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ENGAGING WITH ISLAM

 

Frs Oliver Coss and Anthony Murley are a Vicar and a Curate at All Saints’ Church in Small Heath, Birmingham. Whereas many churches function in areas where religious observance is seriously declining, Small Heath residents are overwhelmingly religious, and the vast majority are Muslims. In conversation, they explore some of their experiences:

Oliver Coss: It was a bit startling, back in 2010 when I was applying for this job, to see that in the parish – alongside a few other churches – one Anglican church met over 25 individual Islamic congregations. Aside from the obvious preponderance of buildings set aside for religious use, it was also very obvious what cultural impact the demographic had: from one end to the other of the main street, there’s hardly a chain-shop or a recognisable brand apart from the Bookmakers’ shops. It’s almost unique, in both its religious and cultural landscape.

Anthony Murley: I think I share that acute awareness of the uniqueness of the culture of Small Heath. It is a place where faith is allowed to break out of the usual confines of religious buildings and to be seen actively on the streets and indeed in the majority of shops along the Coventry Road. It is not uncommon to be purchasing hardware supplies or groceries set to an audio background of the Qur’an being narrated or sung. This might seem a challenging landscape in which to express a Christian faith, but quite the reverse has proved the case in my experience: because faith spills out into every corner of life, people of different faiths and indeed each faith itself, have places of respect, generally speaking.

OC: Occasionally, that breaks down. Diversity is a wonderful thing, but too often it’s manipulated beyond its natural tolerance, and we realise how different people are. The Bishop of Birmingham talks about the city as a collection of villages, collected – a little awkwardly – cheek-by-jowl, and yet there’s a natural instinct to breathe past the baseline of tolerance, and seek the respect again. It’s a very human cycle of living. In a traditional Catholic parish, where cassock and collar are common place, what was it like the first time you walked through our neighbourhood on your own, wearing a clerical collar?

AM: Bishop Lindsay Urwin once gently warned me about clerical attire – clergy are distinctive enough without being distinctive in their distinctiveness! I saw what he meant in a society where a clerical identity marks one out in an already singular way, that a clerical collar is something alien and unusual in itself. In Small Heath it feels somehow less the case, the modesty of dress in this context is such that a cassock seems to go without question or at last alarm, and a collar is understood as something which marks one as a faith leader. That is not to say that a Christian faith leader is universally welcomed with warmth, but the first time I walked through the parish in a clerical collar I did not feel that my role was misunderstood.

OC: I suppose that the attire people adopt because of their religion is rather commonplace here. Whether it’s Muslims or Sikhs in all their various shades there’s something different about each that marks out their tradition and their ethnicity. So a priest in a cassock is, unnervingly and disarmingly, not really a strange sight. At the same time it’s radically different from other parts of the city, where you might end up being stared at (sometimes, disappointingly, jeered at) for your cassock and collar, but in other respects totally ignored. My experience here is that the opposite is also true: the outward signs are unremarkable, but the embrace is different isn’t it? Did anything surprise you at the welcome that Muslims have shown us in this area?

AM: The embrace does vary from group to group and from person to person, and sometimes an exploration of what we share, faith in God, can go in different directions – some interest shared in a similarity of concepts or practices, or a more challenging conversation about evangelism or conversion. In the many Islamic institutions, either associations or mosques, which I have visited, I am almost always overwhelmed by the extent of hospitality and welcome. Sometimes this hospitality flowers amusingly, celebrating Eid by chatting about exorcism in an ice-cream parlour called OMG, for example. Most surprising also is the generosity at work in our local community, which exists on a scale seldom seen in some church contexts.

OC: And we’ve had some ‘Rev’-like moments, where, like Tom Hollander’s affable Rev. Adam Smallbone and the local Imam agree to raise funds for a local children’s park (with Adam finding about £10 and the Imam raising thousands of pounds), where we’ve become aware of the immense size and capacity of other places of worship, and the modesty of our own. But I think that in everything we’ve set out to do collaboratively there’s been a respect for what we can offer, and never any suggestion that we’ve been a poor neighbour for it. Perhaps that’s something about Islamic communities being concentrated in particular places in Birmingham, and Christians being spread thinly across the city, yet because of that spread and reach – and because of our role in the state – we’re still perceived as powerful.

AM: I think that’s one of the resources with which we can be generous, as people of faith situated in a way to enable and support the flourishing of others whilst respecting difference. An example is a forthcoming Marian Symposium where we will share ideas from both faiths about Mary. We have been blessed to be supported by Dr Margaret Barker and Bishop Martin Warner speaking from Christian perspectives, and Shaykh Arif Abdul Hussain and Sister Nazmina Dhanji talking about Mary in Islam; both communities have been able to drawn upon respected leaders and academics to explore difference and commonality. Perhaps one of the most fascinating elements of working alongside those of other faiths is how we experience a shared space and religious difference; we rejoice that we share closeness in our community, but respect that there are differences which will not and perhaps, should not, be reconciled. A question arising from this for me, and something which tends to be the opening gambit from most who are unfamiliar with our type of parish, is what are the implications for Christian ministry? It would be cynical to express that as ‘signing off’ on a pastoral experience, but in some contexts how is the parson in this context able to say they have done what Jesus wants of them? I think hospitality and welcome lie at the core of that.

OC: Yes, and I think that’s something that we should always be doing, regardless of our context: an open door, and a welcome reflective of the pax that Christ shares with the apostles not only keeps that door open, but keeps people coming through it. Hopefully, it will mean travelling to new and interesting places. For us, we’ve had wonderful opportunities to use the natural resource of our distinctive Anglo-Catholic tradition: I know we hope that the Marian Symposium will result in the opportunity to do an Interfaith Pilgrimage to Walsingham, and there are specifics like that, but it’s exciting to see such vibrancy at the heart of relationships between people who relate for no better reason than they live in the same place.