For the Uniting Church on-line interfaith bulletin: May-June

Rabbi Fred Morgan

Emeritus Rabbi,Temple Beth Israel, Melbourne

Professorial Fellow, Australian Catholic University

Facilitator, Grass Roots Dialogue Project, Council of Christians and Jews (Victoria)

Let me begin with an autobiographical note. I have been involved with the interfaith world for my entire working life. When many years ago I was Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Bristol, I had to grapple with being 1960s American, Jewish and a specialist in the religions of India, in the midst of what was then a largely Methodist theology department in a staid English university. Later, I worked for 30 years as a congregational rabbi in the UK and in Australia – both culturally diverse countries with many religious groups represented in the population. I’ve spent extended periods of time in places as distant geographically and spiritually as India and Israel, learning to appreciate the religious values and ideals of the communities in which I’ve been privileged to live. More recently I have found myself ‘representing’ Judaism to a predominantly Christian audience in a Catholic university setting. As an expression of my interfaith interests, I have taken an active role in the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ), the Jewish Christian Muslim Association and the City of Port Phillip Multifaith Network, meeting a wide range of Christians, Muslims, Baha’is, Buddhists and other faith adherents along the way. I can say, with a completely straight face, that some of my closest acquaintances are Hindu swamis… and Uniting Church ministers!

Given my immersion in interfaith activities, it never fails to take me aback to realise how little people who are devoted to their own religious way of life (whatever the denomination) seem to know about other religions. Many, perhaps most, worshippers have never been exposed knowingly and deliberately to someone from another faith community. Of course, we all engage with people from other religious communities every day, in our business, school and social lives. But we’re not generally aware of the others as religiously involved people. We rarely hear their stories or have an opportunity to come to appreciate their faith, how it functions for them and what it means to them. We aren’t exposed to the ways in which their commitments differ from our own. We aren’t given opportunities to discover what makes their religion uniquely true for them; how another person’s religion contributes to making them who they are, with their distinctive life style and life goals, their way of ‘reading the world’. This remains a closed book to most people, almost all of the time.

One of the organisations that cares deeply about these matters is the Council of Christians and Jews. The CCJ was founded in the UK by the Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple and the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations Joseph Hertz (both very eminent figures) during the period of the Second World War, and it came to be firmly established after the War as a response to the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. It came to this country about 30 years ago through the persistent efforts of the Sisters of Sion and a number of leaders in the Jewish and Christian community. Many of the founders have since passed away, most recently the Rev Professor Robert Anderson (an earlier description of the work of the CCJ by Prof Anderson, as well as a tribute to Prof Anderson himself, may be found via the Uniting Church’s website).

In its unassuming way the CCJ has had a profound effect on our understanding of interfaith engagement and dialogue in general. Its influence may be found far beyond its own borders; it has contributed to setting ground rules and techniques of dialogue that have been adopted by many other multifaith and multicultural organizations.

Last March the Executive of the CCJ in Victoria met to review its progress and set its strategic goals for the years ahead. Building on past achievements, it made a major leap of faith by adopting a new outreach project. We call this the Grass Roots Dialogue Project. The motivation for the project comes from our belief within the CCJ that we have become too comfortable in our internal pursuit of dialogue. We feel it is now time to move dialogue out of our comfort zone and to bring it to those ordinary worshippers in the churches and synagogues, the ‘rank and file’ members who may never before have been exposed to interfaith engagement, or who may even be antipathetic towards the notion of engaging with those of different faiths.

In order to do this we have had to call on the support of the full spectrum of Christian and Jewish denominations in Melbourne. We have asked each denomination for support in two ways. First, we have asked them to help us identify individuals among their adherents who would have the groundedness and the skills to join our team of ‘presenters’. The presenters will themselves model dialogue in action. Through a series of training sessions they will determine the format of their presentations to synagogues and churches, given that they’ll have only a limited amount of time to present their ideas to the congregations they visit. Each presenter will have to be secure in their own faith and at the same time open to listening to others as they express their faith with equal sincerity and passion. This is a challenging but potentially highly rewarding situation to be in.

The second request we’ve made to church and synagogue bodies is to provide us with the names of congregations that would be willing to host a presentation. The visit would take place in the sacred space of the community – whether synagogue or church – and hopefully at a sacred time, during communal worship, with the dialogical presentation in place of the sermon or as an additional feature of the regular service. In this way we hope to send our presenters to 45 or so places of worship over the coming year. By giving hospitality to the representatives of the Project, the churches will in our view be performing a sacred activity, one valued by all Jews and Christians. And by accepting this hospitality in what may be to them an alien space, the presenters will have to adopt an attitude of humility which is also a primary religious value. The ultimate goal, then, is to introduce interfaith engagement – listening respectfully to those of different faiths – as a sacred activity within the structures of our distinctive religious cultures. We at the CCJ honestly believe that engaging in dialogue is an intrinsic way to create a more peaceful and wholesome world, both locally and globally.

Your church community may be interested to take part in this project, or you personally may wish to join our team of presenters. If so, please contact me, Rabbi Fred Morgan, at fred.morgan@tbi.org.au. I’d love to hear from you, even if you only want to learn more about the project.