I would like to take this opportunity of describing my current work in paid and voluntary capacities at local level. Just under two years ago, I took early retirement as assistant director of schools. Now, I undertake school inspections on a short term basis all over the country. Religious education and a daily act of collective worship are legal requirements in a state school which must be fulfilled. Parents can withdraw their children from the daily act of collective worship, if they wish, which is mainly and broadly Christian, though schools in which there is a higher proportion of children can seek determination from their local Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education (SACRE). Religious education includes the study of the six main religions of the world: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism, but allocation of time to Christianity is much more, more than fifty percent. Other faiths are taught to all children sometime during their eleven years of schooling, based on the locally agreed syllabus. The locally agreed syllabus is made by the SACRE of the local authority, which consists of local councillors, teachers and representatives of the Church of England, other denominations and other religions. I represent the Sikh community on my neighbouring Richmond SACRE, and the council is in the process of producing a new syllabus.
On inspections, I have had the opportunity of looking at issues concerning equal opportunities in terms of race, gender, disability and socio-economic circumstances with regard to attainment in relation to national standards. I have also inspected many subjects including religious education. It seems to me that some learning about religion does happen, pupils gain basic factual knowledge about the six religions but do not learn from religion at a deeper level about the divine and the meaning of our being, being at peace with oneself and with others, inculcation of the inner spirituality and reflection and the feeling of awe and wonder. However, this opportunity to learn about each others' faith can provide a useful building block in developing common understanding about religions and about recognising religious pluralism.
Recently the government has agreed to fund two Muslim schools, and a school run by the Seventh Day Adventists, after a decade of lobbying in the interest of fairness and justice, as Church of England, Roman Catholic, Methodist and Jewish schools have been paid out of the public purse since the 1944 Act. This has rectified the anomaly which has existed in the country for some thirty years.
In my local town of Hounslow, it has been interesting to see the growth of a multi-cultural community, with 126 languages and many cultures represented. Most religions and denominations have places of worship in the area. The proximity to the airport makes Hounslow the first port of call for refugees and there are places like the Thorncliffe Hotel catering only for refugees. The changing, shifting of families and groups till they are able to settle down creates an element of instability for them for the various institutions working towards providing support within continuously tightening resources. The locals describe it as the turbulence factor.
The three main organisations involved in community development work are Hounslow Racial Equality Council, Hounslow Multi-Cultural Centre and the Ethnic Minorities Consultative Group, in which I have been working as a volunteer. The Ethnic Minorities Consultative Group is made up of the representatives of the local community organisations, some are cultural and language based, others from religious groupings. The group works towards racial equality, the provision of language, culture and faith maintenance and the improved equality of learning for all pupils, particularly as half the school population is culturally diverse. The various organisations celebrate diversity through the arts, music, food and dance.
I also have the good fortune of being a non-executive member of my local hospital trust and chair its equal access committee. For the last six years it has considered a variety of ways to make the hospital services more accessible to people from a variety of backgrounds. Language support is given, sensitivity to religious, dietary and cultural requirements is shown and arrangements made. Other faiths religious leaders work alongside hospital chaplains to provide spiritual care and counselling, whenever possible.
The Westminster Interfaith Programme, now in its twelfth year and sponsored by Cardinal Basil Hume of the Roman Catholic Church and coordinated till recently by Brother Daniel Faivre, has helped to bring together people of different faiths through shared services, annual pilgrimages to places of worship of different places of worship in different areas of London by pilgrims of different faiths and production of resources such as Prayer of Hope of an Interfaith Man, Southall a Holy City, Transcendence and Resources for Multifaith Celebration' have proved invaluable for shared services.
There have also been four Sikh-Christian Consultations since 1984. Rev. John Parry of the URC and myself have been involved in putting together those conferences. A highlight has been to do Scripture studies together, passages from the Bible and Guru Granth Sahib related to a theme. This common voyage of discovery of each others' scripture has helped immensely to deepen understanding and build trusting friendship within which we can agree to agree but also disagree.
There is also a small Sikh-Christian Scripture Studies group which meets four times a year. Sometimes we get stuck, sometimes there are lapses and sometimes there are challenges and the feeling of being put on the spot. Still we carry on for answers to difficult theological questions. Some of our discussions have been around topics such as faith, sin, worship, prayer, purpose of life, congregation, community, attributes of God and so on. It is a privilege to share in an open and sometimes extraordinarily difficult situations.
It was quite useful to be part of a group for over a year under the aegis of the Churches Commission for Interfaith Relations (CCIFR) to consider issues of sensitivity and awareness about the six main faiths with a view to helping schools. Now a book entitled Sensitivity and Awareness' has been published which is proving an invaluable resource for educational and other establishments. The CCIFR women's group are in regular dialogue with women of other faiths.
Some of you probably know about the Interfaith Network for the United Kingdom. In November last year the Network celebrated its tenth anniversary. In 1987 the Network was founded with 60 member organisations following two years of consultation. Bishop Jim Thompson and the late Rabbi Hugo Gryn were the founder co-chairs. Its first national meeting was on "Tolerance and Acceptance in a Religiously Plural Society". Since then the Network has been very active in providing the faith communities with the platform to raise issues of concern and respond to controversial issues, i.e. The Satanic Verses by sponsoring a seminar on Law, Blasphemy and the Multifaith Society'. The Concept of Interfaith Dialogue, Faith Communities and the Media and Race Equality and Religious Identity are some of the examples of issues considered. In 1993 in collaboration with Derby University, the Network produced Religions in the U.K.: A Multi Faith Directory'. Its second and updated edition was produced last year. Derby University has also recently launched Multi Faith Net', making a major contribution in disseminating information on IT.
The Network's short code "Building Good Relations with People of Different Faiths and Beliefs" which offers guidance on positive encounter was sent to all schools last year as part of RE Festival and is available in Bengali, Gujerati, Hindi and Urdu.
The future work of the Network includes accelerating and expanding work with faith communities, building good interfaith relations at local level, focus on education with a view to looking at how interfaith issues are included in the school curricula, exploring issues of national significance and publishing resources for interfaith understanding.
Charanjit Ajitsingh, a Sikh, is a lecturer and writer on Sikhism. She has been involved in developing interfaith relations at all levels. She has recently retired from her position as Assistant Director of Schools from a Local Authority in London.