The Call to Multiple Religious Participation

Added about a year ago by John Barnett

GUEST BLOG: Why would a Christian priest choose to take part in a second religion’s worship? Is it right? In this blog, John Barnett details his path to multiple religious participation.

A growing number of people in the UK are born into mixed-faith marriages, experiencing something that cultures in many parts of the world take for granted, the overlap of different religions: “Shinto for the Living, Buddhism for the dead” to quote the phrase about Japan[1], to which could be added “Christianity for the bride”. There are also those who have been raised in one faith but find nurture and enlightenment in a second, exemplified by Paul Knittter’s book Without Buddha I could not be a Christian (2013, Oneworld Publications).

My own route into multiple religious participation was rather different from these. As an interfaith officer I often attended worship in non-Christian settings but was aware of a tension in those settings. As a Church of England priest I felt an obligation to maintain some sort of reserve, trying to distance myself from what was going on around me, but had to recognise that I was sometimes swept up unawares into the worshipful atmosphere. I have since found that others in similar roles recognise this tension, and the question arose for me as to what exactly I was scared would happen to me if I let that reserve drop, if I participated fully, or as fully as I could. I decided to explore this in relation to Sikhi because I find Guru Nanak Dev Ji an inspiring character, Sikhs are well represented in the area where I worked, they are welcoming to visitors, and Christian/Sikh relations are under-represented in interfaith literature. In my new book, I describe the moment I finally put my anxiety aside, bowing to the ground before the Sikh scriptures:

I bow my head, place a coin in a long box there, then kneel, move forward onto my hands and touch my forehead to the carpet. I stand, bow again, and then sit down on the men’s side. The first time I did this was in retrospect important, having merely bowed my head on previous visits to gurdwaras, but I […] noted “I hesitated but it seemed a natural thing to do, not the great ‘crossing a threshold’ feeling I had expected”. As to whether it is idolatry, it is worship but that does not necessarily imply the object of worship is divine[2]. For Sikhs the gurus, including Guru Granth Sahib Ji, are channels of God’s grace but not themselves divine, so I am not bowing down to “another God”, leaving aside the issue of whether the Sikh divinity is other to the Judeo-Christian God. All this I might have trotted out as theological justification. The truth is that at the time it felt more liberating than shameful, part of the opening into which Christ has called me.

Christian and Sikh, p. 28

That “call” refers to a vision of Christ (in Smethwick gym of all places) in which he invited me, Thomas-like, to explore what I really experience and believe, standing back from the formulae and practices to which I had felt an increasingly irksome obligation. If this was not just to be play-acting I had to become much more deeply engaged with a real Sikh congregation, trying as much as I could to match my ongoing Christian participation, and it became a collaborative activity as both Christian and Sikh congregations became engaged with what I was doing. Originally intended to last a couple of years that engagement has continued from 2015 to this day, though interrupted now by Covid restrictions.

This was much more than a personal quest, seeking from the beginning to cast a light on the wider cultural phenomenon of multiple religious participation. It was set in the framework of doctoral research at the University of Birmingham, and was always looking at how my individual experience could resonate with and illuminate that wider context. As well as an academic supervisor I had regular meetings with Christian and Sikh collocutors who helped me see how my religious identity was changing from their own faith-perspectives; I interviewed eighteen people who had had experiences relevant to Sikh/Christian multiple experience, and conducted three focus groups with colleagues. I used imaginative reflection to generate a series of descriptions of Jesus and Nanak together, and offered a brief contribution to theology of religions arising from the overwhelming friendliness experienced in that imaginative setting and in my own experience. But overall the story of my engagement is itself the thing, and the reader is invited to interpret it in her or his own way. I encourage readers to be bolder in their own cross-religious engagement, but I do not shy away from the difficulties that arose so some may choose to see it as a warning. However you interpret it, the centrality of the story itself accords with my deep-rooted commitment to practical theology. Reflected experience offers some indication of the “gaps and fissures”[3] of reality, too easily brushed over in mainstream theology’s quest for a spurious theoretical coherence. I hope telling a story also makes for a better read than some theology!

I now am retired after 40 years in stipendiary ministry, and more retired than I imagined I would be as I am currently shielding. Not only does this mean that I have actually been meeting deadlines for the first time in my life, but it also means that I would be delighted to hear from any readers or other interested people who may wish to correspond with me about what I have written or more generally on the topic. This is not only my first book (thank you to Natalie Watson who acted as my editor and inducted me into the mysteries) but it is also my first blog; and thank you to my niece, creative writing student Holly Busby, who has held my virtual hand through this latest adventure.

So now to take my place among the distinguished bloggers on the Sacristy Press website, and I wish that 2021 will prove for you all a year of happy and productive reading.

​John Barnett was ordained in 1977 and worked in parish ministry in Birmingham and the Black Country until his retirement forty years later. In 2003, he was appointed to a group of parishes in Oldbury and Smethwick, and engagement with other faiths became an important part of his work. In 2009, he became Interfaith Officer for the Wolverhampton area of Lichfield Diocese. He advised the Bishops of Wolverhampton and Lichfield on interfaith matters and had oversight of Black Country Near Neighbours, a government-funded community cohesion programme which was rolled out across four metropolitan boroughs. For a number of years, he regularly worshipped at GKN Sikh gurdwara alongside his continuing Christian ministry until both were disrupted by COVID-19 regulations.

John’s new book, Christian and Sikh, is a major contribution to the fields of interfaith practice and practical theology, in which John​​ Barnett explores the challenges of faith practice as a Christian and as a Sikh. Get your copy today.

[1] J. V. Bragt, “Multiple Religious Belonging of the Japanese People”, in C. Cornille (ed.), Many Mansions? Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2010), pp. 7–19, p. 10.

[2] In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer wedding service, the groom worships the bride—he gives her true value—as he gives her the ring: “[…w]ith this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship…”.

[3] Walton, H. (2014) Writing Methods in Theological Reflection. London: SCM Press, p. 168.

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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