Desktop version

Home arrow Religion

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

The Building Bridges Seminar


Following the Anglican-initiated inaugural Building Bridges Seminar [Seminar] in 2002 there have been 17 annual meetings down to and including 2019. Seven of these will be discussed in respective chapters below. These are the twelfth (2013) on community; the second (2003) and seventh (2008) on scripture; the third (2004) on prophecy; the tenth (2011) on prayer; and the fourth (2005) and fifth (2006) on ethical issues. This chapter briefly reviews the Seminar methodology and outlines the meetings that have taken place following the inaugural, that is, from the second in 2003 to the sixteenth in 2017. It will include by way of a “Postscript” some comment on the 2018 and 2019 Seminars, for which publications are yet to appear. Along with information about each Building Bridges Seminar and the participants, Seminar publications are freely available at the official website for the Building Bridges Seminar.1 This is provided by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs of Georgetown University, Washington, DC. Any inquiries or questions may be directed to Dr Lucinda Mosher, the Seminar’s rapporteur.2 What would have been the nineteenth Seminar, in 2020, has been postponed on account of the global Covid-19 pandemic.

Building Bridges methodology

Rowan Williams once commented that 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”.3 This gives a clue to the methodology and intent of the series. Indeed, relatively early into the series the 2(X)4 Seminar analysed the emerging methodology by way of some scholarly reflective input, and addressed the question: What is dialogue? Mustansir Mir (2005, 13) asserted the necessity and possibility of a credible Quranic-based “post-prophetic theology of inter faith dialogue”. Rowan Williams (2005) presented a provocative approach by way of an analysis of atheism — exploring the significance of non-belief, or even un-belief, for faith and dialogue.

Significantly, Miroslav Volf (2005, 24) applauded the Seminar series’ “methodological sophistication” with its “very simple but momentous decision to organize the seminar around reading the sacred scriptures together”. He went on to note three distinct advantages to this jointly engaged and shared scripture-reading methodology. Such a process opens up otherwise fixed positions; it provides a resource for tackling questions of identity and otherness, so enabling a balanced approach to dealing with commonalities and differences; and it counters the history of using scriptures in the service of mutual antipathy.

The style of the Seminar series has been described as an exercise in “appreciative conversation” during which participants remain rooted in their own tradition, yet able to reach beyond it by engaging in an exchange in which “people listen without judgement, do not seek consensus or compromise, but share the sole purpose of continuing the conversation in order to sustain relationships of mutual respect” (Stamp 2002, 113). In being so described, the motif of “appreciative conversation” that is often used to describe the tenor of the Building Bridges Seminar series has much in common with David Lochhead’s definition of the dialogical relationship as such, namely a relationship of openness and trust which is clear, unambiguous, and has no other purpose than itself (Lochhead 1988). The Building Bridges Seminar thus falls into the category of dialogical projects marked by religious conviction and academic rigour, in this case following a style of “working together, studying sacred texts together, and above all learning to listen to one another speaking to God and also to watch one another speaking to God. It is a style which has been patient, affirming, and celebrating” (Williams 2013b, xv).

In her retrospective of the first 15 years of the series, Lucinda Mosher provides a thorough discussion of Seminar dialogue methodology as “a flexible exercise, informed by thoughtful evaluation”, marked by nine dimensions, or elements (Mosher 2018a, ix). These are, first, its focus of being an intentional theological dialogue, which is emphasised as being relational rather than relativistic - meaning the underlying search for truth presupposes a deep relationship between and among the dialogical interlocutors. Second, that each Seminar pursues a distinct theme with generally three sub-topics, with participation by invitation only. Another is ensuring the near equality of Muslims and Christians, each of whom reflects in their specific identities, but do not formally represent, main denominational streams within each faith. Further, most usually there is a commencing public event that incorporates some keynote or introductory lectures. The integrity of preparation expected of participants, and the highly intentional small-group activities, form further elements as do the plenary sessions that, for the most part, set the scene for the group discussions. It is in this small group setting that dialogue can go deep, as well as wide. Finally, as already mentioned, the aim is not to produce a communiqué or other formal statement of achievement, other than the published record, which reflects the fact that the Building Bridges Seminar “is as much about exploring difference as it is about finding common ground” (Mosher 2018a, xii).

Typically, the book publications from each Seminar are divided into parts, reflecting the dialogical method and structure of the event itself. These contain lectures, most usually given in an open public setting at the commencement of the Seminar’s programme, before the participants settle into a round of focussed studies and discussions. Preparatory material, including scriptural texts and other study notes, are also included, as are some concluding reflections and summaries arising out of the dialogical discussions. Focal input material is normally presented alternately from a Muslim and a Christian contributor. Indeed, a basic methodology quickly evolved a pattern whereby all topics were engaged and introduced by way of a pair of lectures, one Muslim, one Christian, accompanied by the joint study of relevant Christian and Muslim texts. In relation to this latter dimension, at the 2007 Seminar a particular innovation took place, namely that “some Qur’anic texts were introduced by Christian scholars, and some biblical texts were introduced by Muslim scholars” (Ipgrave 2011b, xvi). Ipgrave comments further that this “cross-reading” of one another’s texts “can be seen as a sign of the collegiality that is possible when faithful believers who have grown to trust and respect one another meet in openness in the presence of their respective scriptures” (Ipgrave 2011b, xvi). In many respects this Seminar, the sixth, signalled a deepening of the dialogical relationship that had already emerged as a fruit of the regular, consistent, and deeply intentional nature of this particular example of Christian-Muslim dialogue.

Broadly speaking, the Building Bridges Seminar methodology amounts to a structure in which participants are able to share, from within their own faith traditions, how they are wrestling with issues and questions pertinent to the specific topics of each dialogue theme. Gaining an insight into how each perceives and responds to the same issue is as valuable as the quest to resolve any specific difference between them; indeed, most often such resolution is not the point, other than to clarify and correct misunderstanding of one by the other. In more recent times, the pattern of Seminar meetings has evolved to include the opening keynote session as a public lecture. This is followed by up to four days of closed, participant-only, dialogue involving plenary presentations and small-group work. Through this process, participants delve into the subject matter as presented and engage in allied textual study, whether of apposite scriptural passages or of other relevant works from within each faith tradition, or of both types of literature. A particularly useful development in terms of the published output is a closing section that endeavours to capture something of the substance and tone of the dialogical discussions, in small-group and plenary sessions. This assists the reader to vicariously share in the dialogue, albeit in a very limited fashion. It helps to contextualise what otherwise might be received as simply a collection of essays around a topic. It aids the appreciation that what is being presented is, indeed, the fruit of dialogue.

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics