their characteristic flavours, colours and textures but are bound together with a good salad dressing.  The salad dressing allows for a genuine but limited exchange of flavours between the various ingredients.  If you like, we have an exchange of understanding which leads to mutual respect.  The salad dressing is mainly olive oil, but there is a small amount of vinegar to sharpen up the flavours and a spoonful of sugar to mask the less palatable aspects of the vinegar.  Getting the salad dressing right is the crucial dimension of the salad and that has nothing to do with bureaucracy and everything to do with style.  You can introduce all the right structures but without a genuine desire for mutual understanding and respect the salad will not work.  More than a mere touch of vinegar and the salad will be sour. 

I want to tease out the image of soup or salad a little further.   Within Christianity in times long past there has occasionally been a train of thought which saw the Church and state ideally as a seamless whole.  The argument went that as Christianity was good there could be no more ideal state than the Christian state in which the laws and customs were entirely governed by Church authorities as a seamless whole.  This was the soup rather than the salad model of Christian society.  And this soup model was I have to say always a DISASTER, for the history of Christianity, whether under Charlemagne and his successors in the Holy Roman Empire of the Dark Ages or in the Protestant Calvin’s brutally severe theocracy of 16thcentury Geneva or later again in some of the claustrophobically intense, witch-hunt obsessed settlements on the East coast of North America in the 18th century or, yet again, in the alliances of throne and altar of which the 20thcentury Irish Republic is an uncomfortable example.  The soup model was always a DISASTER for the Christian faith.  In all these attempts to merge Christianity with the state, Christianity always became tainted.   It isn’t that Christianity is ghastly in itself, quite the contrary, it is rather that the concentration of both secular and sacred power in the hands of imperfect human beings proved too heavy a burden for frail humanity to bear.

John Locke’s great contribution to the religious debate that raged throughout seventeenth century Europe was to argue that the problem lay not with religion itself but with the fusion of religion and secular power.  In his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) he argued that the “whole jurisdic­tion of the magistrate” is limited to secular affairs—securing fundamental human rights (life, liberty, property) through the impartial implementa­tion of the law.  It definitely did not – he thought – extend to the “salvation of souls.” Governments should leave theological issues to private debate rather than weighing in on one side or another.  He said this:

If a Roman Catholic believes that to be really the body of Christ, which another man calls bread, he does no injury thereby to his neighbor.  If a Jew does not believe the New Testament to be the Word of God, he does not thereby alter anything in men’s civil rights.  If a heathen doubts of both Testaments, he is not therefore to be punished as a pernicious citizen.

Locke thought that the power of the magistrate and the estates of the people would be equally secure whether any man believed these things or no.

If governments should leave religion alone, then religion –he thought – should return the compliment: “The care of each man’s salvation is a purely private affair.” False religious beliefs do not violate another man’s rights.  And true faith cannot be imposed by force.

Some of Locke’s successors added important details to this argument.  The 18thcentury Scottish political philosopher, Adam Smith, and his contemporary, the French philosopher, Voltaire, both pointed out that the existence of a wide variety of religious sects tends to promote toleration.

 ”If there were only one religion in England,” Voltaire wrote in his Letters Concerning the English Nation, “there would be danger of tyranny; if there were two, they would cut each other’s throats; but there are thirty, and they live happily together in peace.”

But I believe that the really great breakthrough in civilized society’s understanding of the correct relationship between the state and religious life came with America’s Founding Fathers.  Whereas Locke had advocated mere “toleration”—an established reli­gion with other faiths legally tolerated—the Founders eventually argued for the universal freedom of religion with no established church and therefore no politically understood religious dissent.  Tom Paine, the 18th century revolutionary philosopher, put the case for going beyond mere tolerance best:

Toleration is not the opposite of intolerance but the counterfeit of it.  Both are despotisms: the one assumes to itself the right of withholding liberty of conscience, the other of granting it. 

The Founding Fathers of the US understood the appeal of religion: they did not want to abolish or marginalize it.  But they also understood how dangerous it is when religion is mixed with political power.  They talked about the horrors of the 16th and 17th century wars of religion in much the same way that people today talk about the horrors of the First and Second World Wars.  With memories of religious persecution still alive in their collective consciousness, they were deter­mined that the New World would not repeat the mistakes of the Old.  John Adams argued that

aristocratical tyrants are the worst species of all; and sacerdotal tyrants have been the worst of aristocratical tyrants in all ages and nations.”

One of his principles was to “mix religion with politics as little as possible.” Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of The Declaration of Independence, and third president of the US, referred to the

loathsome com­bination of church and state.”" “History,” he said, “furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government.”

