Saturday, April 13, 2013

Development of Virtuous Circles:  the Building Bridges Seminar under
Rowan Williams

Lucinda Mosher, Th.D.

In April 2012, Rowan Williams convened a Building Bridges seminar for the tenth and final time as Archbishop of Canterbury. Stewardship of the project has been transferred to Georgetown University, with that institution’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs providing support. At this point of transition, it is fitting, therefore, to review the history of this annual meeting of Christian and Muslim scholars, with special attention to the legacy of Williams’ leadership. 

The inaugural meeting of the Building Bridges Seminar was a two-day colloquium at Lambeth Palace, London, in January 2002, in response to the 9/11/01 attacks on the United States of America. Its outcomes included affirmation that an ongoing Christian-Muslim dialogue was possible and desirable, and generation of topics meriting further exploration in such a dialogue. Going forward, seminar venues would alternate between Muslim- and Christian-majority locations. Meetings were called for three days rather than two, as had been the case in 2002. This project became an immediate and ongoing priority for Dr. Williams when he succeeded George Carey in 2003.

Under Rowan Williams, Building Bridges convened in Doha, Qatar (2003 and 2011); Washington, DC (2004, 2006, 2010); Sarajevo (2005); Singapore (2007); Rome (2008); Istanbul (2009); and London and Canterbury (2012). Each year, a particular theological theme was the focus of deliberations: scriptures (2003); prophecy (2004); the common good (2005); divine justice, political authority, and religious freedom (2006); humanity (2007); the interpretation and translation of revelation (2008); science and religion (2009); tradition and modernity (2010); prayer (2011); and death, resurrection, and human destiny (2012). Participants are provided with a booklet of materials to be read in preparation for the seminar: usually, passages from the Bible and the Qur’an, plus other items from the Christian and Islamic traditions. Occasionally, participants are asked to write short essays which become part of the resource booklet. For example, in preparation for Building Bridges 2003, attendees wrote on when, where, how and with whom they read scripture; in 2011, they wrote on what prayer meant to them personally; and in 2012, on resources their own religion had given them for responding to the deaths of others or the prospect of their own death.

The Building Bridges pattern is to have three pairs of public lectures; pairs of shorter lectures in closed plenary; and many sessions of intense conversation in pre-assigned small groups which remain constant throughout a given meeting. An exception was the Rome meeting (2008), at which all lectures were given in closed plenary; there were no public sessions. Generally, small-group time was spent in close reading of texts—usually, scripture. An exception was the Sarajevo meeting, at which small-group discussions were driven by questions emerging from lectures on topics related to faith and national identity, governance and justice, and ecological concerns. 

During Rowan Williams’ decade as convenor of Building Bridges, 133 scholars (63 Muslims; 70 Christians) have attended. In a given year, the circle of participants numbered from 22 (in 2008) to 31 (in 2010). True dialogue is a process more so than an event. Therefore, a consistent roster is an asset. However, with changing topics comes the need for participants with particular expertise; and with changing venues comes the desire to include scholars from the host institution or country. Thus Building Bridges has developed a core of scholars who have been invited numerous times; eight scholars were present at seven of the ten seminars convened by Rowan Williams. However, most on the total list have participated only once or twice. 

A diverse roster enriches a formal dialogue. Building Bridges organizers have always desired an equal number of Christians and Muslims at the table; in years when this was not achieved, factors such as illness or difficulty in obtaining a visa were the typical reasons. Nearly a quarter of the participants have been women; furthermore, each year the list of lecturers included at least one woman—and often, several. Theologically, each circle has been varied. Every year, the group of Muslims has included Shi‘i as well as Sunni. In addition to Anglican Christians, Roman Catholics were involved from the beginning; Coptic, Lutheran, Methodist, Orthodox, and Reformed Christians have also attended. Participants have hailed from some 28 countries—many more, if we factor in country of origin as well as country in which they were working at the time.

