Anglicans and Muslims attend the annual picnic at St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church in Leamington, Ont. in September 2016. The Rev. Andrew Wilson, rector (wearing black with white collar), and The Rev. Deborah Wilson-Safa, deacon (green shirt, mauve sweater), are standing at centre in the back. Submitted photo

Shared spaces, interfaith activism foster understanding between Anglicans and Muslims

St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church in Leamington, Ont. made headlines recently with an ongoing foray into interfaith cooperation.

Following its annual picnic last September in which the church had invited Syrian refugees to attend, St. John established an arrangement with a local Muslim community to use the church’s community hall. A CBC report was shared thousands of times on social media, and the Anglican Journal later offered its own coverage.

At a time of rising Islamophobia across Canada and around the world, instances of solidarity between Christians and Muslims such as that at St. John provide counter-examples of Canadian attitudes toward Islam. The Rev. Andrew Wilson, rector at St. John, has received much positive feedback since the story on his church picked up traction.

“The response that people have actually sent to me, they said, ‘This is Canadian. This is who Canada is.’ And they say, ‘Yes, and this is who Christ is.’ So I’ve had both responses,” Wilson said.

Islamic prayer and worship within St. John Anglican church has provided an opportunity for the Anglican clergy and members of congregation to observe similarities between Muslim and Christian worship. Wilson recalled an instructive conversation with the Rev. Debbie Wilson-Safa, a deacon at St. John.

“We were going, ‘Yeah, it’s shorter than our service, it’s much more efficient.’ They open with scripture, they have prayers, they have a sermon, and then they have some more prayers, and they chant.

“Well, Anglicans chant. We used to chant a lot more. But we can do all of our prayers as a chant, and at the end of a chant, you say amen. It’s pronounced ah-meen [in Muslim worship services], but I believe it’s the same word … We’re facing east, we’re kneeling … If we didn’t have pews, we would definitely be on the floor if we kneel. So it was very, very familiar.”

Sharing and experiencing both faith traditions

Anglicans outside Leamington have likewise seen the increased understanding between Christians and Muslims that can result from growing proximity and familiarity.

Though she was recently appointed to the National Muslim-Christian Liaison Committee, the Rev. Beverly Williams finds that “the most fruitful dialogue” she has experienced has taken place in her position as executive director of Flemingdon Park Ministry in Toronto.

Offering a Christian presence in a largely Muslim community, Flemingdon Park Ministry provides care for spiritual, social, physical, and emotional needs. Half of the staff members at Flemingdon Park Ministry are Muslim.

Many Muslim residents from the neighbourhood regularly attend Christian worship services at Flemingdon Park. Williams highlighted one Muslim man in particular who enjoys sharing writings about Jesus from the Qu’ran and pointing out similarities between Christian and Muslim interpretations of Jesus—known as Isa in the Islamic tradition and revered as a great prophet.

“I have learned more from [this man in Flemingdon Park], and his devoutness and belief in Jesus to be the one who will return to redeem this world … Now, he would never call Jesus son of God,” Williams said. “But he has a firm belief that it is Jesus who has the power to return and redeem this world to God’s original intention.”

Two faiths uniting against violence

Outside of worship, the community in Flemingdon Park has seen Christians and Muslims join together to speak out against violence, as occurred after the recent shooting of a young man in nearby Thorncliffe.

“Muslims and Christians and people of no faith got together to speak about how we can work together to make this a safer neighbourhood,” Williams said. “We should be doing this, and we need to be doing this alongside of people of all faiths. It’s just about answering that call of loving your neighbour.”

“It’s about building this community and building relationships with trust and with one another,” she added. “And then that can help break down those stereotypes.”

Speaking out against violence has also helped deepen the relationship between whole Anglican and Muslim congregations in Toronto, along with representatives of other faiths.

Following the Québec City mosque attack, members of St. Anne’s Anglican Church in February joined with City Shul, a Toronto synagogue, and the Islamic Information and Dawah Centre, a local mosque, to show solidarity among Christians, Jews, and Muslims and to support the mosque by forming a “ring of peace” around the Dawah Centre.

“We’ve had a really good ongoing relationship with St. Anne’s for a while now,” assistant imam Ilyas Ally said. “It was a very natural thing to happen.”

Bringing congregations together

St. Anne’s and the Dawah Centre had also previously sponsored a Syrian refugee family together.

In October, Ally will visit St. Anne’s on Thanksgiving Sunday to deliver a shared sermon with the Rev. Gary van der Meer, the church’s pastor and incumbent, who in turn will visit the Dawah Centre the following Friday to address Muslim members of the community.

“I think that we’re on a journey of getting to know each other and befriend each other, and that the awareness in both communities that that’s actually possible and worth celebrating will grow,” van der Meer said.

Ally echoed his sentiments.

“I think it’s important for us to understand each other better, and to know that our two religions share so much in common,” the assistant imam said. “Sometimes we forget that, even though it should be quite obvious for anybody who studies world religions. But sometimes, sharing space with somebody who’s a little bit different from you can open up a lot of new understanding.”

“I know when somebody who’s not a Muslim comes to the mosque and addresses the audience, the congregation is always really appreciative to know that there are people out there in the community, even though they’re not Muslims … [who nevertheless] share a lot in common with the Muslim community, and that we can work together on shared goals.”

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