The Challenge of Multi-Culturalism

by Anne Davison

from Signs of the Times, No. 20 - Jan 2006

The latest casualty to suffer as a result of our multi-cultural policy is Marlowe's play Tamburlaine the Great, which was put on recently at the Barbican in London. In order not to offend the Muslim community the director decided to cut the scene depicting the burning of the Holy Koran and also to drop some key references to Muhammad. This is only one example of today's political correctness among many others that could be given. For example, certain local authorities around the country go out of their way to avoid any Christian symbolism in their street and other decorations during the Christmas period.

There is a real danger that if we follow these policies too far we will lose what we most value and are trying to protect. We will lose our multi-cultural identity and become a secular mono-cultural society. At the same time we are caught up in a certain tension. On the one hand we welcome diversity with all its richness; on the other hand we must find a way whereby we all have equal access to the public space.

This presents us with a challenge, but in the process we must not be seen to compromise or dilute elements of our respective faiths. It is the distinctiveness of each faith that matters in a multi-cultural society. If we lose that distinctiveness we are no longer 'multi', but 'mono'.

It is also a fact that all the great world faiths, and especially the three monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are very much bound to their respective histories; and history can be good, bad or indifferent. We can't simply ignore the difficult or uncomfortable periods. Even worse, to suggest that the Jewish Holocaust didn't even happen, as some have suggested recently.

Tamburlaine the Great was set in the Elizabethan period. It was set within the particular world situation of the time. Furthermore, the play is a great work of art. Terry Hands, who once directed the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company, said 'I don't believe you should interfere with any classic for reasons of religious or political correctness'.

These sentiments seem to be borne out by Inayat Bunglawala, media secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, who, when asked about the play stated 'In the context of a fictional play, I don't think it will have offended many people'.

A key element in learning to live alongside people of different cultures and religions is that of relationship. When a relationship is strong all partners will be confident about themselves and their faith to such an extent that they will not be offended by certain artistic expressions as, for example, the Marlowe play. Furthermore, when a relationship is strong partners can both receive and give constructive criticism without being offended. This does not mean, of course, in any way denigrating another faith.

It does not help inter-religious relations if faith communities feel obliged to compromise their faith for fear of offending another. As the majority faith and the host community the Church has, at times, over-compensated for the sake of other, smaller, faith communities. As a result the Church in come contexts loses its public space. This leads to concern among Christians but perhaps even more damaging it results in confusion in the eyes of people of other faith traditions. It is a mistake to think that people of other faiths will be offended by overt Christian expression. On the contrary, devout Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews, in fact all people of faith are encouraged by a strong Christian presence because this augurs well for their own communities. If the Church loses its significance in the public place it is possible that the other faith communities will follow suit. The danger here is secularism, not competing religions. The real tension is between the secular world and the world of faith.

Even in this post-modern secular society, many still associate Christmas with Christianity, even if the birth of Christ seems to have got lost amongst the glitz and tinsel of consumerism. One of the greatest things that Christians can offer is the message of Christmas. In the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury, 'Christmas is the Christian's Christmas present to everybody else.'

All faiths have something to offer our secular world, whether it be Hannuka, Divali or Eid. A world devoid of the true meaning of these festivals would be greatly impoverished. We need to be confident about ourselves and protect the public space where our distinctive faith traditions can be expressed. Our new Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu recently expressed this view when he urged Christians to be confident about their culture and identity within multi-cultural Britain. Such Christian confidence can only strengthen and encourage people of other faiths in the face of secularism.

Canon Dr Anne Davison has recently retired after fifteen years as the Bishop of Chelmsford's Adviser for Inter Faith Relations.