At the end of January 2017 I had the privilege of being invited back to Portsmouth Cathedral for the 22nd Muslim-Christian celebration. This annual gathering sees members of the Wessex Jamaat and Portsmouth Cathedral join together for readings, music, an address from both communities and of course good food and conversation!
Last year I was asked to devise a creative activity which people could engage with and they enjoyed it so much I was asked to come back again!
After some thought, I came up with a weaving activity, to be shared between two people: each pair was given a square of card approximately 10x10cm, with evenly spaced notches along two of the opposite sides. Embroidery thread was then looped across the card and through the notches to create a very basic warp for weaving.
Guests at the event were invited to choose 3 strips of recycled fabric, from a range which I’d brought with me. Those 3 strips would represent themselves, their faith and their family or community. People could then weave their strips into the card frame, filling approximately half of it, leaving space for someone else to fill the other half.
As always, I was both gratified and encouraged to see people willingly and enthusiastically engaging with the activity. And as they wove, they chatted about themselves and the fabric they had chosen.
What struck me was that people sometimes chose the same type of material, but for each person it represented something different.
It told their story, perhaps the same story, but from a different point of view.
I have noticed lately, that the stories we hear tend to be very much from one side, from one perspective. In the aftermath of the EU referendum and the US elections, the news channels seem to have settled themselves, for the most part, on one side or the other, with a few brave stalwarts holding the middle, fairly neutral ground. The general public then follows suit, drawn inexorably towards either end of a tunnel which offers no light at its end – only more vitriol, anger and a deep sense of fear and/or betrayal.
Our social media feeds into this isolating trend: the algorithms behind the screen are designed to filter out news which doesn’t fit your preferences, or articles or retailers which you haven’t ‘liked’ or don’t click on very often. But the danger of this is that we consume news (often unsuccessfully confused with ‘truth’) in the same way we consume our favourite TV shows, or cereal or brand of deodorant.
We hear the story, perhaps the same story, but from only one perspective.
And thus it reinforces that narrower world view and encases us in the arrogance of certainty, instead of challenging ourselves to wade out into the deeper and murkier waters of alternative viewpoints.
Professor Grace Davie of Exeter University in her book ‘Religion in Britain: a persistent paradox’ observes that as a society we have lost the skills for dialogue on religion. To put it another way, we don’t know how to talk to each other about faith, or God or spirituality without being abrasive, hurtful or just plain ignorant (that’s my paraphrase). I would argue that the same is true of politics and social in/justice, which is the outcome of political decision making.
How refreshing then, to be part of an evening where people are openly invited, in a warm and safe space, to share and celebrate that which makes us different – and yet where we have so much in common.
We share the same story, but tell it from a different perspective.
It is true that history books have often been written by the ‘winners’, although in recent years ‘alternative histories’ have been told by those minority voices, bringing a fullness to a story which had only been half-told.
Are we brave enough to hear the story we are part of, from someone else’s point of view? Could we be gracious enough to value their viewpoint, even if it’s not the same as ours?
I suspect that it is only in the murky uncertainty of the middle ground, that any peace or reconciliation can be won. The firmer, more solid ground of ‘opinion’ and ‘alternative facts’ seems to leave us with little option than to raise the ramparts and defend our position. The story then rapidly shrinks to a tale of ‘them and us’ – hardly a very noble way to forge the future.
We are the stories we weave. Are we willing to include other threads and strands in that story, or will we only consider the ‘truth’ we hold most dear?
If that’s the case, our tapestry is likely to be very small indeed.