Conversion comes from God and not from humans, Bishop Michael Ingham told a diocesan conference on multi-faith issues last month.

He said that the bishops of the Anglican Communion at their last Lambeth Conference eight years ago endorsed inter-faith dialogue, and instructed Anglicans that they must have a real desire to listen to those whose faith and world-view differ.

“The Lambeth bishops said conversion is God’s business. It’s not our business. Our business is to witness to Christ, witness to the truth that we know.”

“And if people convert on the basis of that, that’s God’s business – but it isn’t our purpose in evangelizing.”

The bishop gave the keynote at a Church Depot session entitled “Getting to know our neighbours: Strategies for multi-faith and multi-cultural encounters.” It was co-sponsored by the Diocesan Inter-Church, Inter-Faith Relations Committee (ICIFRC).

After the bishop’s speech, local leaders from four of the world’s religions – Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism - gave workshop sessions. In addition, the Diocesan Coordinator for First Nations Ministry spoke about the relationship between Nisga’a First Nations Spirituality and Christianity.

Speaking at a Church Depot session on multifaith issues were Sherry Small, Nishga’a Christian, Bishop Michael Ingham, Acharya Shrinath P. Dwivedi, Stephen Aberle (Jewish layman), Iman Zijad Delic, and the Rev. Koten Benson (Buddhist)

In his speech Bishop Ingham said Christians had a “mixed history” when it came to relations with people of a different religion.

As early as the eighth century, John of Damascus engaged in dialogue with the Caliph of Syria. St. Francis of Assisi in the 1200s engaged in talks with the Sultan of Egypt. “He was centuries ahead of the church of his time.”

On the other hand there were the Crusades, and missionaries such as St. Francis Xavier who “converted” the colony of Goa, India, in the 1500s. When burning all Hindu temples and sacred scripture and outlawing religions other than Christianity failed to work, torture and dismemberment – even of children in front of their parents – was tried. This, said the bishop quoting an historian, was “religious terrorism.” The Roman Catholic Church later condemned such practices and insisted on respect for other religions and customs.

Bishop Ingham quoted the speech of the Jewish rabbi Gamaliel in Acts 5, who urged Jews not to persecute Christians. “Leave them alone,” he said. “If what they are doing is of human origin, it will not succeed. But if what they are doing is of God, you will not be able to overthrow it. Do not persecute lest you find yourself fighting against God.”

“This Gamaliel principle is a very good principle to adopt as an attitude, particularly toward new religious movement,” said the bishop.

He noted too that some very old religions seem to be coming back as new movements, and urged tolerance. One is Celtic religion, and another is Wicca, “It is very attractive to women who have been abused by the patriarchalism of the mainline religions.” Wicca is sometimes wrongly denounced as witchcraft, which the bishop said he sees primarily as “a polemic against innocent people.”

“We should remember the Church at one time was a new religious movement,” he said.

The bishop said that one should distinguish between religion and cults, which he said are inevitably built around a charismatic individual. “In a cult the primary focus is to build loyalty to that individual, rather than God.” Fear techniques are used by leaders of cults to keep their followers inward looking, rather than outward, engaging with the world.

The bishop said that because the New Testament was created in the first Century when there was a great deal of persecution and abrasive relationship between the fledgling Christian community and the parent Jewish community, and then frozen in time, one finds “exclusivist” texts, especially in the Gospel of John, the last gospel written.

John 14:6 is an example (“No one comes to the Father except through me.”), said the bishop, of texts that has caused “enormous historical damage and a great deal of suffering.”

“This has been wrongly used throughout history as a comment on other world religions, when it appears that Jesus had quite a different thought in mind,” he said.

“It is very easy for us to mock their practices and understanding. It is very easy for them to mock ours. This is not the way to build respect.”

“We should be determined to believe the best of others,” he said, adding parenthetically, “I wish that were true of the Anglican Church.”

“Generalizations are rarely true... There are many parts of the world where there are good relations between Christians and Muslims, between Jews and Muslims. There are some parts of the world where there are real tensions. We need to be careful in distinguishing so we don’t generalize.”