Gillian Stamp, who facilitated the first Building Bridges seminar in 2002, described the project in terms of “appreciative conversation”—exchange during which one remains rooted in one’s background “whilst at the same time reaching beyond it,” all the while demonstrating “courage, grace, imagination and sensitivity in addressing and retreating from painful issues.” Such conversation’s goal is not arrival at “consensus or compromise;” rather, its purpose is “to sustain relationships of mutual respect.”[1] Her description still obtains; the Building Bridges Seminar has indeed been an exercise in appreciative conversation year after year. Because it is a dialogue which combines academic rigor with religious conviction, Building Bridges is, as Rowan Williams has explained, an ongoing project of “working together, studying sacred texts together, and above all learning to listen to one another speaking to God and also to watch one another speaking to God. It is a style which has been patient, affirming, and celebrating.”[2] What develops as a result, he suggests, is “a virtuous circle,” rather than a vicious one.[3]

The Building Bridges Seminar has been compared to other ongoing dialogical projects, particularly The Societies for Scriptural Reasoning, Groupe de Recherches Islamo-Chretien, the annual International Theology Conference sponsored by the Center for Religious Pluralism of the Shalom Harman Institute, and the work of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. While methodologies do overlap, the Building Bridges Seminar differs from some of these in that it is a dialogue of Christian and Muslim scholars only, and from at least one of them as it is conducted in English.

What of the legacy of Building Bridges? Its impact, insist several of the repeat participants, has been wide-ranging—albeit indirect. Participants have invited each other to conferences they have planned; they have endorsed each other’s books; they have incorporated insights gained from this dialogue into their teaching and writing; they have required their students to read from the volumes of Building Bridges proceedings.

In fact, the book-series spawned by the Building Bridges Seminar is an important aspect of the project’s legacy to date. The first volume, The Road Ahead, allows the reader to overhear much of what transpired in the inaugural, exploratory meeting of the seminar, for which a framework was provided by five general themes: the place of Christians and Muslims relative to each other, to the world, and to God; learning from 1000-plus years of Christian-Muslim interaction; problems and opportunities each community faces in a pluralistic world; challenges which transformations in societies pose to each religion; and setting a joint agenda for future Christian-Muslim dialogue and common action.[4]

Where The Road Ahead provides excellent foundational information about Christian-Muslim interaction, succeeding volumes are more on the order of handbooks for text-based dialogues on specific topics.[5] Beginning with the proceedings of the 2003 seminar in Qatar, each book provides the agenda of that seminar, the roster of participants, information about the seminar context, transcripts of public and closed-plenary lectures, the texts discussed, and in some cases, summaries of small-group discussions. Beginning with the 2003 meeting, a hallmark of Building Bridges seminars has been appreciative conversation about often-challenging pairs of scripture passages. However, where several well-received textbooks on dialogical reading of the Bible and the Qur’an focus on major personalities such as Abraham, Moses, or Mary, Building Bridges most often brings Bible and Qur’an passages together around a theological concept. Here, for example, are the texts for the six small-group discussions during the 2004 seminar:

1) The Calling of Prophets:  Suratu Tā Hā  (No. 20):1-36 and Exodus 3:1-14;
2) The Calling of Apostles: Suratu’l-Muzzammil (No. 73) and Acts 9:1-22;
3)  Prophecy and Conflict: Suratu Hūd (No. 11): 25-49 and Jeremiah 26;
4) Prophecy and Society: Suratu’sh-Shu‘ara’ (No. 26): 25-49 and 1Kings 21;
5) Mary and Jesus: Bearing the Word: Suratu Maryam (No. 19): 16-36 and Luke 1:26-38;
6)  The End of Prophecy: Suratu’l-Ahzāb (No. 33): 40 with Suratu’l-Mā’idah (No. 5): 3 and Hebrews 1:1-4.

For the Rome seminar (2008) on Communicating the Word: Revelation, Translation, and Interpretation in Christianity and Islam, close reading of scripture was the focus of five sessions. The constellation of scripture verses for discussion of “Revelation in Israel” joined Deuteronomy 7:1-11 and Isaiah 49:1-6 with Suratu’l-Baqarah (2) 47-57 and Suratu’l-Mā’idah (No. 5) 44-48; for consideration of revelation in Christ versus revelation in the Qur’an, 1 John 1:1-4, Matthew 28:16-20, and John 16:12-15 were in conversation with Suratu’l-An‘am (6) 91-92, Suratu’l-Furqān (25) 32, Suratu’l-Anbiyā’ (21) 107, Suratu Sād (38) 87; and Suratu’l-Ahzāb (33) 40.

