Faith Forums have been springing up around the country as a means of engaging people of faiths with local authorities – and with each other.
Thurrock Council have tried to start something along these lines on a couple of occasions in recent years, but nothing of substance has ever developed – thus far.
Transformation Thurrock has been in touch with Jenny Kartupelis of the East of England Faiths Council (EEFC) – which is based in Cambridge and covers the whole of East Anglia – and asked her for her wisdom on the subject.
TT: What is a Faith Forum? What’s its purpose?
JK: A Faith Forum brings together people from different faith traditions, often those who have some leading or influencing role in their community, to work together for common purpose, often in relation to the ‘public square’.
TT: What does the EEFC do? What can it bring to a locality?
JK: EEFC is a Regional Faith Forum (there are nine across England). Its remit is to act as a point of contact between faiths and local/national government; support the formation and existence of local inter faith groups through training, networking and guidance; and be an information hub. It can contribute to particular localities with advice for the Local Authority on faith matters, and support for local faith and inter faith groups.
TT: Is the EEFC a Christian or a Multi-faith or a ‘secular’ organisation, or other? What is the organisation’s roots and aims?
JK: It is a multi-faith organisation. Its roots are in the East of England Churches Network, from which it grew when Church Leaders invited people from other faiths to join them in creating a multi-faith group. It is independent of Government, although it has been receiving public money.
TT: What is your role and background?
JK: I have run (and still do) a small business. However, virtually all my time is given to EEFC, of which I am the Director. My background is in communications.
TT: How many Faith Forums are there in the East of England?
JK: There are 26 Local Inter Faith Organisations in the region, ranging in ‘age’ from one to 30 years. In Essex, groups include Braintree, Colchester, Epping Forest, Harlow, and Southend.
TT: How are Faith Forums made up and how does the EEFC suggest local Faith Communities’ representatives approach their council?
JK: The composition of a faith forum will depend on the composition of the community it serves, as it needs to reflect the main faith groups in its home town or area. It will benefit from building a good relationship with its Council, so that the faith voice can be heard on e.g. matters of policy, and can be represented on bodies such as the LSP. When a group forms, it is good for it to let the Local Authority know, and perhaps invite officers and/or a Councillor to some of the meetings. EEFC can advise on these and other issues.
TT: Why is it useful for faiths to come together in such a context?
JK: A local inter faith group fosters good understanding between faiths themselves, and between faiths and other groups, so benefits the whole community and brings improved cohesion. It also provides a point of contact, a resource, an organiser of events. Working together in this way builds mutual trust, which stands the community in good stead in times of crisis.
TT: How should the different faiths conduct themselves when they come together?
JK: With mutual respect. Most local inter faith groups will have a constitution or terms of reference that members will be asked to sign up to, whereby they undertake to behave in a suitable and constructive manner (which does not mean everyone has to agree all the time!)
TT:. How can theological conflict between faiths be avoided? Is it possible that the setting up of a Faith Forum can cause division within a particular faith rather than create a sense of working-together-for-the-good-of-the-wider-community?
JK: It cannot always be avoided, and people may have to agree to disagree. However, local inter faith groups are not primarily about theological discussion, but rather about ways of working together for the common good. On most matters, people of faith can generally identify common, basic values that unite rather than divide.
TT: Why should the Christian church be involved in a Faith Forum?
JK: Christians are normally the single largest faith group in a locality, and it is essential that the Church is involved. It brings established structures, good channels of communication and often people of great wisdom to help the Forum thrive. Its involvement also reflects the Christian duty to serve others.
TT: At a recent meeting of church leaders in Thurrock, the question was asked, “Rather than asking the Council, ‘What can you do for us?’, we – the Church – should be asking the council, ‘What can we do for you?'” What is your response to this?
JK: Definitely! Provided that by that comment, they meant serve the local community rather than act as an agent of the Council (which I’m sure they did).
TT: Some have said, “We’ve been here before – I’ll believe it when I see it.” This is because the local Council have tried to set up something similar on two previous occasions but not followed through. Why should it be any different this time?
JK: A local Council can help, facilitate and encourage a local inter faith group, but in the end it will only get established if people from the faith groups decide they want it and are willing to take responsibility for it.
TT: How can the EEFC be accessed in the event of a ‘Thurrock Faith Forum’ being set up?
JK: Just call or email us (and hope that we continue to receive some funding after March 2011 so that we can be here to help when needed). See details below.
TT: What would the EEFC like to see happen in Thurrock, and what outcomes can we look forward to?
JK: We’d be very happy to see a local inter faith group get up and running, and bring the sort of benefits mentioned previously. It should also be remembered that being involved in inter faith can be fun and rewarding! You inevitably meet some very nice, wise and interesting people, and find yourself learning much that you didn’t know before.
TT: Thank you, Jenny, for taking the time to answer these few questions.
East of England Faiths Council
St John’s Innovation Centre
Phone 01223 421606
Fax 01223 421839
Middle: Faith Meal – Sharing Food across faiths & cultures (curry!)
Right: Jenny Kartupelis signing the Lambeth Declaration