Monday, March 24, 2014

Shi'a-Christian Tabletalk

C.T.R. Hewer

In the summer of 2012, a senior Shi'a alim contacted me with a view to working towards a new development in Shi'a-Christian dialogue.  What emerged from our conversation was a new model that we called Tabletalk.  The name derives from one limitation that we set ourselves: the dialogue should be limited to ten people, the number that could sit around one table and engage in a free-flowing conversation.  There were to be five members from each faith community, and the two convenors, the alim and me, should call together each group comprised of people who had various specialisms in the theological sciences and who share a common interest in and exposure to living as a faith community in the West.  Our field of operation was to be applied theology and the members were to have a concern for pastoral issues that touch on the dynamic of Christian-Muslim relations and the relationship of those communities to the secular multifaith society in which we live.  This can be exemplified by the membership of the Christian group: a Catholic theologian who teaches courses on Christian-Muslim relations in a university setting, an Anglican priest who specialised in early Christian doctrine and combines this with being a tutor in systematic and pastoral theology in a theological college, a Methodist minister with decades of experience of working in inner city, multifaith and multicultural settings, another Anglican priest with a specialization in political theology in a Christian-Muslim context who teaches in a theological college half-time and works as a parish priest in Muslim-majority parishes, and me with a background in Christian theology and Islamic studies and some thirty years of engagement in practical inter-faith studies and relations.  Similarly, the Muslims combined academic teaching and research with community engagement and pastoral support.

Three modalities of operation are worthy of note.  The members of Tabletalk were asked to give a commitment to meet each year for five years to give continuity of membership and avoid having constantly to go over the first steps in understanding and to allow relationships of trust to build up.  There were to be no formal papers read at our meetings but rather an extended briefing paper should be prepared by both groups and circulated to all members well in advance.  The meetings, over two full days, comprised four four-hour sessions, each devoted to a particular aspect of our chosen theme and each introduced by a ten-minute impulse by a member from each group; thereafter, the discussion was to flow freely based on the preparation that each member had done on the topics before coming to the meeting.  Our conversations were recorded (with access limited to the two convenors and the recordings ultimately destroyed) and a Report on the topic was to be produced and agreed by all members based on these recordings, briefing papers, impulse notes and any other material thought appropriate by the members as a whole.  The purpose of this Report was to enable other Christians and Muslims to explore the topic based on our work so as to inform their thoughts and conversations with a view to facilitating their own dialogue.  The Report should not be thought of as a document giving answers but rather identifying and unpacking key questions.

The first meeting of Tabletalk took place in February 2013 on the general theme of Freedom of speech and its limitations.  Each of the four working sessions began with a reading from the Qur'an and the New Testament apposite to the particular topic under discussion and a time of silent and vocalised prayer led by a member from each group.  Appropriate spaces were left in the programme for both groups to engage in their canonical prayers; the Christians joining the Muslims for one canonical prayer each day and holding the other as a Christian prayer-service to which the Muslims were invited.

In addition to the closed working sessions, three evening programmes were included in the overall meeting.  On the first, the two groups met for general introductions and conversation about their particular areas of work.  On the second, an open dinner was held with wider invitations and conversations were initiated on a theological topic for general discussion: in 2013, this topic was The quality of mercy in the Qur'an and the New Testament.  On the third evening, the Islamic centre in which we met held their weekly Thought Forum in which a topic is aired in an across-the-room discussion; the members of Tabletalk attended and shared their thoughts on the Tabletalk theme with the attendees, who numbered about sixty mainly Muslim women and men.

General assessments of our first meeting were overwhelmingly positive.  Members felt that there was nowhere to hide in meetings, neither behind lengthy academic papers nor in the anonymity of a large gathering.  Discussion flowed around the table without the need of direction from someone presiding.  In the Christian group, in addition to their theological training, three members had read philosophy and one each law and literature; in the Muslim group likewise there was additional expertise in philosophy, sociology, politics and mysticism; this made for a high level of shared intellectual ground, which pushed the dialogue forward.  The presence of a couple of people who had studied both traditions meant that any potential confusion over terminology or underlying concepts could be noted and clarified.  Three of the ten members were women, who combined their academic input with some of the most far-reaching pastoral exposure and thus grounded the discussions with their own authority.  Although Britain was the locus of the meeting, members brought with them experience from many countries, including: Canada, France, India, Iran, Morocco, Tanzania, Tunisia, the USA, and Zambia.  

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