Paperback editions of the proceedings of seminars from 2002 through 2009 are now in print; those for 2010, 2011, and 2012 will be forthcoming in 2013 and 2014. Many will find it helpful that portions (or, in some cases, the entirety) of the books in print have been made available for free download as PDFs from the Berkley Center website: Several volumes have been formatted for e-readers; over time, Georgetown University Press has made some of these e-editions available free-of-charge through In addition, some of the seminar sourcebooks are downloadable as PDFs as well. Therefore, because of the Building Bridges initiative, a significant body of literature on Christian-Muslim dialogue is now easily accessible worldwide, readily available to scholars, institutions, or congregations interested in mounting their own dialogues.[6]

At least as important is that the books on the seminars 2003–2012 (once those for years 2010, 2011, and 2012 are released) offer a window on a decade of Rowan Williams’ thinking about and contribution to Christian-Muslim dialogue. All feature items by Rowan Williams himself: introductory or summary remarks from a particular seminar; a preface or afterword penned later; or the transcript of a seminar lecture, such as his “Christian Theology and Other Faiths” found in Scriptures in Dialogue: Christians and Muslims studying the Bible and the Qur’an together;[7] or his “Analysing Atheism: Unbelief and the World of Faiths,” which opens Chapter One of Bearing the Word: Prophecy in Biblical and Qur’anic Perspective.[8] In short, the book series records Rowan Williams’ legacy as convenor of Building Bridges seminars for an entire decade.

When asked why they make time for Building Bridges, Muslim participants often cite the uniqueness of the opportunity to dialogue with the Archbishop of Canterbury himself. The full participation of the holder of that office has been a sign of the seriousness of the project. For ten years, Rowan Williams—who himself embodies deep knowledge of and commitment to his own religious tradition while simultaneously demonstrating commitment to learning about the tradition of others—invited scholars “to encounter one another not simply as scholars, but as readers and hearers of the word.”  When they do so, he explains, they “meet the other person not as a scholar, not as the representative of some alien set of commitments, but as someone seeking to open their mind and their heart to the self communication of God. And to meet another person in that light and in that way is to meet them at a very deep level.”[9] In such deep meetings, a virtuous circle has been formed and nurtured. With the 2013 meeting in Qatar, the Building Bridges Seminar begins a new phase, no longer associated with the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury and without the presence of Rowan Williams at the table of dialogue. Be that as it may, facilitating appreciative conversation for the purpose of sustaining a virtuous circle of Christian and Muslim scholar-believers will remain the goal.

Lucinda Mosher is the Assistant Academic Director of Building Bridges Seminar and a Faculty Associate for Interfaith Studies at Hartford Seminary (USA).

[1] Gillian Stamp coined the term “appreciative conversation” in commenting on the first Building Bridges seminar; see her “And they returned by another route,” in The Road Ahead, 112, 113.
[2] Rowan Williams, Preface to Prayer, op. cit.
[3] Dr. Rowan Williams, “Remarks at dinner to mark the Fifth Building Bridges seminar,” 28 March 2006. Last accessed: 27 January 2013.
[4] Michael Ipgrave, editor, The Road Ahead (London: Church House Publishing, 2002).
[5] Proceedings of the 2003 and 2004 seminars were published by Church House Publishing (London); digests of seminars 2005-2012 have been published by, or are forthcoming from, Georgetown University Press.
[6] With the transition to Georgetown University’s stewardship, with Professor Daniel Madigan as seminar convenor, Building Bridges proceedings will be published online only.
[7] Michael Ipgrave, editor; Church House Publishing, 2004.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Rowan Williams, Remarks at the Opening Session of the 6th Building Bridges Seminar, 4 December 2007, National University of Singapore.

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