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Archbishop welcomes faith leaders to Lambeth Palace

Wednesday 11th March 2015

Archbishop of Canterbury speaks on peacemaking and reconciliation at annual reception for faith groups at Lambeth Palace.

The Archbishop of Canterbury last night hosted a reception for inter-religious and community leaders at Lambeth Palace. 

Speaking at the annual event, which brings together members different faith groups to foster relationships, Archbishop Justin Welby reflected on the theme of reconciliation, which is one of his ministry priorities.

The event was attended by a wide range of people from Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Jain and Christian traditions.

In his remarks the Archbishop shared stories of his experience of conflict and peacebuilding around the global Anglican Communion.

Later in the evening those gathered spoke with each other about how they can lead the way as reconcilers and peacebuilders on a local community level, before putting questions to the Archbishop.

Guests included Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis; Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles; Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon; Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Hilary Benn; and Rehman Chishti, MP for Gillingham and Rainham; among many others.

Read the Archbishop's remarks below: 

Ladies and gentlemen, Secretary of State, Chief Rabbi, sheiks, rabbis and leaders of all the different faiths, it’s a huge privilege to have you here this evening.

We look forward to this event with great anticipation. It’s one of the high points of the year. Last year it was enormously significant for us – for Caroline and myself – in having the chance to meet so many people, and to come back to see you here again this year it’s absolutely wonderful. So thank you for being here.

The last year has been, I think, we would all agree, quite a difficult year for faith groups, both in this country and round the world. We need to acknowledge the international troubles that all of us are affected by and all feel very, very deeply.

There are obvious ones that are at the front of our minds and at the front of the news the whole time, whether Paris, Copenhagen, Iraq and Syria, Nigeria, Libya and so on.

Many forgotten areas… during the last two years Caroline and I have visited all 37 other provinces of the Anglican Communion. One of the great educational points for us of that has been the huge range of places where there is violence of some kind linked to religion – religiously justified, tragically.

So even places like Myanmar, talking to a bishop in the north of Myanmar on the border with India. I was asking about his diocese, the area that he’s bishop to. And he said, ‘Oh well, one of the parishes I visit is eight days walk through the hills and forest to get to it.’

Eight days. And we talked about that and he wandered off, the archbishops said to me, ‘Of course it should be four days.’ I said, ‘Why does he walk so slowly?’

And he said, ‘Well, it’s not that he walks slowly, it’s just that the area is so full of mines that the party going to the parish have to go in single file, carefully putting their feet with one person 50 metres ahead – so if one person steps on a mine no one else is hurt – and they put their feet only in the place that the person in front of them has put their feet.’

And he said that slows you up a great deal. And that was a conflict of which I was completely unaware, frankly, before we went there.

In this country there are many challenges as well. The Secretary of State knows this very well. By the grace of God we have avoided too much serious violence in the last year. Not on the scale we’ve seen elsewhere.

We are all grateful for that, and I think we need to say that we’re grateful to those who seek to prevent violence in this country. We’re fortunate to live in a country where that is not the everyday occurrence.

But there have been attacks on people from faith groups in the UK too. There’s been animosity, fear and division.

We’ve seen attacks on synagogues and mosques, in particular, and those – we have said from here and our bishops have said around the country – are totally, utterly abhorrent and unacceptable, and we want to stand with those who suffer that from any faith tradition.

Conflict is an inevitable part of the human condition, as we seek to cope with diversity and difference. And in a world in which we have the internet, diversity becomes more apparent. You can see diversity which before was hidden from you because it was the other side of the world, just by clicking on your computer.

That makes – rather than people beginning to think the same way – that often makes diversity in your face and more difficult to deal with. And then it overlaps into the local situation and becomes more difficult to deal with locally.

And the increase in what is often called in the press ‘religious conflict’ is unsurprising. But actually there is beginning to be a push-back, because what I’m sure we’re all aware of is that very often the most complex issues that are economic, sociological, geographical, historical, tribal and other things, are used by evil-minded people – they use religion because it’s simple.

If you say to a group of people, ‘You are the marginalised victims of a globalising economy in which, because of lack of education and skills and a certain amount of corruption in government, you have failed to gain the educational achievements needed to compete  on an international…’ – you’ve lost them a long time back.

