A vicar meets his Muslim parishioners
From a podcast from Mahabba
Reverend Phil Rawlings has been heavily involved in reaching out and building relationships with Muslims in his parishes. Here are some abridged highlights of an interview in which he shares his experience as vicar of St Brides in Old Trafford, Manchester.
I arrived in Old Trafford in 1993. I had just turned 40 years old. I arrived with three children to an area which was in the 1%, most deprived category in terms of deprivation. And that had been my calling and it still is my calling, to work with the poor. Previously I'd served on a big council estate in North Bolton, very, very poor, but there were no Muslims there.
I would describe myself as a charismatic evangelical. I came to a church already involved in charismatic renewal and had a bit of a history of seeking to engage with Muslims. About a third of the population in my parish were Muslims and that proportion was growing year on year. The Muslim population in Old Trafford mostly are Indians, some Ski Lankans and some Pakistanis.
One of the central planks for a clergyman in their parish is that they have spiritual responsibility for the cure of souls, of all those in their parish. And I took that really quite seriously. Most of my neighbours were Muslims. We had a mosque just around the corner, which had been newly built. When a third to a half of my parishioners were Muslims, I thought it was beholden on me to find out what Islam was about and to be able to communicate with them. I had a passion for sharing Jesus as a kind of pastoral evangelist, I suppose.
I'm not trying to persuade them that God exists, they know that. The question is, what kind of God is it that we worship. And so a different approach was needed to share Jesus with my Muslim neighbours, an approach that actually I had no training whatsoever in or thought very deeply about, where it wasn't trying to persuade them about God. It was actually trying to encourage them to understand that God has revealed himself in his son, our Lord Jesus.
We had a young man staying with my wife and our family for quite a time really. He was a believer from a Muslim background, because he hadn't got anywhere to live. That was a really good experience in terms of getting to understand some of the issues that the folk coming out of Islam. He'd been rejected by his family, was very lonely, very damaged actually by the whole experience. And working with him, living with him and trying to set a kind of model of Christian life for him to pick up, I'd never done that before. It was an interesting experience and it actually taught me loads, which was good.
If you're going to understand your community, there are different ways of going about finding out about that community. I think it's important because certainly for those who are first-generation here, their mindset, their worldview will be largely coming from the Indian sub-continent. And if you're going to relate to them in a way which makes sense, then you need to understand something of where they're coming from to help understand.
It's different for second and third and fourth generation people. They'll be much better integrated into British life. But, for the first generation, I think if you're wanting to relate to them, build relationship with them, you need to have at least an inkling. And that then gives you enough really to be able to ask them questions. In the end, you'll learn far more about Islam and about folk by talking to them than you will by reading books.
So, when I chatted with my neighbours, literally folk living opposite me, "Where'd you come from?" Just chatting on the street. "Oh, our community comes from Surat." And so, I'd go back, go googling, finding out a little bit about where they're from, which then gives me points of contact to be able to build relationship and friendship with them.
You don't need to learn a language. You've just got to be friends, and be willing to say sorry. Because you'll make oodles of mistakes. Oodles of assumptions that aren't right. You'll put your foot in it regularly, but if you're willing to say, "Oh, I'm ever so sorry," or ask them questions, am I assuming something, just be kind of very humble and honest with them, but seek, build friendships with people who want to make friends. Generally speaking, they're very open people.
Manchester has experienced terrorist attacks from Muslim extremists and that's something that's still very live. My experience of most Muslim communities is that they're probably more frightened of us than we are of them. And that we need to be aware of that. The terrorism thing, they're as frightened, if not more frightened of the terrorists. Vast, vast majority of Muslims have no truck at all with these extremists. And they're embarrassed. They feel that these guys are letting down their religion, which they consider to be a peaceful religion. And so they feel very, very hurt because of course there is a backlash.
So when somebody like me, vicar in an area, who in their eyes, we often don't feel it, carries some authority, starts seeking to build relationship with them, they are just wide open to it. And so every time there was an atrocity anywhere, overseas or here, I would get the leaders together and we'd put some kind of statement together. But what we wanted to show was that Christian leaders and Muslim leaders could relate together so that the community would feel more comfortable with itself. Now, whether that worked much or not, I really can't tell, but certainly it built some really good friendships, which are continuing to this day.
I was in a fortunate place in that I did have colleagues. There was no alarm really from the congregation. In fact, I think there was significant encouragement. I trained up and built up a pretty good team amongst the congregation, and we had a church that was working really well.
In terms of my understanding of Islam, I felt that I needed to get myself up to speed in my own understanding. So I went off and did a master's degree in Islamic studies at the university, which I did off my own bat, really. And then once I'd done that, then the local theological college invited me to go and teach on Islam, which I did and loved it. And then I also went on to do further studies at a doctoral level. But I hasten to add, you don't need that.
My engagement with a religion like Islam has increased enormously my understanding of my own faith. When my Muslim friends tell me that Christians have corrupted the scriptures, I need to get my act together, find out how I can respond to that. So done a lot of reading, done a lot of discussion, been in lots of dialogue groups where we've talked about issues of our scriptures. I would even say that that my engagement with Islam has taught me more about the Christian faith than three years at theological college.
It was really important so that I can explain Christian truths to my Muslim friends. And I do it out of that friendship, that relationship of mutual respect. I've listened to them, and I hope that they're listening to me. I remember I was in a dialogue group, in Oldham, fairly early on in my time there. We'd had about six or seven sessions together. Pretty kind of tiptoed around each other. At the end of one session, my Muslim counterpart turned to me and said, "You know we would like you to become a Muslim." And I just smiled. I didn't say anything at all. I smiled. And he then looked to me and he said, "And I suppose you'd like us to become Christians." I just smiled again.
But that then broke the ice. It meant that we understood each other. And that group is still going. I'm not a part of it, but the friendships developed there, actually I'm very actively involved with still. And that's been going now about 11 or 12 years. So, I would encourage anybody, everybody. God hasn't given us a spirit of fear. We need to go out there in a spirit of love to talk to our Muslim neighbours. They're really willing to do it.
And one of the really wonderful things about meeting our neighbours is that they will always give you food. And the Asian curries are just fantastic. But they will also open up their lives and share their faith, and they will politely listen to you. They may not engage with it, but most Muslims have no idea what Christianity is about. They'll have been fed a whole load of really inaccurate things. And one of the things that I think is a real opportunity is for them to meet real Christians. They don't know what Christianity is because most of them have never met a Christian, not a real Christian. And so I think it is beholden on us to share the good news of Jesus with our wonderful, lovely Muslim neighbours.
I'm simply trying to be a witness to what God has revealed in Jesus Christ. And so, I keep on saying to Christians, when people say, "Oh, you just want to convert them?" Actually, I don't convert anybody. My calling is Acts 18, to be a witness to these things, as Jesus commands his disciples there. People become Christians, not because of my arguments or anybody's arguments. They become Christians because God in the Holy Spirit has entered into their lives. We can speak about Him until we're blue in the face, but actually they need to encounter Jesus. We then have a responsibility to disciple and to enable these dear, dear people who've come bravely, very bravely come out of Islam to grow as followers of Jesus.
The 21 minute podcast is here.
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