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Justice and Rights - Fifth Building Bridges Seminar, Opening Remarks

Tuesday 28th March 2006

This speech, given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at Healy Hall, Georgetown University, Washington DC, marked the start of the 5th Building Bridges Seminar. It set out the themes of the 5th seminar- justice and rights in the Christian and Muslim traditions.

It's a very particular pleasure to be back at Georgetown after two years; back indeed in this room where we enjoyed your hospitality last time. The role that Georgetown has played in the Building Bridges seminars has been generous, consistent and creative throughout and I think that those of us involved in the Building Bridges seminar feel that this is as much of a home as anywhere to us; a place we can look to for support and prayer and practical assistance at every level, and we are deeply, deeply grateful for that. I take this opportunity, Jack, to say how very delighted we are that we've had such warm support and help from you all here.

If you'll allow me, I'll say just a few words about what we're here to do, what our hopes are for this meeting and for a wider agenda.

As you've heard, the Building Bridges seminar was brought into being to fill what was thought to be a gap; a gap not at the diplomatic or political level but a gap of a lack of opportunity for serious, reflective, and fairly loosely-structured encounter between Christian and Muslim scholars. The seminar is designed on the basis that we would understand one another better if we didn't have to produce an agreed and negotiated statement at the end of every meeting, if we were allowed to set our own pace and work in our own style. I think over these years we've developed quite a distinctive style; a style that depends very much on working with scriptural and traditional texts from our confessional histories and which depends very much also on conversation within small groups.

We've not sought great publicity or high profile; we've attempted quite simply to understand one another better on what I think is quite a good theological basis; that it is by the accumulation of local and personal bits of understanding that things actually change in the long run.

For us in the Church of England it's part of a wider strategy of engaging with Muslim communities locally and internationally. The Anglican Communion has a regular relationship with al-Azhar in Cairo; and more locally we have set out a nationwide Christian Muslim forum in the United Kingdom which attempts to recreate some of this atmosphere and some of this agenda in the grass roots of our country. This was set up in the light of two years of very intensive research work, exploring in may local communities in Britain what the real needs were, the coming to grips with the challenges. Today, between Christian and Muslim communities and the agenda that that forum in the UK has evolved, has a great deal to do with the challenges we share in dealing with poverty and deprivation in the UK; with issues about the family and the stability of communities; issues about education and the role of faith in public life.

In other words we have, in that context, recognised that we have a common agenda; we can't always say that we have identical convictions and certainly aren't aiming to iron out the differences and the difficulties of our convictions, but this is a world in which no one religious community, no one nation, no one interest group can solve problems alone. Increasingly we're aware in Europe - to spread the net no wider than that - of the problems we cannot solve as individual nations. Globally, we are becoming more conscious of the problems we cannot solve as isolated blocks of interest or religious conviction. The ecological crisis that our planet faces is one that is no respecter of religious difference and there is one planet on which we live, global warming is theologically uneducated; rising water levels do not discriminate between Christians, Muslims, Hindus or anyone else. As we look, also in Europe, at the problems that are around violence and community disintegration, problems about epidemic disease, problems about migration patterns, we can recognise that none of us is going to do this alone. I've come back quite recently from Sudan, one of a number of visits to African continent in the last couple of years, and if you spend any time at all in Africa, you realise that the threat of HIV/ AIDS is another which is theologically uneducated; it doesn't discriminate.

We have to work together; we work together, of course, effectively and properly when we understand each other and trust each other; so we come back to where we began. This is an exercise in learning trust and if we replicate that in different modes and at different levels across the world then we should have done I believe, I firmly believe, what God is asking us to do in our own age as we confront various crises that stand before us.

