Interfaith ministry is an acknowledgment that there are many ways to seek meaning. A few weeks ago at a workshop someone asked me a tough question. We’d been talking about purpose and how painful our lives feel when we slip out of touch with what matters to us. Then one woman said, “How do I know what my purpose is? I have a career and friends. But when it comes to purpose, I don’t even know how to find out what that is.””My first response was that most of us discover our purpose bit by bit. It is only with time that we can begin to see how one thing has led to another. Almost nothing significant about my own later adult life was clear when I was young. Writing wasn’t a career choice. And in my Catholic world I certainly didn’t know any women who were ordained ministers. How could I have imagined that those possibilities would open themselves up to me – and I to them? A week from now, in a cathedral in New York, my own next step will become a reality. I will be ordained as an interfaith minister. Yet even five years ago, that would have seemed like a dream.
It does also seem to be my destiny (or perhaps my fate) to step into territory that arouses strong opinions and emotions. I couldn’t have known this, either, starting out. When I founded The Women’s Press, I was constantly asked to justify a womenonly publishing house. Over the past 20 years, as I have written books exploring the big questions, I have had to learn resilience as a vocal minority have projected onto me their narrow assumptions about my subject matter and its social value. Now, as though getting ordained is not unusual enough, I am putting my hand up for interfaith ministry, knowing that I may have to explain it for years. Am I a real minister? (Not according to the Attorney General’s Department who told me there is no such denomination.) What is “interfaith” anyway?
For many people, interfaith means people of different faiths talking about issues of mutual concern. Given the history of wars and social horrors waged in the name of religion, this is already wonderful. But interfaith ministry is something else again. It is an explicit acknowledgment that there are many ways to seek God, compassion and meaning. Those ways may be divinely inspired. They are certainly socially and historically conditioned. An interfaith minister must understand this complex picture, not only respecting the rituals, beliefs and scriptures of each faith but also responding to their common yearnings. In practical terms, most interfaith ministers also have a “home faith”. What they do not have is a mindless belief that “all faiths are the same” when clearly they are not. Yet when a group of people come together in the wake of a tragedy, or to celebrate a marriage, or to pray for peace, or to pursue reconciliation, their different faith traditions can, through an interfaith experience, be honoured. They may even be deepened.
We live in a secular age still dominated by religious sectarianism. Years ago I heard a wise person say that if it was God we worshipped rather than our religion we would all be gathering at the mosque on Friday, the synagogue on Saturday, church on Sunday and for meditation at a Hindu or Buddhist temple mid-week. It is my experience that in all those places, as well as in the bush, in a busy city office, and at the bedside of a dying person with no explicit faith at all, genuine spirituality can be found. And our finest human impulses can be honoured.
It is my exceptional fortune that my passions have developed at a time when they can be realised. On the other hand, I am also shaped by these times, as we all are. Finding purpose bit by bit is one part of the answer; responding to an unfolding sense of what is possible rounds out the picture.
An article published in Good Weekend magazine, 4 June 2005
(For more of Stephanie Dowrick’s short articles, see Free
Thinking, published by Allen & Unwin, 2004.)