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Archbishop of Canterbury Addresses opening ceremony for Sant'Egidio

Posted on: September 17, 2005 4:32 PM
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Address at opening ceremony Sant'Egidio International Meeting of Prayer for Peace - Palais de Congress, Lyons

Sunday 11 September

My diary for the seventh of July involved a very early start from London in order to travel to the North of England. I was due to meet a number of Muslim leaders in West Yorkshire - a region with a very high Muslim population - and to visit some of their institutions. The invitation arose from the close partnership in the area between the Anglican diocese of Wakefield and several local Muslim groups.

We had almost arrived in the town where the first meeting was to take place when the message came through on my chaplain's mobile phone that the London Underground had been closed because of what looked like a bomb attack. We managed to confirm that my daughter, who travels across London to school each day, had got there safely. By the time we arrived, it had become clear that more than one incident had happened, and that the likelihood was that a terrorist group had been responsible.

This meant that already when I stepped out of the car at the Muslim madrasa where the first meeting was to occur, there was a great deal of emotion in the air. My Muslim hosts were anxious and confused; everyone was apprehensive. When I emerged from going around the madrasa, a television crew had assembled, and several local journalists. I was able to make a first, unscripted statement on television, directly in front of one of the largest Muslim institutions in Northern England, to speak not only of the shock and condemnation which I wanted to express but of the revulsion of those who stood around me at this indiscriminate and brutal violence.

Throughout that extraordinary day the same message was reinforced time and again. As more and more details came in, the local Muslims involved in the meetings went out of their way to offer words of condolence and to insist that this action was 'not in their name', whoever was responsible.

It was a day of cruel ironies. The substance of our discussions was the prospects for more and better co-operation between Christian and Muslim communities in the work of urban regeneration in a very poorly-resourced region. Several of the Muslims present - including a Member of Parliament and many involved in local government - manifestly saw themselves as a natural part of the political landscape in Britain. Some of my own contribution to the discussion drew upon my experience a few weeks earlier, when I had chaired a lengthy consultation in Sarajevo on the theme of how Muslims and Christians could identify a common agenda in the western social context, sharing their perspectives on matters like the support of stable families, the place of faith in education, and how the law could take better account of the convictions of religious believers, rather than assuming that faith was always necessarily a private concern only.

Sarajevo had involved leading Muslim academics from across the world, as well as Christians of all confessions, working together against the background of a recent history of brutal slaughter and civil strife. We daily walked past buildings still scarred by bullets and shells or burnt-out by bomb-blasts. But there was a powerful common willingness to find ways of identifying the common good for a religiously and ethnically plural society, a common good defined not by the abstract legal unity that a secularist would assume but by some sort of convergence about what was sowed to human beings as God's creatures and the objects of God's calling.

Those Christians and Muslims who were working together in West Yorkshire had already begun to make such a vision a practical reality. During that long and hard day, with everyone's mind partially distracted in thinking about what London was suffering and fearing, the reality of a common task already understood and begun helped us carry on. The destructive ideology of those who caused the carnage in London could not be the whole story; and there were many people there in West Yorkshire determined that this is how it would remain.

For me as a Christian that day, the gift was to see how the hospitality of local Christian communities in West Yorkshire had opened up relations with others, so that fear and resentment could be expressed, explored and dealt with. When I returned to London, it was with a strengthened sense of how in the long term it seems that hospitality changes things in a way that aggression and counter-aggression do not - but also with a strengthened sense of how hospitality can, in the eyes of a compulsively (and understandably) anxious world, look like foolishness. The foolishness of the cross, ultimately.

© Rowan Williams 2005