18th-22nd March, 2012
Brahma Kamaris Retreat, Oxford, UK
Friendship Across Religions – 5th Meeting of Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders
Oxford, England, 2012
Elijah leaders and scholars felt a great sense of elation and satisfaction, after holding the fifth meeting of the august body of international religious leaders who come together under Elijah’s auspices. The meeting, held from March 18th to 22nd 2013, at a religious retreat center outside Oxford was a time for drawing inspiration, deepening the bonds of friendship and seeking a way to impact the world as a group.
60 prominent leaders and scholars, representing six world religions, came together for this meeting. We were privileged to enjoy the beauty of the surroundings and the spiritual atmosphere created by the Brahma Kumaris as their Global Retreat Centre. As so many among us observed, our participants felt supported and transported by the spiritual energy and goodwill of a religious community that opened its home to receive us. . Following the custom of the Brahma Kumaris, every hour, the entire complex stops for one minute as evocative music is played and all present observe silence. Introducing this moment of silence into our proceedings had a remarkable effect. Sister Jayanti, the BK representative to the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders, provided, in her welcome speech, the deeper reasoning behind this practice – the need to find personal peace from within as one embarks on the quest to make peace with those around.
The theme of the meeting, ‘Friendship Across Religions’, was prepared in advance by a think tank of the Elijah Interfaith Academy. The secret to the success of our meetings has been advance preparation by our scholars, providing firm foundations for discussions between our leaders. Discussions explored the nature of friendship as understood in the different religions, obstacles to interreligious friendship, the promises it holds and concrete steps that our leaders and their communities might take to implement this ideal in their lives. If you would like to read a summary of the essays (to be published in the future as an academic publication) click here. Over coming months, we will be releasing videos of the meeting. The present issue of Wisdom is accompanied by a first offering of reflections by our leaders on the theme of interreligious friendship. For some reflections from our leaders, click here.
We would also like to share with our readers the flavour of the meeting. A photo video has been prepared that captures some of the moments and the message of the meeting. We hope you enjoy it. Click here to view the video.
From the opening session, one thing that was palpable to a first-time observer was the deep bonds of friendship felt between long-time members of the Board. This has been one of the achievements of this forum, since its creation in 2003, and the experience of friendship provided the impetus for theoretical reflections on interfaith friendship, its challenges, limitations and potential. One of the dimensions in which our meeting can be measured is the deepening of bonds of friendship. Participants reported that in this respect this was probably the most successful meeting our forum has held to date.
On the afternoon of our second day, participants were treated to a tour of the beautiful city of Oxford before conducting a ‘town hall meeting’ with members of the interfaith community of the city. The meeting with the community took place in the Divinity School of Oxford, (which was apparently used as the infirmary for the Harry Potter films.) A highlight was the presentation of a copy of the famous Sarajevo Haggadah by Mustafa Ceric, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia to Alon Goshen-Gottstein. The haggada had been preserved from destruction from the Nazis by his grandfather. In presenting it, the Mufti made the appeal that we all respect and protect each others’ scriptures, come what may.
At the community meeting, Oxford residents spoke with great pride of their accomplishment at having an annual interfaith walk, from Synagogue to Mosque to Church, which attracts hundreds of people. During one of the small group sessions, one small group decided that the best thing to do would be to go on a small interreligious walk of their own around the magnificent grounds. This initiative was repeated by the entire group each day – walking together side-by-side, talking heart to heart.
One of the goals of the meeting was to identify ways in which leaders could implement friendship in their communities and continue the work of the Elijah Board of Leaders on a continuing basis. The meeting led to a clear development plan, that we are now in the process of implementing. One story is worth telling. When participants were asked how they could implement the lessons of the meeting in their communities, we discovered that an important Muslim religious leader from the Sudan and an Anglican leader with Sudanese connections had become friends. This friendship will form the basis of their common attempt to bring their respective communities together and to work for deepening peace in the Sudan.
After three intensive days of deliberation, the leaders headed off to London for a meeting with bankers and business leaders to discuss the role of religion in economic development and the possibilities of partnerships between religions and business. A new forum of religious and business leaders has been launched and we look forward to practical collaboration and will keep our readers posted. The closing event of the meeting was a reception at the home of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In some ways, the discussion there took us full circle. The meeting began by asking if there was a difference between interreligious friendship and other friendships and whether we could distinguish something that might be called ‘spiritual friendship’. The Chief Rabbi spoke of the need to befriend those who are not religious. He reminded participants that people of faith (religious people) have a bond and an orientation towards one another. The greatest challenge may well be extending the depth and breadth of friendships to those from whom they feel most distance – the secular community.