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What does it mean to be Canadian? This continues to be a puzzling question to scholars, policy makers and, above all, to ordinary citizens in Canada. The fact that Canadians come from every corner of the world as a result of waves of immigration makes the answer difficult, since immigrants bring with them to their new land the beliefs and values of their original homeland. At the same time, the problem posed by this question seems itself to become part of the solution. Multiculturalism is becoming a defining feature of Canadian identity and substantially part of the answer to the question. Multiculturalism has been officially acknowledged by the Canadian government through the Canadian Multiculturalism Act.
Religion and culture have been intertwined throughout the history of the world. Therefore a multicultural Canada implies a multi-religious Canada. Our multicultural mosaic is accompanied by a multi-religious tapestry in which old and new fabrics, with a diversity of dark and bright colours, are continuously interwoven. The tragic events of September 11, 2001, still vivid in the collective memory, have not only raised awareness of other religions in our midst but have also unveiled the internal diversity within them, from fundamentalist attitudes to more flexible and accommodating positions. They are also a painful reminder to the world that, in addition to offering purpose and meaning in positive and constructive ways, some religious views can have destructive and devastating consequences.
The multi-religious character of Canada is too important to be ignored by any Canadian institution thinking strategically and taking seriously its surrounding environment. The Canadian Council of Churches (CCC), founded in 1944, has recognized the relevance of religious diversity in Canada and has undertaken initiatives in this regard. On several occasions, its Governing Board and Commissions have been involved with interfaith issues. A cherished expression of this has been the active and ongoing involvement of the Council in the Canadian Christian-Jewish Consultation and in the National Muslim-Christian Liaison Committee. Worthy of notice in the history of the Council are the consultationChristian Approaches to People of Other Faiths in May 1996; a conversation on the theological basis for the churches’ engagement in interfaith dialogue and relationships in February 2004; and a series of interfaith questions presented to the Governing Board for discussion in May 2005. These activities were organized by the Commission on Faith and Witness.
More recently the Governing Board received enthusiastically a proposal from the same Commission to undertake a new interfaith exploration within the Council toward the feasibility of establishing an Interfaith Reference Group. This initiative was coordinated by the Interfaith Liaison Committee and monitored by an Interfaith Advisory Committee specifically formed for this purpose. The present study is the outcome of this exploration. The study does not intend to define the terms interfaith or dialogue. It attempts to show the actual interfaith experience and potential of the member churches of the Council.
Between February and May 2007, 21 conversations took place with representatives of 20 CCC member churches. The conversations followed an interview format, structured around questions (available before each meeting) about the church’s experiences, practices, hopes and challenges regarding interfaith relations in general and specifically their need for, and potential contribution to, an Interfaith Reference Group. Setting up the interviews was not an easy task given the busy schedules and geographic locations of these representatives. However, their flexibility and generosity in making themselves available was sometimes creative and always edifying. Most notable was the appointment with Father Ammonius Guirguis of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which took place on the way to and from a cemetery in the context of a Coptic burial.
This journey became a fascinating pilgrimage filled with awe and reverence at the encounter with every church. In all cases, the representatives made space in their daily ministry to ponder the questions presented by the Council and share answers that could shed light on their church’s interfaith discernment. They were not hesitant to articulate their passion and commitment for the faith and mission that have been entrusted to them, displaying a diversity of attitudes and practices regarding interfaith work. Their candid responses to the Council’s questions reflect a spectrum that encompasses positions from highly to less involved, optimistic, interested and available in relation to interfaith work in general and specifically a possible Interfaith Reference Group in the Council.
Following the interview phase, answers were analyzed and common themes were identified. This report is organized in sections according to the questions posed to the churches, followed by some recommendations. The recommendations take the form of different scenarios for the CCC to consider in its discernment. Summaries of the interviews are appended at the end preceded by a short profile of each member church.
The relevance of this task was highlighted when one of the officers of the Council referred to it in a conversation, reflecting that the presence of different religions in Canada today is like the presence of computers in the world of technology. We have two choices: to learn about them and live with them or to pretend that our social environment is still the same and be overcome by an unstoppable factor without being prepared to fully operate under our new social reality.
The author is grateful for the support of the churches, and the Council’s staff and friends. Without their accompaniment the new, small step offered through this modest report would not have been possible.
Carlos Hugo Parra-Pirela, M.A., M.Div.
Christian Interfaith Liaison Ecumenical Officer