Sunday, July 22, 2007

Sunday surprise encounter

While we were socialising over a cup of tea after the Eucharist this morning, a young couple in their late teens early twenties came into church and sat down quietly together for a while. Then they came over to me, where I was saying farewell to someone leaving, and asked if I had time to talk with them. "I wonder if you could advise us ....", he said, somewhat tentatively. "We're pagans, and we want to set up a pagan temple over in Newport, where we live. And we figured that we should ask other religious groups if they'd support us, and help us get started, as many religious people try to respect each other these days, but we don't know where to start."

Well, neither did I. Some pretty unusual things happen in and around St John's, one way or another, but this was certainly without precedent! I had to think hard, and as respectfully as I could. The first thing that came to mind was the experience I had back in the late seventies and early eighties, when I worked in the inner-city St Paul's area of Bristol. It was a time when there were several different groupings of 'ethnic minorities', first generation immigrants striving to establish places of worship to call their own - Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians of African and Caribbean Pentecostal backgrounds. I was involved in the advocacy work that enabled them to acquire buildings, get planning permission, funding, and receive a welcome in the network of religious communities in the city. This was where my education in religious pluralism began.

I was also reminded of the St Davids II development plans, which include in the shopping mall design a 'prayer room', without any indication as to who it's meant to serve or how it will be managed, let alone who has asked for this to be included in the architects brief. Sure, similar malls in Dubai or Kuala Lumpur may require such a space, likewise designs for airport teminals world-wide. But in Cardiff, a city whose publicity presents a social landscape which is almost religion free. Who asked for this? So, what I said to the young couple was this:

"Ask yourself, who is asking you to set up a pagan temple? Who is going to use it? Are there enough people of pagan religious community who are ready and willing to do something other than pursue their own private spiritual practices, because if there are enough people wanting to do something religious together, they'll find each other and make common cause to start the temple you like to see."

That was what I saw happening amongst the immigrant communities in Bristol during my years there. It was also what I saw amongst expatriate Brits in Switzerland, where new Anglophone arrivals eventually began to look for means to organise worship and social activity closer to where they lived and took time off, rather than trekking back into the city with its established English congregations. Out of the need for local community comes new intiatives. Simple and obvious once you've seen it happen. But not obvious to a new generation, exploring religious ideas that are probably new to them, taken from the global supermarket of religions, and slowly being unpacked and put to use.

Now, it's equally possible that this young couple were trying to wind me up for a laugh, as it is that their enquiry was sincere and serious. In fact, noticed the woman was wearing a silver pentagram as a necklace, but even so, they came into church looking for respect and acceptance, and I hope that is what they went away with, even if they answer they got demanded more of them than they might have expected.

Individual choice is everything today. If anyone is really enthused with what they discover they can sink their energies into promoting it, extending the offer made to them, in the hope that other individuals might catch on, and be persuaded. It's not quite the same as building community of people in a new situation who share something of a story or an identity, or a history of spiritual endeavour, which is the pastoral enterprise continuing to flourish among all sorts of expatriated cultural and religious minorities. It's not the same as evangelisation, which seeks to engage a new audience with which to relate the story of Jesus and his Gospel in terms that translate into people's own experience - from such shared experience new community does grow. It's what happens when you step outside the supermarket of religions clutching your newly acquired product. You have to learn how to use it, and to find out if there is any user support or even a network of users. And when it comes to individual acquisition of this kind, you're on your own to start with .

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