In the heart of the City of London, tucked between a branch of Chez Gerard and some ABN Amro offices, is a circular Bedouin tent.
About 10 metres in diameter, covered in goatskin and lined inside with carpets from the Middle East, it sits in a quiet garden behind the church of St Ethelburga’s, which was all but destroyed by an IRA bomb in 1993. In the reconstruction that followed, St Ethelburga’s was eventually reopened as a Centre for Reconciliation and Peace and the tent is the latest manifestation of the centre’s work in bringing people of different faiths together.
“Sitting in the tent changes the dynamics of a group profoundly,” says Justine Huxley, St Ethelburga’s interfaith projects co-ordinator. “You feel like you are sitting in your front room. You can be yourself.”
The tent seats about 30 on a cushioned bench that runs all the way around the inside wall. Light comes through seven stained-glass windows, each featuring the sun and moon (“Very common symbols of reconciliation,” says Huxley), trees and seeds, and the word “peace” in the language of one of the world’s main faiths.
The church of St Ethelburga the Virgin was founded in 1180 and for most of its 800 years had an uneventful life (one of its rectors published the first English translation of the Koran; it was briefly notorious in the 1930s as the church that would remarry divorcees). But when it reopened its doors in 2002 it embarked on a new direction, dedicated to examining “the religious dimensions of conflict and the role which faith communities can play in the resolution of conflict”, and its purely Christian activities were reduced.
“Today there are three services in the church each year,” says Huxley. “For the rest of the time, we are trying to offer a neutral territory where people from different faiths can meet on equal terms.”
And meet they do. This month alone, there are public meetings on Islamic approaches to reconciliation, the spirit of the Sikh tradition, Mary Magdalene, faith in the oil age and education for non-violence, as well as concerts of devotional music from around the world, films and meditations. There is also an extensive programme of private meetings between different organisations aimed at resolving their differences.
“Many of the meetings we hold are quite transformative,” says Huxley. “We recently had a dialogue between Muslim and non-Muslim women. Among the non-Muslims there was a level of distress about the position of women in Islam but not much chance of talking about it. The Muslim women often didn’t have much of a voice; men talked for them in their community. We found that people listened to each other and heard their points of view before expressing their own. It was a big success.”
Sitting in the tent with Huxley, you can feel how conducive the space is to speaking – and listening – frankly. First, the place is extremely comfortable. Second, it seems to hold you in a softer way than an ordinary room does and makes you feel safe. And third, while I can imagine looking anyone sitting around the perimeter in the eye, no one will be too close for comfort. I could meet my enemies here which, of course, is the point.
“It’s a simple idea,” says Huxley. “But being together helps resolve conflict. However, we do need to see if we can take things further. In the interfaith world, there is a lot of surface dialogue but there is also a sense of needing to go a bit deeper. We are looking at how to effect transformation rather than just talk about it, and we want to find ways of communicating that to other interfaith communities.”
Despite its peaceful setting, St Ethelburga’s tent is a place where sometimes quite hostile groups meet to work out a resolution of their differences. But it is also good medicine for the tensions that can exist in individual minds. As we talk, City workers and tourists wander in off the street and are delighted to discover some unexpected Bedouin calm.
“Anyone can come in to the tent,” says Huxley. “It really has a wonderful effect.” Even those who have no use for God and spirituality in their lives? “Absolutely. Current tensions between faiths are something that affects all of us globally, whether we have faith ourselves or not. We all need to participate in the solution.”
St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, 78 Bishopsgate, London. Tel: +44 (0)20-7496 1610