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Diocese of

Hexham and Newcastle

Bishop Séamus Cunningham

Meeting God in Friend & Stranger

Commission for Interreligious Relations: Meeting God in Friend & Stranger - Diocesan Seminar 2011


Link to Article by Archbishop Kevin published in 'The Tablet' 24th April 2010

Dr Richard Bott, CIR (Commission for Interreligious Relations), writes about the recent Diocesan Seminar:

Catholics’ vocation to undertake interreligious dialogue:

“Inspirational” and “energising” were just some of the words used by delegates to describe this highly-successful Seminar for lay and clergy of the Diocese held in the impressive surroundings of St Robert of Newminster Catholic School, Washington, on Saturday 26 March 2011.  The Seminar on the major and timely teaching document Meeting God in Friend and Stranger, was led by its principal author, Archbishop Kevin McDonald of Southwark, and presided over by our own Bishop Seamus Cunningham.

Over 70 delegates attended from across the Diocese, representing Catholic parishes, lay and clerical bodies.  It was organised by the Diocesan Commission for Interreligious Relations (CIR), and Chaired by Mia Fox, Catholic Chaplain to the Universities of Newcastle and Northumbria, and CIR Chairperson.    

Archbishop Kevin reminded the Seminar that Meeting God in Friend and Stranger represented  10 years  of careful work on behalf of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, with origins in the historic Second Vatican Council  of the 1960s.  It provided, in effect, our response to the challenge of Pope Benedict in his 2010 Visit, for all in the Catholic Community of the UK to seek and engage in dialogue with peoples of other religions and of no religious faith.  It provided an outline guide to (Pope Benedict’s words) “The dialogue of life”, which involves “simply living alongside one another in such a way as to grow in mutual knowledge and respect”. 

The Archbishop and Fr Colin Carr OP, of St Dominic’s, Newcastle, both emphasised to the Seminar that interfaith dialogue is not a matter for us to leave to theologians.  Important though this is, it is only one of four levels of dialogue for which lay and clerical Catholics have a shared vocation.  The Dialogue of Life we can all practise, living in neighbourliness, as Fr Colin stressed, alongside and in a proper and positive relationship with members of other beliefs. The Dialogue of Action is a second level, where Catholics can and do collaborate with other religions in working for peace, justice and the integrity of life and creation. The Dialogue of Theology, though a little more rarefied, has lessons for us all, not least the dispelling of decades of misunderstanding about our respective beliefs.   Perhaps ultimately, then, Dialogue of Religious Experience offers Christians and other believers the opportunity of enriching our lives of faith with prayer and contemplation. This can, and does occur at Diocesan and Parish levels of encounter, as well as nationally and internationally.

Practical  examples of such dialogue at all levels abounded in the contribution of  David Jackson, Interrereligious Co-ordinator from the Catholic Diocese of Leeds, who shared his valuable experience of work in this field, underlining  the fact that lay Catholics must take a leading role in promoting dialogue, and be strongly and proactively supported by our clergy. He provided the CIR and our Diocese, with an outline agenda for our future activity.

A resoundingly successful example of interreligious dialogue, many Seminar participants concluded, was that cogently explained by Veronica Whitty (CIR), Hengameh Emami (Muslim representative) and Hazel Jones–Lee (Anglican representative), about the Joint Christian/Muslim Women and Children’s Visit to Pray for Peace at St Mary’s Chapel, the Shrine of Mary, Jesmond, Newcastle.  This event will be repeated in May 2011.

In all this positivity, the Seminar added words of caution. The challenge of dialogue with other religions is a new one for many Catholics, and for some ‘one challenge too far’.

There is woeful ignorance in the Catholic community about other religions, and we must learn the essential fact that it is man’s salvation, not just ours, that God seeks.

We also have to learn more profoundly about what we believe, in order to enter into some levels of dialogue.

But the need is a pressing one.  We live in an increasingly multi-faith, multicultural country: TV and communications media generally will not let even the remotest parts of our diocese forget this.  The need for Catholics to engage in dialogue is imperative, unless we are to be marginalised by society.

It is important that the whole Catholic community embrace the spirit of dialogue as the Holy Father has asked us to do even if we find it difficult or challenging.  It is a grace for our times and a grace to which we must respond.

Dr Richard Bott, CIR

March 2011