In the heart of London a Bedouin tent erected on the rubble left by an IRA bomb is offering a new space for Christian and Muslim scholars to meet. Susan Roberts reports.
It’s easy to switch off as soon as you hear the words ‘peace and reconciliation’ – or even ‘interfaith’. Somehow they carry little sense of the dramatic events, deep-rooted emotion and conflict they deal with.
But something that brings alive the whole process of drawing different religions – too often in conflict – together recently opened a few hundred yards from Bishopsgate in the heart of the City of London.
It’s a Bedouin tent in a quiet courtyard behind an ancient church – reached by a souk-like narrow alley leading away from buses, banks and wine bars.
The church is St Ethelburga’s, which dates from the 11th century, and one of the oldest buildings in the City of London.
In the early 17 th century, the Rector William Bedwell was one of the translators of King James’s version of the Bible. Just over two hundred years later, its Rector John Rodwell published the first reliable English translation of the Koran.
In the 1930s, it gained notoriety as one of the few churches in London where divorced people could get married. It then survived the bombing raids of the Second World War and by the 70s had become a ‘sleepy’ Anglo Catholic church
But in 1993 it was badly hit by the IRA truck bomb in Bishopsgate. Little remained standing and its future, as a church, looked bleak.
Centre for peace
Commercial redevelopment looked inevitable: it was one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in Europe. But an initiative led by the Bishop of London, the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, saved it and an appeal was launched to reopen it as a centre for peace.
The idea, says its director Simon Keyes, was to transform the church, virtually destroyed by conflict, into a place where people could explore the relationships between faith and war.
Fragments of the old church were salvaged and incorporated into the new building. It is still consecrated but used for services only occasionally.
Most of the time it serves as a meeting place for talks, readings and prayer groups, attended over the past year by about 5,000 people. Speakers included Juan Roberto Menendez, on death row in Florida for 18 years, and two women from the Occupied Palestinian Territories who had lost their children.
But though there is no vicar and no regular worship, there is still a cross on the altar, and the church remains rooted in Christianity. “Christians will always be the hosts,” says Simon Keyes.
Because of this strong Christian tradition, the main church building can hold difficulties for speakers from some other faiths. Hence the idea of creating a different, independent sacred space which could be used without hesitation by people from any religion.
A tent was chosen as an ideal structure. Tents are often mentioned in sacred texts as a place for significant meetings – used by nomads in the desert for meetings as people’s journeys crossed.
Just over a year ago Simon Keyes approached a wealthy philanthropist from the Middle East to discuss the idea. Plucking up courage to ask for financial backing, he met with the answer: ‘No – but I will do it for you.”
The donor remains anonymous – but construction started with craftsmen flown in from the Middle East and other parts of the world working under the direction of a former professor of Islamic art at the Royal College of Art, Dr Keith Critchlow.
Dr Critchlow, Director of the Prince’s School for Traditional Arts in London, is a world expert in sacred geometry.
The tent is a circular form, made of straight lines, he explains, ‘the closest we can get to an earthly expression of a spiritual form’.
The geometry of the design aims to reflect common understanding between faiths, drawing on what Dr Critchlow describes as the universal languages of arithmetic, algebra and astronomy
The result is a deceptively small-looking 16-sided structure built using traditional Bedouin construction techniques. It is covered in goat hair woven in Saudi Arabia and in eight of its sides are stained glass windows made with the help of the master glazier of Ealing Cathedral, among others. Inside it is strewn with rugs from places in the world experiencing conflict: a craftsman from Uzbekistan laid the carpet.
The windows are crucial, according to Dr Critchlow. Each carries the word ‘peace’ in the language of different religions and has a species of tree linked to a particular faith system – a palm for Islam, cedar for Christianity, a mango tree for Hinduism for example.
The setting, in the newly landscaped courtyard, has an Andalusian feel. Dr Critchlow hoped to capture something of the atmosphere of medieval southern Spain shared in relative peace by Jews, Christians and Muslims.
“Peace is most certainly not a lack of war,” he says. “It’s a frame of mind and a state of being.”
The tent will now be used for scholars – and non-scholars – for discussions, meditation, story-telling and music. St Ethelburga’s has published a manifesto to coincide with the opening.
“Our central conviction is that conflict between Christian and Muslims, who love the same God, can be transformed,” it says. “This will require finding ways in which each side can value and gain understanding of the other without having to feel the impossible weight of responsibility for reconciling deep-rooted differences of perception and belief.
“We hope that the further exploration of these issues in The Tent will reveal some ways of doing this that will be helpful elsewhere.”
For details of upcoming events at St Ethelburga’s this summer, click here.