Andy was recently in London’s East End, speaking at Tower Hamlets Community Church (THCC) and catching up with their Pastor Tony Uddin who he knew over three decades ago. Tony describes himself as ‘half-Bengali, half-Scottish and 100% south London’ and leads a vibrant multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, all-age church in the heart of Tower Hamlets. Of all the local authorities in the country, Tower Hamlets is the most densely populated (16,237/Km2), has one of the fastest growing populations in the UK and is the heart of the country’s Bengali and Bangladeshi communities who make up over 30% of the population.
While it is sometimes the case that Christian churches have retreated from the inner cities, Tower Hamlets Community Church have deliberately sought to engage with their neighbours of all faiths and none and create a welcoming Christ-centred community for all.
The place they meet is part of a coffee-shop complex called “The Husk”, which provides a really welcoming space into which people feel welcome – and not as intimidated as they might be by a, traditional church building. The church provides a wealth of things for people to get involved with from youth and children’s work, to a night shelter and a Bengali Fellowship too!
When Andy went to THCC and chatted to folk there he was struck by the wide variety of faith-perspectives of people present. There were people who had been Christians for decades, some very new Christians – and several others who were exploring questions of faith and belief from a range of faith-backgrounds.
Andy had been invited to speak on the question, “Do all religions lead to God?” Many pluralists say “yes”, the implication being that no one need consider the truth claims of any faith at all in any depth; but assume that they are all different expressions of the same root.
Andy used a comparison of Christianity and Islam to show why this pluralistic view is massively problematic. Firstly that kind of pluralism is used to shut down real dialogue between people of different faiths and exclude them. Secondly, it arrogantly assumes that “If only every other religious person in the world was an enlightened as me, they would realise that they are wrong and I am right” but hiding that under a veneer of plurality. Thirdly it doesn’t do justice to the content of what different faiths actually teach – notable on the nature and character of God. in Christianity God is love, knowable, relational and willing to suffer for His creations; all of which are not claims that the Qur’an would ever make for Allah.
In John chapters 13 and 14, Jesus charts a different course, which Andy called “Open Exclusivity”. When Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to The Father except through me” he makes a boldly exclusive claim. However, Jesus does this in an unexpected way because he also said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest” in Matthew 11. So, while Jesus says he is exclusively the way – He also said that he would welcome all kinds of people! That is open exclusivity!
Andy reported that he had many great conversations with all kinds of people afterwards. One particularly significant one with a man who had left Islam but is still working out what he really believes. He had been attracted to the idea that all religions were essentially the same, but saw that this was an incoherent view and that he would need to actually think about Christian faith more deeply.
For Andy and all of us at Solas, we hope that this is only the start of a fruitful relationships with Tower Hamlets Community Church. There is already the possibility of some evangelism and training later in the year. Having conversations about faith can be hard to start in some parts of the UK, but as many people at THCC mentioned, “In Tower Hamlets there are people talking about faith, morning noon and night!”
The whole service is available online here , and Andy’s talk starts at 39:30.