Faith communities have really benefitted from this technology. It would have been very isolating for members of faith communities not to have been able to link up with religious services that have been relayed over the internet. Nearly all faith communities have done this – Sikh, Jewish, Christian, Hindu and Buddhists have conducted meditation sessions on line. It’s been a particularly difficult time for Muslims who are coming to the end of Ramadan. Ramadan is a time of prayer, fasting and alms giving – in the same spirit as Lent, though much more rigorous – but also a communal and family time. The breaking of the fast each day at sunset, known as iftar, is eaten with the extended family at home or with the wider community in the Mosque. Social distancing and self-isolation have made this impossible though some Mosques have had a formal, virtual iftar at some point during Ramadan.
What’s been surprising is the number of people who have tuned in to religious services – at least that’s the case for the Christian community. Some Churches have had thousands of people tuning in. The Church I’ve been going to, so to speak, had 5,700 people linking into a Mass that was said for two young people in the community who were killed in a car accident a few years ago. Somehow the services, conducted from the small oratory or chapel, in the priest’s home have had an intimacy about them. Some people have found them prayerful and reflective with no need for responses, singing or standing, kneeling etc. Others miss the participation and community though surprisingly there is, I think, a growing sense of community as our parish priests keeps us all in touch with what is happening and, unfortunately, a lot of that news is of deaths and postponed weddings.
There have also been a number of interfaith dialogues, most of which I’ve resisted. Last week I participated in what was for me a unique interfaith experience – a joint prayer gathering with a Shia Muslim group, Ahl-alBayt Scotland. That might seem a strange thing to say as I’ve been to many interfaith services. What’s difficult about these very often is that not all faiths are happy praying with others because of tradition, different understandings of God or whatever. As a result of this the faiths involved are encouraged to read from scripture and pray in their own way while the others listen respectfully and even prayerfully. It can seem a bit like a religious concert and I was present at one where the audience clapped after every contribution. It’s hard, I find, to devise and inclusive interfaith service which truly unites us in prayer. It’s easier to do this with bilateral services.
The prayer, organised by the Scottish Catholic Bishops and Ahl-alBayt Scotland, was a response to the invitation of Pope Francis and the Higher Committee for Human Fraternity for a day of fasting, prayer and generosity in the light of Covid 19 on 14th May. The committee had come about after Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, signed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together in February 2019. In that document the Pope and Grand Imam suggested that “as for the future of interreligious dialogue, the first thing we have to do is pray, and pray for one another: we are brothers and sisters!”
So on May 14th there were many interfaith prayer services all over the world including our short prayer which lasted only ten minutes. 188 people linked in to it and the responses have been very positive. What made it different for me was that we were able to consciously take a moment of silence and become aware of God’s presence with us, a God who is closer to us than our jugular vein, the One in whom we live and move and have our very being. We were able to be aware of our unity as brothers and sisters in faith as well as our unity with the whole of humanity. We were able to respond to the prayers with Amin or Amen and declare our common commitment to see the best in one another. I (and others) found it prayerful in a way I don’t with more formal services. I’m not suggesting we do away with these but the bilateral nature of our prayer helped. We hope it will become a regular feature of our common journey together.