By Elena Dini
ROME — Many years of experience in dialogue led the Rev. Dr. David Marshall, a priest of the Church of England, to the World Council of Churches (WCC), where is currently serves as a programme executive for interreligious dialogue and cooperation. He was in Rome during the fall semester to teach an intensive course at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies, where he also gave the yearly Georgetown Lecture on Contemporary Islam. The Lay Centre caught up with Rev. Marshall, a friend of The Lay Centre and a former resident in 2018.
You have engaged in dialogue for many years. Could you retrace for us your most recent main commitments?
When I was an undergraduate studying theology, I took a course on Islam. It was a fascinating, but also a challenging experience. In an indirect way, it perhaps prompted me to think harder about Christianity and about why I was a Christian more than any other course I took. From then, there gradually emerged a vocation to study and teach in the area of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations, in order to be a resource for the Church. My contribution has been both in the field of education and also in Christian-Muslim relations.
Both on the staff of the Archbishop of Canterbury and now at the World Council of Churches, I have been responsible for official Christian-Muslim dialogue processes and projects in Christian-Muslim cooperation for the common good. The main dialogue process on which I have worked is the Building Bridges Seminar for Muslim and Christian scholars. It has met every year since 2002, and there is a wealth of resources, e.g. downloadable volumes, on our website.
At WCC, I also work on Jewish-Christian relations. In June 2019, we had an encouraging conference in Paris with our main Jewish partners, the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC), which saw a step forward in our relations and a new commitment to find practical projects on which we can work together for justice and peace in the wider world in a “shoulder-to-shoulder” approach to our dialogue.
Your relationship with the Catholic world in this field of dialogue is a long one…
One of the most important ecumenical experiences for me was that I had the privilege of studying for my doctorate under the supervision of a leading Jesuit scholar of Islam, Father Christian Troll. This helped me to get to know other Jesuits, but also wider networks of Catholic scholars in this field, as well as Catholic approaches to interreligious relations generally. This month it has been a joy to stay at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies and to make a contribution to its teaching. Our work at WCC is of course inherently ecumenical. Our collaboration with Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID) is especially important, and it was a privilege for me recently to be a member of PCID’s delegation for a dialogue in Tehran.
Could you give some indication of the range of approaches to interreligious work at the WCC?
Broadly speaking, there are three main types of work. First, recognizing that WCC is essentially a fellowship of some 350 churches around the world, we seek to support the churches in their different interreligious contexts, for example, through provision of theological material, through maintaining a network of advisers from the churches to share information and resources, and where necessary through advocacy. Second, we maintain formal dialogue processes with official organizations. Third, we seek opportunities for interreligious collaboration for the sake of justice and peace in the world. A good example is the International Centre for Interreligious Peace and Harmony, launched in 2016 in Kaduna, northern Nigeria, where there has been so much conflict in recent years. This is, at all levels, a joint Muslim-Christian project, an initiative of the General Secretary of WCC and Prince Ghazi of Jordan, supported by senior Muslim and Christian leaders in Nigeria, and jointly staffed by Muslims and Christians. It is doing encouraging work on the ground, notably establishing a network of “Peace Ambassadors” among young people of both faiths and convening conferences for imams and church leaders.
Ecumenical and interreligious dialogue are often put together although there are important specificities to both of them. Could you tell us more about differences and points in common between the two?
It is understandable that ecumenical and interreligious dialogue are often seen as being more or less the same activity. There are certainly similarities, and there is an underlying requirement in both for a willingness to engage with open heart and mind with those who are different from ourselves, sometimes having to cross barriers of misunderstanding and difficult inter-communal tensions. Progress in both fields has been on a similar historical trajectory, with Vatican II as a key moment, of course, and there are helpful connections between the two endeavours. But clear distinctions are also important. The ultimate goal of dialogue between Christians is restored communion in the Body of Christ. This Christological and ecclesial focus is clearly not present in interreligious dialogue, which has other goals and works in various ways on the basis of different understanding. WCC recently produced a helpful brief introduction to the complex questions involved in this field: “Called to Dialogue: Interreligious and Intra-Christian Dialogue in Ecumenical Conversation.”
You recently gave a conference at PISAI on Muslim approaches to secularism. In what way are the answers provided by different scholars witnessing about a common challenge within Islam and what are the possible future developments you might expect in this field of reflection?
My lecture focused mainly on different approaches of Muslims to the question of the secular state and its compatibility or not with Islam. This has been a much debated topic among Muslims over the last 100 years, and how Muslims answer this question clearly has important implications both for their own communities and also for the non-Muslim communities that they live alongside. It’s very hard to tell what the coming years will bring. While there are trends in some parts of the Muslim world that are of great concern to Christians, it is also important to see these in the context of wider trends in the world, which are making all religious minorities, including Muslims, more vulnerable.