For the five calendar years 2006 to 2010, I had the pleasure to be able to concentrate exclusively on promoting a better understanding of Islam, Christian-Muslim relations, the situation of Muslims in Western Europe and to attempt to enhance Muslims’ understanding of Christianity. This work was nominally hosted by the St Ethelburga Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, Bishopsgate, and funded by a syndicate of four charitable bodies. The brief was to develop courses, promote an understanding, raise awareness and build up a cohort of people who were interested in multiplying this work in their own neighbourhoods or professional lives, so that the work could be taken up by an appropriate institution. The geographical focus was on Greater London with an awareness of the need for occasional programmes in other parts of Britain and Europe.
The genius of the project can be indicated in the following ways:
- Through the generosity of the members of the syndicate, I was able to offer my services without charge, including travel and office expenses.
- St Ethelburga’s hosted my presence on their web site, which allowed for advertisement and recruitment for the study days that I did for them and allowed us to build up an e-list of people interested in the Understanding Islam project. Throughout the five years, St Ethelburga’s, in the persons of their Director, Simon Keyes, and the team and volunteers, has provided stalwart support and taken an interest in the project and their Fellow in an exemplary way; the original concept was one of symbiosis and I believe that this has been fulfilled.
- The lack of a physical location for the project (I only actually “worked” at St Ethelburga’s for nine Saturdays each year) meant that its overheads were extraordinary low; there was never the immense burden of “having to generate funds to preserve the fabric of the building”, pay administrative costs, etc.
- Courses, study days and talks went to people wherever they naturally gather by habitation, interest or work. In this way the logistics of attracting people to a teaching centre, wherever it might be located, were avoided. This is of particular note in an area the size of Greater London, where I could easily spend six hours per day in travelling to reach teaching locations; and this given the fact that I was able to take rooms fairly centrally. Courses etc. were hosted in religious, educational, community or domestic locations that were “within the comfort zone” for participants and could be provided either free or at a nominal cost by the hosts.
- There was an explicit agreement from the outset that I was to avoid involvement in committees, working parties, boards of enquiry, commissions and suchlike, therefore being able to devote all my time and energy to the project itself.
- The project grew on the basis of securing the services of an individual with proven knowledge, skills and experience. I had an academic background in Christian theology, Islamic studies, pedagogy and interfaith relations spread across four decades. I had a proven track record in teaching about Islam, including explicitly to the target audiences and enjoyed a degree of respect within both Christian and Muslim communities. The “course book” for the project (Understanding Islam: the first ten steps, London: SCM) was published in April 2006 and during the London years has sold around 5,500 copies, 50% of which were sold in relation to the project’s work directly. The much shorter basic introduction: The Essence of Islam, aimed at the widest possible audience, has similarly sold around 2,500 copies directly in relation to project events.