Lord Harries of Pentregarth is known to be an outspoken man, and fights many battles to promote faith, religious harmony and social justice. As Bishop of Oxford he became a founding member of the Oxford Abrahamic Group, bringing together Christian, Muslim, and Jewish scholars. Since then he has not given up the fight. Lord Harries recently took time out of his busy schedule to speak to Joanna Andrews about inter-faith relations and the impact on the social and political sphere.
Professor the Right Reverend Lord Harries of Pentregarth wears many hats. He is a retired Bishop of the Church of England. Before that he had an army career with the Royal Corp of Signals. He was made deacon in 1963, and was ordained a priest the following year - eventually becoming the 41st Bishop of Oxford (1987-2006). He was previously the Dean of King's College London, and a Fellow and an Honorary Professor of Theology. But he has many other feathers in his cap - including penning many books and writing articles on everything from religion, politics to art. In 2006 he was made a Life Peer as ‘Lord Harries of Pentregarth of Ceinewydd’ in the County of Dyfed and sits on the crossbenches is the House of Lords.
Lord Harries, who may occasionally be accused of being a controversial figure, is arguably one of the most forward thinking intellectuals in the Church of England. He is willing to go out on a limb to speak out about social, political and inter-faith issues that affect us all today.
Despite many reports the world over about a rise in Islamophobia or anti- Semitism, Lord Harries is quick to point out that he feels “very positive about inter-faith relations in Great Britain today.” He attributes this to the “very good relationships between Christian leaders and the leaders of other faith communities.”
He gives a recent example of how inter-religious collaboration paid off. “A few years ago, when there were major riots in some of our northern cities like Bradford and Burnley, the fact that there were very close relationships between Christian leaders, the Anglican Bishop, and the Muslim leaders, meant that those riots never got totally out of hand and they brought order, and calmness in a relatively short period of time.”
He gives another example. “At the time of the Iraq War, in Oxford, when I was Bishop of Oxford - when tensions were running very, very high - we had a wonderful inter-faith ‘Peace March’ which began in the Synagogue with prayers, it moved to the University Church (the Christian Church) with more prayers, and it ended up at the Mosque with readings from the Koran and characteristic hospitality. We had several hundred people walking through the streets of Oxford each carrying a white balloon - a wonderfully impressive symbol of inter-faith people working together at time of increased tension.”
He admits there are still problems that need resolving, like ‘pockets’ of Islamophobia in Britain, particularly post 9/11 and the July 2005 London bombing which saw a backlash of attacks against the Muslim community. However, Lord Harries adds, “I think that Islamophobia is still there and still needs to be watched… I don’t myself think it is increasing, I am not aware that it is, but it is certainly there and this is basically driven by the kind of perception which is too often given of Islam through our newspapers.”
He says, “If there was a terrorist attack, as there was in the London underground a few years ago, this of course immediately colours the whole picture in a very negative way and people don’t realise that the vast majority of Muslims in this country and abroad totally distance themselves from that sort of thing.”
Lord Harries says that more often than not the media tends to paint religion in a bad light; often portraying it in the idiom of confrontation and disharmony. He would like to see all faiths represented in the press for the ‘good’ they do instead. But sadly, this doesn’t make the news.
“Islam at its heart is a very peaceful religion,” he says. “But, the trouble is that the work of a few unrepresented extremists’ feeds into the national consciousness and the papers haven’t always been very responsible about conveying the peaceful side, which totally outweighs those kinds of terrorist acts.”
He says he saw a “very significant turning point” following the 2013 murder of British soldier Lee Rigby. “He was murdered in the streets in broad daylight in a very kind of brutal barbaric attack by somebody who claimed to be speaking for Islam. What was significant about that is that it was immediately strongly condemned by every leading Muslim organisation in the country - without any equivocation or qualification.”
Finding an Identity
The former Bishop of Oxford believes one of the key problems right now is the fact that people in England are struggling to find their identity. “There is quite a lot of strong anti-Europe feeling, and very often this anti-Europe feeling coexists in people with fears about Islam. It is part of the fear of ‘the other,’ and I think this is partly related to the fact that the English (and I don’t mean the Welsh, Scottish or Irish), are slightly groping for an identity at the moment.
“For 300 years, to be English was to be a British Imperialist. England no longer has an Empire,” he says. “I think that the English are trying to discover what it is to be English. There has been an emergency of flags of St.George for example… It is part of this insecurity about what it is to be really English in the modern world and part of that insecurity I think is expressing itself first of all in an anti-Europe feeling and secondly in a anti-‘other’ religion point of view.”
He says a lot of the fear stems from ignorance, or a lack of education about different faiths, “Education is a key component of ensuring a healthy society as far as inter-faith relations are concerned. And we are not very good at that at the moment.
“As far as Christianity is concerned, there is huge ignorance about what the Christian faith is in our society and there is also ignorance about Islam and distorted views of Islam,” he adds.
And it is not just a question about finding an identity; it appears also to be an issue of a lack of faith. Lord Harries says there are a rising number of people in Britain today who have no faith. “The opinion polls show a great rise in the number of people in this country who define themselves as having no religion at all. This is part of a long historical process. I think it goes back to the 18th century and it speeded up in the 1960s… The fact of the matter is there are now a very high percentage of people growing up in this country who have no living contact with the Christian faith at all and the church has to find new ways of trying to relate to people.
“The picture is not wholly gloomy,” he says. “Congregations of cathedrals are growing. The congregation diocese of London is apparently growing. Congregations of the black-led minority churches are growing. So it is not a wholly negative picture. But, there is a huge challenge, and the churches simply have to come up with new, more imaginative ways of reaching out to people that have no contact with the church, and are therefore growing up in ignorance of what it is.”
He adds, “One of the reasons why cathedral congregations are growing is because of the very high standard of music and a higher standard of preaching, so people are drawn by excellence.”
A Multi-Cultural World
“A pluralistic society is a fact of life, and we need to face up to that,” he warns. “When I travel on the London Underground, I look around. First of all everyone else is much younger than I am! And the vast majority of them are a very difficult colour from me. In London, of course, we rejoice in that.
“I basically think it is fundamentally enriching to live in a society with other cultures and other religions and through interaction with them there is a mutually learning process,” he concludes.