As the Building Bridges seminar has evolved, as this trust and mutual affection has developed among us, we have gradually begun to be able to tackle more and more difficult and delicate subjects. The decision before last year's meeting in Sarajevo to confront issues about the common good, how Christians and Muslims work together to understand the common good, was a move towards looking at some of those things which were potentially difficult and divisive. I think that during that week in Sarajevo, we learned a great deal from each other and a great deal from the environment in which we worked, a great deal about the risks and the possibilities about the huge legacy of bitterness and resentment between communities that could poison any sense of the common good.

In Sarajevo the physical evidence of that was all around us every day, but also a great deal about the extraordinary, even miraculous, willingness of human beings of faith to work together. This year we take a step further and we look at issues around justice and rights; controversial once again, because it's sometimes assumed that there is one discourse of human rights, that it is a western and secular one which is being marketed in an uncritical and insensitive way to the rest of the world. So in order to get past the stereotypes and standoffs that this can create, we have to sit down and work together at what, in fact, our respective traditions say about justice and about rights; we have to move beyond the criminally crude idea that there is a western enlightened world which understands human rights, and an unenlightened backward Islamic world that doesn't. We've been reminded already in the last couple of days, and particularly in today's lectures and discussions, of the extraordinary complexity and sophistication that both our traditions have brought to these discussions in the past.

We've been reminded that, on one definition of rights, Islam is ahead of western secular tradition and, on others, the western and the secular tradition has serious questions to ask. So we're treading in difficult territory this week; difficult but crucial. And I don't suppose that when we planned this meeting any of us could have had any sense of just how topical this would seem in the light of the very complex and potentially tragic situation in Afghanistan that has dominated much of the news of the last week - the death sentence threatened to a Christian convert there. It's as we tease out why that is so painful, so difficult, so challenging for all of us, that we begin to move forward.

And I think that if we carry out our work this week in a spirit in which we've begun it, we shall have a framework within which to think about these issues. It will perhaps suggest, as I hinted last night, it's not just a matter of the Islamic world being asked to adopt uncritically a 'western-model', a secular human rights framework, with all the conceptual and practical problems that entails, but a working out what it would be like to live in a world where different societies recognised the credibility, the justice and the legitimacy in each other; because there were certain things they could be secure about - certain areas where they did not think they would come up against outrageous, unjust and exceptional threats such as the Afghan incident represents.

So my hope and my prayer is that during this week we may together, as Christian Muslim friends - and that friendship is crucial to the whole process - we may find a discourse of mutual recognition and an understanding of what legitimacy is - political legitimacy - in this age. An understanding of the expectations we can bring to one another's societies. I hope too that we may all find ways of turning our embarrassment, our disturbance, even our outrage, at certain features of societies like Afghanistan into positive action, positive hope, which will break the stereotypes and lay serious and lasting foundations for understanding and peace.

We wouldn't be able to undertake these difficult tasks, these delicate tasks, without that history of sitting together, listening hard and (to pick up a phrase I used weeks ago at dear Zaki Badawi's funeral) 'listening to each other listening to God' that I think is the heart of what we do in the meetings like this. We listen to one another listening to God, and as we listen to someone else listening to God we become better able to listen to each other. So it's a virtuous circle - but we hope that that's how this enterprise works.

So, to our colleagues here this evening who have joined us; thank you for sharing the welcome that Georgetown has given to the seminar. It's a joy and privilege to share its working and its hopes and its problems with you. Once again, to the President and the staff of this place, thank you for a creative hospitality which has certainly helped us, but also for myself, as convenor of the seminar, my thanks to all the members of the Building Bridges seminar for an absolutely unique and, to me, deeply precious fellowship which has been nurtured over the past years. I've learned so much, listened so hard, I've been stretched and challenged and been inspired by you and I regard it as an enormous gift to be part of this fellowship and I hope and pray that we continue that that will have all of honesty, respect, mutual affection in way which will allow all kinds of incalculable consequences in the societies and contexts in which we belong. So thank you very much for bearing with me. I am grateful to God and to all of you for this experience and I hope that those who have witnessed something of the seminar at work will keep us in your prayers, sharing our hopes and our vision.

© Rowan Williams 2006

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