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Comment on ‘A Common Word for the Common Good’

A letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Muslim Religious Leaders and Scholars who have signed A Common Word Between Us and You and to Muslim brothers and sisters everywhere

By Professor David F. Ford, Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Cambridge and Director of the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme

The Archbishop’s letter is a major step forward in Muslim-Christian engagement. It has considerable Christian weight – he was supported in writing it by a gathering of leaders and scholars covering the range of Christian churches addressed by the original letter from 138 Muslim leaders and scholars.

It is important not only in the tone and spirit of its response, similar to the generosity and thoughtfulness of A Common Word, but also in setting an agenda for twenty-first century Muslim-Christian relations. Its main achievement is to face some of the most difficult issues and at the same time to show how to move forward in respect, understanding and collaboration for the common good of our world.

A Common Word has had an unprecedented impact. It has generated major initiatives and substantial responses by the Vatican, the World Council of Churches, Orthodox, Anglicans, Reformed, Lutherans, Evangelicals and others, as well as favourable comments from those of other faiths, especially Jews. But so far there has not been a response of similar weight. Here at last is an authoritative Christian response that can stand alongside the Muslim letter. Together they can act as a focus, not only for Muslim-Christian engagement at every level and in every area of life, from grassroots to international leadership, but also for joint Muslim and Christian collaboration with others in the interests of the common good of humanity. The Archbishop’s letter emphasises this even in its title, A Common Word for the Common Good.

Dr Williams welcomes the key points of A Common Word Between Us and You, love of God and love of neighbour, and opens up further dimensions of them in ways that can lead directly into deeper dialogue and fuller collaboration.

The profound devotion to God in heart, mind and will expressed in A Common Word is paralleled by drawing on the Psalms at the heart of Christian and Jewish worship. The short section in A Common Word on love of neighbour is taken up into a fuller treatment based on teachings of Jesus (such as love of enemies and the Good Samaritan). This carries debate with Muslims further and is also a radical challenge to fellow-Christians.

A Common Word’s strong emphasis on the unity of God makes it unavoidable for Christians to give an account of how they understand the unity of God. This response does so by explaining how Christians understand the God of love to be a Trinity that intensifies the unity of God. This is a rich and complex part of the letter, but its message is clear: Christians are as insistent as Muslims or Jews on the unity of God, and the doctrine of the Trinity should not stand in the way of dialogue and collaboration.

The second part of the letter, ‘Seeking the Common Good in the Way of God’, tackles some of the difficult issues, such as religious freedom, pluralism and especially religiously justified violence. Is it possible to make differing religious truth claims while completely rejecting violence in settling them? Can pluralism be seen as a force for the common good? What might a joint Christian and Muslim voice on human flourishing and common security sound like? The genius of this letter is in opening up honest debate about such crucial questions in ways that ring true with the core of each faith, and especially with the reality of God.

The strong, practical ending of the letter, showing how Muslims and Christians can move ahead constructively, lays out a convincing twenty-first century agenda. It covers the grassroots as well as the leaders, the core of devotion and faith as well as action for the common good in all spheres of life, short term as well as long term. Perhaps most important, Dr Williams follows the lead of A Common Word in making attention to the Bible and the Qur’an central to Muslim-Christian engagement. If this agenda is followed there will be great changes for the better in Muslim-Christian relations, and also in the capacity of these two faiths to form wider alliances to meet the acute needs of our world. It is a realistic programme that deserves support from both communities and beyond.