Thank you Your Grace for your kind words of welcome and to my dear friend Sister Isabel for asking me to share some thoughts about Interfaith this evening. As you know the theme of this year’s Scottish Interfaith Week is ‘Creativity and the Arts’. The scope of this theme is summarised on the Interfaith Scotland website as follows:
‘Religion and faith has been an inspiration for the expression of beauty, witnessed in creative activities such as architecture, art, music and dance. This year gives an opportunity to celebrate the diverse expressions of this creative activity in different religions and cultures.’
The range of activities already planned across the length and breadth of Scotland is encouraging and I hope will inspire people of all faiths and none to engage in all sort of wonderful and creative dialogue.
The St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art reaches a milestone next year as we will be marking the 25th anniversary of the opening of the museum in April 1993 – 1st of April to be precise – yes we opened our doors on the 1st of April!! Some of you might remember the controversies that raged in the Press around that time (I certainly do!). These included public condemnations to accusations of ‘bending over backwards to please the ethnic minorities’! It therefore feels appropriate in the context of this year’s theme to share with you some personal highlights from St Mungo’s last 25 years.
The St Mungo Museum is indeed full of beautiful and fascinating religious objects; crafted and created, used and lovingly cared for by men and women across the world and across time. The individual objects on display are perhaps not as significant or as important as many of the more world-famous examples of religious art to be found in say, the Louvre in Paris or the Prado in Madrid and of course in the Vatican Museums – whose collection of contemporary religious art is still unrivaled in the world today - however what perhaps makes St Mungo’s stand out as a unique space is the way the collection is arranged, the personal stories the displays communicate and the themes explored and interpreted – from the importance of faith throughout the human life cycle - from birth to death - to displays that attempt to unravel and make sense of the subject of sectarianism and religious tribalism in Glasgow and the West of Scotland.
The building was, of course, never meant to be a museum. It was built by Glasgow Cathedral (our next door neighbours) as a Visitor Centre but unfortunately for them their funding dried up and the building was taking over by the Museums Department of the Council. I recall a conversation years later after the museum opened with the late Dr. William Morris who was minister of the cathedral at that time when I asked him how he felt about raising all the money and then losing the building. He said ‘Yes Harry it was challenging – but looking back I realize now that God had other plans for the building!’
Two events over the past 25 years have shaped my understanding of the museums role - 9/11 and when sectarianism became a hot political topic. The museum has certainly played a role in these debates and the formal school workshop we still offer tackling sectarianism is more popular than ever. Indeed such a workshop would have been unthinkable 25 years ago when - what Professor Tom Divine exposed as ‘Scotland’s Shame’ - was not even publically recognized as a problem. Even some politicians of the day were uneasy with our ‘Catholics and Protestant’ display where this is explored fearing this was a negative ‘washing of dirty linen in public’ kind of unsavoury display case on a subject best left untouched.
I was on holiday in Cyprus when the horror of 9/11 unfolded in 2001. Back in the museum was working on an exhibition about Islam at that time and I pondered how these terrible events would impact on peoples’ perceptions of this great world faith. The show was called ‘In the Shade of the Tree’ which beautifully documented the Islamic world in photography spanning from the Western Sahara to Western China. I knew visitors would be asking lots of questions about Islam in the wake of what had happened and with the support and encouragement of the Muslim community in Glasgow we planned events to help people come to terms with the events as well as challenging some of nonsense and hatred being fueled by the press. There were certainly barriers and ignorance to be challenged and this - to my surprise – included some of my own museum colleagues. Having to convincing a colleague that removing the names of members of the Jewish community from the exhibition preview guest list was not a good idea was a conversation I never expected to have. They sincerely believed the Jewish community would be grossly offended at being invited to a Muslim exhibition and if invited they would surely would not want to come anyway. In the end our Jewish friends and supporters were invited and of course turned up in good numbers and along with Glasgow’s other faith representatives stood shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with a Muslim community feeling under siege from abuse and attack. You see the Jewish community unfortunately knows all too well what that’s like – I had pointed out to my colleague.
People and faith communities give our collections meaning but its people who make interfaith happen. I am proud that here in Glasgow and beyond St Mungo’s has played a part in this. Who can forget the early days of the annual Meet Your Neighbour event when so much was done on a shoestring but with such fun and good will! Making interfaith is sometimes not easy - and yes – we get things wrong from time to time - and there are still barriers within or own institutions and faith communities that we still need to be address. Embracing the possibilities of interfaith does not take away or compromise that what we dearly hold to be real and true. I’d like to finish with a quote from His Holiness Pope Francis who summed this up in his address to an interfaith gathering during his visit to Sri Lanka in 2015. He says
“As experience has shown for (inter-religious) dialogue and encounter to be effective, it must be grounded in a full and forthright presentation of our respective convictions. Certainly, such dialogue will accentuate how varied our beliefs, traditions and practices are. But if we are honest in presenting our convictions, we will be able to see more clearly what we hold in common. New avenues will be opened for mutual esteem, cooperation and indeed friendship.
May Interfaith Week 2017 continue to be a celebration of the rich diversity of our faith traditions in Glasgow and beyond. So let us keep making interfaith and let’s keep it real.
St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art