If you say, ‘You belong to X faith and you’re good, and they belong to Y faith and they’re therefore bad…’ everyone can get their mind around that pretty simply.

It may not be the reason, but it’s an easy hook to hang things on. And the trouble with hanging things on hooks that eventually the hook becomes part of the problem.

So when we meet together this evening and enjoy each other’s company, it defies quite rightly and truly that narrative that we can’t talk to each other and we can’t share with each other.

But it also reminds us that as religious leaders we need to rise to the challenge, providing a narrative, a story, that the world hears that is not about destructive conflict but is about diversity and difference being handled well and effectively, and without destruction.

We are not strangers to destructive religious conflict in either the Anglican Communion or the Church of England. That gentleman in the corner there [points to portrait on the wall], William Laud, was the last of my predecessors to be executed. He was executed in 1645 for a large number of reasons, but some of them religious. He picked the wrong side.

Thomas Cranmer was burnt to death, of course, in 1556 by the man who planted the rather fine fig tree down outside the Great Hall, because, again, he’d picked the wrong side.

We Anglicans, and we Christians, know a great deal about killing each other for purportedly religious reasons. We have no great mount of righteousness on which to stand, from which to judge the rest of the world.

Within the Anglican family at the moment we argue and differ and struggle with our differences – and struggle to handle them well, and often fail.

One of the key parts of what I’m passionate about and deeply involved in is that of reconciliation.

Over there by the door is Canon David Porter, Northern Irishman with huge experience of the conflict in Northern Ireland, and Director of Reconciliation here at Lambeth Palace. He’s been working locally and internationally on many of the issues that we’re aware of. 

Reconciliation, meaning converting violent conflict into disagreement that is non-violent and non-destructive, enables us to see diversity as an opportunity and blessing rather than a threat, to be creative with diversity rather than destructive with it.

Despite our challenges and indeed many failings, even in the Anglican Communion there are many signs of this – in the South Sudan, Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul is leading reconciliation in the middle of one of both the most cruel and the most forgotten wars going on anywhere today in the world.

He has taken huge risks as he has called for peacemaking, and his own side has begun to turn on him as a traitor. Many of us will be familiar with that.

I think the challenge for us here, as UK religious leaders, is not to find some kind of strange syncretism in which we say there are no differences, but to find ways of demonstrating reconciliation – diversity held, but diversity as blessing, not danger, in the UK.

We have to lead by example. We need to acknowledge and own our own failings. And as I say, there are plenty in the Christian tradition in this country – not only in 1645 but much more recently, indeed to this very day.

We need to create a space that is relational – that’s what this evening is about in many ways – in which we know each other well enough to say the difficult things to each other.

We all know in our own experiences, from those who we know love us – when we’re dealing with someone who we’re close to, they can say things to us that nobody else can, because we know that they’re not condemning us, they’re loving us.

We need to be able to have difficult conversations with one another, and between our communities. The Near Neighbours programme is about that. I see Paul Hackwood over there, who leads the Church Urban Fund, which is deeply, deeply involved in the leadership of Near Neighbours.

The Department for Communities and Local Government, led by the Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, with Lord Ahmad here as well, who have contributed greatly to Near Neighbours and been the main funders of it. And in a totally generous and nondirective way. They haven’t tried to tell us to do it this way and this way. They’ve given freedom for this to be an effective means of help in many areas, and we’re deeply grateful for that.

And as leaders we need to be willing to take the first step. We can’t enforce reconciliation, but we can choose to model what we hope to see in our communities.

Mark Poulson, the Secretary for Interfaith Affairs here at Lambeth Palace and at the Church of England, who has just joined us in January – previously in Southall – is one of those who has modelled reconciliation at the local level, as those from Southall know well and value greatly.

So I think we’ve faced a difficult year. The media quite often simplify things into simple matters of religion, which are profoundly more complex. We challenge that with relationship, with our own example as leaders, acknowledging our own failures and standing with each other in times of trouble.

I have to say that for me, the greatest privilege I ever have is that when someone is attacked – and I look around and I see communities that have been – and I’ve been invited to go and stand with them. It is a privilege beyond measure to do that and I am invariably deeply grateful to be allowed to be with them at times of profound stress.

So thank you for your presence here this evening, and thank you for listening. 

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