Does that mean that I, as a Catholic Christian, would want to marginalise the role of religion in our country?  Not at all!  In his address to parliament last September Pope Benedict made a plea for a sustained and vigorous conversation between religion and the state.  The thrust of his argument was that when that conversation ceases or is suppressed and the state shuts God out, the state, unchecked, descends into the depths of human depravity.  The most ghastly states of the 20thcentury were explicitly godless with the state itself becoming an idol.  One thinks of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Mao Zedung’s China and Pol Pot’s Cambodia.  The ideal is – if you like – the salad model.  Here the state and religion remain each with their distinct flavours and textures, but through the medium of the salad dressing – the robust conversation, if you like – religion can act as a moral check and challenge to the state, while the state can ensure that all citizens may freely follow their chosen religious path, by guarding their individual and collective civil rights.

You may think, however, that the Catholic Church is more like a soup than a salad, a monolithic religious structure imposing uniformity across the world.  You may then wonder how Deacon Alan can advocate a salad model of society when he floats like a crouton in a Catholic soup?  Well, to understand the Catholic Church as a monolith would be a mistake.  The Catholic Church is actually a confederation of some 20 Churches – it depends how you count them.  Even within Holy Angels, though the majority of the congregation belong to the Latin or Roman Rite, we also have a small number of Chaldean Rite Catholics from Iraq.  The variety of 20 or so rites within the Catholic Church enjoy their own very different rituals and even canon law, so that, for example, most Catholic rites, apart from the Latin Rite, benefit from a married priesthood.  That pluriformity does not diminish Catholic unity but enhances it.

Does the “soup or salad” image apply to ecumenism within the vast spectrum of the Christian family?  I believe that it does.  Working for Greater Manchester Churches Together now for fourteen years I am convinced that the healing of the divisions within the Christian family will never result in a uniformly textured and flavoured soup.  We will never jump into the liquidiser together, nor do I now believe that it would it be desirable so to do.  But with the decrease in fear and the triumph of mutual respect and affection that almost all sections of the Christian family have experienced over the past half century, we are now able to present ourselves as a really delicious salad with a huge range of textures and flavours, ranging from the solid Anglican Cheshire cheese to the exotic spices of the Coptic Orthodox Church of the Middle East.  What binds us together and enables us now to bless each other with our individual gifts is the olive oil of the Divine Spirit which anoints us equally and unites us together in love.  As I look across the religious spectrum at Hindu, Moslem and Jewish friends I hope and pray that they too may increasingly come to see their internal variations as enrichment, rather than as threat.

Finally, let us apply the soup or salad image to interfaith dialogue itself.  Interfaith dialogue is the salad dressing that enables the adventure to happen.  It allows us to bump into each other and slide off without mutual injury.  It allows us to share something of our particular flavours without losing our religious integrity.  The drop of vinegar sharpens up our flavours, while the spoonful of sugar prevents the encounter from setting our teeth on edge.  The recognition that interfaith dialogue is about preparing a salad rather than a soup takes away any fear we might have that we are the object of attempts at conversion.   I’m not going to push my Jewish, Moslem or Hindu friends into the liquidiser, nor are they going to attempt the same with me.  We are components in a salad; and we like it just like that.  Embrace the dignity of difference; do not fear it.

I often like to ask people what quotation from their scriptures defines their religious disposition.  By their quotations ye shall know them!  For me, as a Christian, it is Jesus’ proclamation in John’s Gospel, chapter 10 (verse 10): I came that you might have life and have it to the full.   That understanding of Jesus’ teaching and mission is embodied in a beautiful saying of St Irenaeus, the late second century Bishop of Lyons who proclaimed that, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”  To Christians involved in the interfaith adventure I would say that we could do no better than to make the fullness and flowering of life in a richly diverse human salad our guiding vision.

At the end of the day the folk in the pew, the synagogue, the mosque or the temple may wonder why the Christian Church is so concerned with interfaith dialogue.   Well, in January 2001, the year that was to see the September 11th attack on the United States, Pope John Paul II wrote these prophetic words:

…the Church has sought to build …a relationship of openness and dialogue with the followers of other religions.  This dialogue must continue…it is obvious that this dialogue will be specially important in establishing a sure basis for peace, and warding off the dread spectre of those wars of religion which have so often bloodied human history.

The point is also most succinctly expressed by the Catholic theologian, Hans Kung: 

There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions.  There will be no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions

That dialogue, as Pope John Paul II defined it, is a way of living in positive relationship with others.  Though we now live in the shadow of 9/11 and 7/7, that wonderful vision is what we, here in the Altrincham Interfaith Group, are actively seeking to achieve, and, thank God, with notable success, thanks to the enlightened vision of such great souls as Alf Keeling.  Thank you.

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