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Archbishop of Canterbury: "Promise and risk of inter-religious dialogue"


Archbishop Rowan Williams
Paulino Menezes/WCC


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Christians in a world of plural convictions are in a place which is "both promising and deeply risky", according to the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams.


"We are called to show utter commitment to the God who is revealed in Jesus and to all those to whom his invitation is addressed," he said. He rejected aggressive efforts to convert those of other faiths, saying, "We are not called to win competitions or arguments in favour of 'our product' in some religious market-place."


In a World Council of Churches 9th Assembly plenary session on Christian identity and religious plurality, Dr Williams urged churches worldwide to keep in mind the sufferings of Christians living as persecuted minorities, drawing applause from the participants. He continued, "Yet what is remarkable is the courage with which Christians continue - in Egypt, in Pakistan, in the Balkans, even in Iraq - to seek ways of continuing to work alongside non-Christian neighbours.


"This is not the climate of 'dialogue' as it happens in the West or in the comfortable setting of international conferences; it is the painful making and remaking of trust in a deeply unsafe and complex environment."


In his keynote address to the plenary, the archbishop spoke of Christian identity as "to belong in a place that Jesus defines for us". The exclusive claims of Christianity, he said, lay in claims not to absolute knowledge, but to a unique perspective, which "will transform our most deeply rooted hurts and fears and so change the world at the most important level. It is a perspective that depends on being where Jesus is, under his authority, sharing the 'breath' of his life, seeing what he sees."


He urged his hearers to recognize commonalities in their own faith experience and that of others, saying, "Sometimes when we look at our neighbours of other traditions, it can be as if we see in their eyes a reflection of what we see; they do not have the words we have, but something is deeply recognizable."


He continued, "When we face radically different notices, strange and complex accounts of a perpective not our own, our perspective must be not, 'How do we convict them of error? How do we win the competition of ideas?' but 'What do they actually see? And can what they see be a part of the world that I see?'"


Speaking at a press conference after the plenary session, the archbishop said that two approaches to inter-religious dialogue were unhelpful. One was to claim an exclusive possession of the truth, while the other was to lose confidence in one's faith and "slip into a world-view that assumes every religion is as good as another".


Because of its variety, the Council, he said, had the capacity to appear neither triumphalist nor apologetic. WCC churches were able to listen to each other, and could demonstrate a "corporate humility".


Two theologians responded to his address in the plenary, which was moderated by the Rev. Dr George Mulrain. Dr Anna May Chain, a Karen Baptist Christian, shared the story of her family's rescue by people of other faiths when she was a child, and her own experiences of friendship with Buddhist and Muslim women. "My Muslim and Buddhist neighbours may not know the name Jesus, but I believe God had found a path for himself to them," she said.


Dr Assaad Kattan, a Lebanese Orthodox Christian living in Germany, spoke of the interaction of different Christian traditions with each other and Islam in the Middle East, stressing that "The attempt to define Christian identity must never bypass the cross."


During the plenary, guests from other religions were welcomed. HRH Prince Hassan of Jordan (Muslim) brought greetings and reflections via a taped video message. Jews and Buddhists were represented, respectively, by Dr Deborah Weissman and the Rev. Katsunori Yamanoi.


Assembly website:www.wcc-assembly.info


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