Building Bridges through Interfaith Dialogue

The Reverend Hans Christiansen, Senior Chaplain at Melbourne Grammar School has a keen interest in World Religions, contemplative spirituality and interfaith dialogue. The co-founder and former President of the Mornington Peninsula Interfaith Network is a Board member of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim Association. Hans is an advocate for social and ecological justice and is a member of the Anglican Diocese’s Social Responsibilities Committee. Here he writes about Melbourne Grammar School’s involvement with the Building Bridges Interfaith Dialogue Program.This article was first published in the ASA News July 2016 Edition.

Australia is one of the most multicultural and multi-faith societies in the world. We are a relatively peaceful society. However, recent incidents of racial and religious intolerance have shown us how vulnerable trust between groups with different faith and cultural backgrounds can be. We need to keep working at educating young leaders in cross-cultural dialogue and encourage the building of trust between ethnic and religious groups in our society.

There will be no peace among the people of this world without peace among the world religions

The great theologian, Hans Kung, once wrote that, “There will be no peace among the people of this world without peace among the world religions.” Jonathan Sacks wrote that, “The greatest single antidote to violence is conversation, speaking our fears, listening to the fears of others, and in sharing of vulnerabilities discovering a genesis of hope.”  If this is true, which I believe it is, then it is paramount that Jews, Christians and Muslims come together to seek common ground and learn from each other.

It is for this reason that I involve students in Years 10- 12 from Melbourne Grammar School in the Building Bridges Interfaith Dialogue Program. The program brings Senior School students from Jewish, Muslim and Christian schools together for six evenings and one full day during a year. Students from Melbourne Grammar visit an Islamic School, a Jewish School and various Christian Schools and as well as host students from the three faiths at Melbourne Grammar for an evening.

Our students have eaten kosher vegetarian food together. They have learnt about Jewish faith and culture. They have witnessed and taken part in a prayer service in a Mosque and they have engaged in facilitated dialogue with Muslim, Jewish and Christian students from around Melbourne. Most importantly, our students have made friends with Muslim and Jewish students living in Melbourne. Seeing 60 Jewish, Christian and Muslim students laughing together and sharing stories about their lives and their faith traditions is a wonderful image to hold on to in times where the media usually only represent conflict between people of faith.

The greatest single antidote to violence is conversation…

Some Christians and people from other faith traditions argue that interfaith dialogue is dangerous for young impressionable people as it may lead them away from their belief systems. I, and many of my colleagues working with interfaith dialogue, have found the opposite to be the case. Engaging with people from other faith backgrounds has encouraged our students to delve deeper into their own Christian backgrounds. For example, hearing from a fellow 16-year-old Australian Muslim about his relationship with God and how it influences his decision-making led some of our students to consider how their faith influences their lives. When our students host the other schools in the region at Melbourne Grammar we invite the students to our Chapel where we conduct an entirely student-led traditional Anglican prayer service with a sung litany, a sermon, bible readings, candles and incense as well as speeches about the Anglican tradition and the religious life of Melbourne Grammar School. Leading such a service made the participating students from our school study the Anglican faith more deeply and several of them have expressed a renewed interest and appreciation of the Christian faith within the Anglican tradition.

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I know our students thoroughly enjoy being part of this dialogue and they learn a lot from it. Not only do they make friends with Australian Jewish and Muslim students, but they also learn to appreciate how important religious faith can be to young people in our society. Their participation in the program strengthens their own faith and helps them recognise the benefits of living in a cohesive multi-cultural society.

At this stage the Building Bridges Program is only running in Melbourne but implementation in other states is currently being explored. I encourage Anglican schools across Australia that are interested in finding out more about the program to contact Building Bridges in Melbourne (www.buildingbridges.org.au or info@buildingbridges.org.au) or me at Melbourne Grammar School (hhchristiansen@mgs.vic.edu.au). As conflicts between groups of people from different religious backgrounds across the world grow there is always a potential that the unrest may find its way into our society. To prevent this and to build a bedrock of good will and understanding among people of faith I encourage all our faith-based schools to engage in intentional interfaith dialogue. I commend the Building Bridges Program to you all.

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