The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, admitted yesterday that the Christian and Muslim faiths are so fundamentally different that both sides are still unable to understand each other properly.
Dr Williams, speaking at an interfaith conference in Cambridge, said that it was possible for Islam and Christianity, two of the three Abrahamic faiths, to agree around the imperatives to love God and "love your neighbour". Muslims and Christians agree about the need to alleviate both poverty and suffering, he said.
But at a theological level there was still massive disagreement. Dr Williams contrasted the "self-emptying" aspect of Christianity, a faith built on the failure and weakness of its founder through his death on the cross, to the Islamic narrative of "trial and triumph".
The Archbishop said: "Even in its narratives of Jesus, [Islam] questions or sidelines the story of the death of Jesus as Christians tell it – an issue that is still a live one as between our faiths."
He said that the two faiths' concepts of martyrdom were also different. In Christianity, martyrdom was a way of validating failure while in Islam, it constituted part of the "struggle" in fighting evil. "And how far an Islamic ethic would see love of neighbour as essentially involving the kind of self-abnegation privileged by Christianity is a point worth exploring," Dr Williams said.
The Archbishop was criticised earlier this year following a BBC interview in which he suggested that the adoption of some aspects of Islamic sharia law in the UK seemed "unavoidable". His lecture in Cambridge, however, illustrated a clear understanding of the issues at stake between the two faiths. Dr Williams did not in any form come across as an apologist for Islam but as someone using his formidable intellect in an attempt to bridge the divide.
Dr Williams was one of a number of leading Christian and Islamic scholars addressing the conference, A Common Word at Cambridge University. It marked the first anniversary of the publication of A Common Word Between Us and You, a letter from 138 Islamic scholars, clerics and intellectuals promoting understanding and tolerance between the two faiths. Addressed to Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian leaders, the letter warned that the survival of the world could be at stake if Muslims and Christians could not make peace with each other.
"If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. With the terrible weaponry of the modern world - with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before - no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world's inhabitants.
"Our common future is at stake," the letter said. "The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake."
The conference will make recommendations on how the two faiths can work better together, to be unveiled at Lambeth Palace, the London office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, on Wednesday. The closer cooperation will not just be at the level of religious organisations but will be enacted across charities and secular bodies at all levels of society.
The Grand Mufti of Egypt, Dr Ali Gomaa, who also addressed the conference, welcomed the Archbishop's speech. "It is clear from your response that you are fully prepared to enter into dialogue on a profound level. For our part we would like to tell you that we share your willingness for dialogue and that we take this great deal of common ground to be a foundation for promoting respect and understanding that will in turn lead to a deepening of our relationship. We hope this conference will result in new, practical, and groundbreaking recommendations," he said.
"Effective communication is our powerful tool for containing and managing crises.....Every action now in any place will affect others either positively or negatively. Isolation and seclusion are no longer an option. The only choice is to live together on this Earth. So what should we do? We must engage in dialogue and lay down foundations for it as God intended."
He said he hoped the two sides would be able to transcend dialogue and find partnership.