Ruth Turner offers theological reflections at the annual multi-faith dialogue on international development
Last week the Archbishop of Canterbury hosted his annual multi-faith dialogue on international development. This year the event was co-hosted with Islamic Relief Worldwide, Catholic Overseas Development Agency (CAFOD), Progressio and the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and discussed pressing, contemporary questions about the role of faith communities in development. The Tony Blair Faith Foundation’s Chief Executive Ruth Turner was asked to provide closing remarks at the event:
It was only after I had accepted the very kind invitation to try to sum up some thoughts from today, that I realised quite what a challenge it would be to try to pick out some highlights from such an impressive group of panellists and attendees.
When I then saw that this slot was listed on the agenda as ‘theological reflections’ I was even more daunted. Because I am not only not a theologian. I am the daughter of a theologian. So I am in the somewhat humbling position of being a little aware of quite how much I don’t know.
So today has been a day of learning and some growth for me – I hope for you too.
I’ve learned from Atallah at Islamic Relief Worldwide about “the agency that God places in us” – and the opportunity and obligation that gives us to use our own talents and resources.
From Susy at CAFOD that Catholic social teaching tells us we should be “artisans of our own destiny”. She laid out a deep and unsettling challenge not just to do good to people, but to be in genuine and empowering partnership with them.
From Acharya Modgala from the Amida London Buddhist Centre, we heard about the simple but incredibly powerful notion of “finding a place to stand” – each of us being in solidarity with the good of our neighbour.
From Archbishop Rowan: there was so much to learn, and it is hard to choose what to highlight. He gave us that memorable phrase: “religion doesn’t allow us to live in moral gated communities”. He told us that we must be committed to the next generation, to people we will never know. That we should “live life in abundance” – in a spiritual not just material sense, and that we should each “define who I am in communion with my neighbour”. He talked about having a dogmatic commitment to human rights.
If I’m allowed to quarrel with him on one point, it’s on his answer to the question about what the faith world can learn from the secular world: I hope in fact that we don’t have such a stark separation as he described, whereby the non-religious world does efficient and professional systems, and faith-inspired organisations do values. I would love a much richer conversation between people of all religions and none. Some of the non-religious people I know have much to teach faith communities about human rights and human dignity. And as our small group discussed, faith communities could have much to teach political systems about how to ensure the clean, efficient and professional application of funds in systematically corrupt environments.
So I have learned much today, for which I thank you all.
Some things I did know already. I am lucky enough to run an interfaith organisation, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation – and have done for nearly 5 years. We are focused on increasing religious literacy amongst the public, leaders, decision-makers; and highlighting ways in which religion can be a force for good. We know it isn’t always a force for good. But it can be.
I saw an example of how it can work at its best, just before I came to today’s conference. Sierra Leone is a country with 6 million people and only 102 doctors, but a church and mosque in every village. So, starting with Muslim and Christian leaders, we have trialled a cascade model of public health training on malaria. We train Pastors and Imans who in turn train their congregations, and Muslim and Christian teams then go door-to-door in their communities training families how to protect themselves from the disease. I just received the news that we have already reached 100,000 households with these life-saving messages – and hope now to reach around 15% of the entire population of the country in less than a year.
This is just one of many examples each of us can cite of the work our own and each others’ organisations are doing. And citing each other is vital. Because this is an event discussing interfaith and development, not just religion and development. Just as Archbishop Rowan reminded us that the burdens and injustices of our neighbours are our burdens and injustices, as I leave today, having learned and been inspired by the faith teachings and theology of so many others, I know also that we are each others’ answers too.
I would like to thank the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lambeth Palace for allowing us to be part of the multi-faith dialogue on international development this year. I hope these conversations will continue to inform and stimulate practical collaboration between faith groups to positively impact the global community and further the development agenda.
Ruth Turner, Chief Executive of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation