by Bishop of Bradford, Toby Howarth, previously Secretary for Interreligious Affairs for the Archbishop of Canterbury
Since 2011, England’s communities have gone through a period of transformation which has included neighbours deciding increasingly to work together for the betterment of their local areas. They’ve done this while being from a range of different religions and backgrounds, and through working together they’ve generated friendships that are changing the way we understand community in this country.
It hasn’t been easy. There have been all sorts of difficulties and pressures on our communities generated as much from international crises as local and national. But there have been encouragements, too and one of these has been the Near Neighbours programme which celebrated five years of hard work and joyful relationships on Tuesday 26th January.
This is a programme that began focussed on a few areas of the country, and that has been rolled out more widely over the last three years, not least with a much greater involvement from Jewish communities. So I was one of hundreds of people from communities across the country at the Near Neighbours conference in Leeds, a fitting celebration of all that has been achieved.
Throughout the day we heard beautiful and inspiring stories that might seem to some as entirely counter cultural, but have in fact become far more a part of the norm in England’s communities.
Take, for example, the SaSH kitchen in Nottingham. This is a café that has been set up by the Nottingham Liberal Synagogue and the Muslim charity, Himmah. Together, they’ve been working to ensure that those in their neighbourhood who are struggling to make ends meet, or simply searching everywhere for their next meal, can find a plate of free food and friendly faces.
What struck me about their presentation, as well as so many others, was the ease of friendship that was so clear in how they worked together. In a culture so seemingly focused on the self and so often resistant to difference, the SaSH kitchen is demonstrating a new way of doing community in this country.
And it’s just one of over 1100 inspirational stories across the Near Neighbours programme and it was poignant to see so many of those stories gathered in one place in Leeds. Who we were and the projects we brought represented many, many people. And just as significant for me as the numbers was the fact that these projects were being rolled out by “ordinary” community members who had decided they wanted to make a difference.
This wasn’t about meeting together to discuss theology over a samosa and a cup of tea (as important – and sometimes even fun – as that is). This was about how we can practically make a difference to the lives of people in our neighbourhoods. What was interesting, however, was noting how many edgy conversations were part of the stories told. Real difference was acknowledged and worked through, but in the context of this wider common agenda. That blend of common purpose across real and acknowledged difference represents an important development in the way we engage with each other as religious communities.
We were proud to host the conference in the Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales; we have some wonderfully diverse communities within our remit who have, like many others, gone through a few rough patches but have benefitted hugely from the work of Near Neighbours.
It was, therefore, great to see the Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, delivering a keynote address at the conference, recognising both the impact of Near Neighbours nationally and even internationally, but also locally across our diocese.
One thing that Bishop Nick said that struck me was that however we relate as religious leaders and communities at a national and international level, inter religious engagement has to include the small and the local. It is here that we can’t ‘escape’ one another: we are accountable to each other locally for the things we say and our actions over time.
And so I have left the Near Neighbours conference rejoicing, encouraged to celebrate the small victories in our local communities that are beginning to transform our country as a whole.