Tuesday, August 1, 2006
Michael Henderson

A unique sacred space in the heart of London where people of all faiths, or none, can meet with others from different traditions and explore differences in a spirit of friendship and respect.

DWARFED BY HIGH-RISE buildings in the City of London is a structure that would not look out of place in the North African desert. ‘The Tent’, which has just been opened by the Prince of Wales, stands in the garden courtyard behind St. Ethelburga’s Church, Bishopsgate, and offers ‘a unique sacred space in the heart of London where people of all faiths, or none, can meet with others from different traditions and explore differences in a spirit of friendship and respect’.

Made in Saudi Arabia and with art works donated from Morocco and Turkey, it has eight stained glass windows which have been described as ‘a superb exercise in religious and cultural tact’. The 16-sided structure, covered in woven goat’s hair like a Bedouin tent, can comfortably seat 20 people.

In 1993, after having survived the Great Fire of London and the Blitz, St Ethelburga’s, one of two remaining medieval churches in the City, was largely destroyed by an IRA bomb. It was rebuilt three years ago as a Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, using much of the original stonework. The building project was financed through a public appeal, with major contributions from institutions in the City, which is London’s business district.

One of its initiators was the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres. The aim, he told me, was to develop a new role for the church, ‘that will turn the damage into lasting good’. The Centre would explore the role of religion in international affairs, seeking to further the contribution of faith communities. It would also incorporate a memorial to those who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of peace.

Since its rebuilding St Ethelburga’s has hosted regular events in pursuit of this aim. From early on it was pursuing dialogue with Muslims, but meeting in a church posed certain hurdles, explains the Centre’s Director, Simon Keyes. The fact that the Christians were always the hosts put limits on frank discussions with other faiths. No Orthodox rabbi, for instance, had ever spoken there. The Tent is a deliberate attempt to create a space where religious dialogue can be between equals, a space that recalls the desert from which many faiths have emerged.

Leaders of nine faith traditions came to its opening, all bringing copies of their respective holy books. The Prince of Wales unveiled a plaque to a former rector, John Medows Rodwell, who in 1861 published the first reliable version of the Qur’an in English.

The Centre will not shy away from contentious issues like conversion, proselytising, extremism and fundamentalism and will pursue honest conversation. A manifesto Sharing the Space: promoting conversations between Christians and Muslims was published for the occasion. It reports on discussions about violence against religious minorities in certain Muslim states, seeking to put the ‘persecution’ issue into a wider context which could be helpful in promoting the understanding and tolerance required of both sides. It also says that in the long run it is not enough just to condemn or disown extremist elements: ‘They must eventually be engaged in the conversation.’

The manifesto states, ‘Christian and Muslim scriptures endorse neither coercion nor violence in pursuit of their invitational missions. However, the reality round the world is that tension between Christianity and Islam is expressed in the form of violence and other forms of conflict and repression. No conversation that ignores the reality of these issues will be fully grounded in truth.’

Michael Binyon writes in The Times of London, ‘In the Middle East, where, as the proverb says, no friendship lasts for ever but nor also does any enmity, the tent is the place where taboos can be broken and reconciliation replace warfare. So, St. Ethelburga’s hopes, it will be in the heart of London.’

I have a particular interest in St. Ethelburga’s. My parents were married there and I was christened at its centuries-old font.

Michael Henderson is the author of Forgiveness: breaking the chain of hate. Grosvenor Books, 2002 ISBN 1-85239-031-X