Day two: I am woken up in the morning by an unusual tapping on the skylight of my bedroom, which is located right over my bed. When there is clear sky I talk to the stars and the moon before going to sleep (I should have told you that I live in the attic flat of a very old house in Oxford city centre, next to the oldest building in the city – the 10th-century Saxon Tower. The tower still has an old door behind which Archbishop Cranmer was locked before he was burnt at the stake just 30 metres from our place). It is still dark. No, it is not raining, it’s hailing, for a change. I get out of my bed and leave the flat as silently as possible. I get dressed on my way to the ground floor. I open the entrance door, but hesitate to go any further: it hails so hard that I have to stop. I keep the door open and enjoy the sight of hail falling. Sometime later the rain overtakes the hail and I feel now I can walk. I walk in the dimly-lit old streets of the city under heavy rain but I do not mind; as I told you, I like rain. My umbrella does not necessarily keep me dry, nor do my sandals. Within an hour I am almost completely soaked. I hear bells tolling from the Saxon Tower and I go back to Cornmarket Street. I am at St. Michael’s at the North Gate for the 8 o’clock eucharist. There are only three of us in the church – the priest, Gregory Platten, a sidesman and me. I like St Michael’s church and always attend the 8 o’clock eucharist. It’s a very prayerful place with eye-catching altar frontals and a lovely blue carpet in the sanctuary, woven somewhere in Turkey.
After the service I go back to my flat quietly and slip back into my bed. I go back to sleep. When I wake up, I hear the Archimandrite chanting the Byzantine liturgy under the shower… this is how he starts the day, after having taken a cup of coffee and a cigarette or two.
“Good morning, ‘surfazan’ (Armenian for ‘my lord bishop’), says the Archimandrite sipping his cup of coffee. ‘What are you plans for today?’
“Ala and I are going to London; would you like to come with us?”, I answered him.
“What is going on in London?” Kyrion looks at me curiously.
“Well,” I started slowly, “we have been invited by a group of young Muslims there, and they are starting something very new and exciting. There will be prayer and then dinner at a Lebanese restaurant.”
“No, no I will not come,” replied Kyrion immediately. “I am a friend of Israel, and I will not come. I have been in a Mosque twice in my life, I think, and that is enough. If it was a synagogue I would have come. “
“You can come with me to the local synagogue next week but it will not harm if you come to meet the Muslims as well.” I tried again but did not succeed. His sharp reaction reminded me once again that the world we live in is still full of suspicion of Muslims.
A good friend of mine, an Anglican priest, Fr. Donald Reeves, who has founded an organization called the Soul of Europe, once eloquently told me that, what the Jews were in Mediaeval Europe, is what Muslims are in contemporary Europe. This is a sad reality of our time – the bridge has been broken between Christians and Muslims and it will take a lot of effort and energy to restore it.
Of course there are a lot of meetings, dialogues and talks among the leaders and clergy of the three monotheistic religions of Europe, but sadly all these talks rarely make any impact on the grass-roots where life happens – where people suffer because of lack of clarity, mutual understanding, humility and prophetic guidance. This is why it is so important that Christians and Muslims meet at every possible level of human relationships. This was the reason why we wanted to go to London.
I had received an instruction from the Inclusive Mosque Initiative to be at the venue at 5 pm sharp. Congregational prayer was planned for 5 pm. It was to be followed by an oriental dinner. I called a young Muslim scholar, Mir Faizal, in Oxford, who was also going to attend the event. I suggested we met at 3 pm at the Bus Station and proceed from there to London. Faizal thought we did not need to start so early. We agreed to start at 3:30. We started at 3:30 as had agreed but that was a mistake – we should have started earlier. When we realized that our estimate of arriving by 5 too optimistic we called Thamsila, a young lady who is in charge of the project, and apologized for being late. We also asked them to go ahead and start prayer.
We were relieved to realize that we were not the only ones who got stuck in the traffic on the way to the prayer service. Even Thamsila, who had instructed us to be there at 5 sharp, was still not there!
The three of us, Ala, Faithal and I, did not waste our time on the bus. We discussed a lot of theological matters from both traditions. Faithal is a very good mathematician and an Islamic scholar. It was sheer joy to discuss various aspects of each others’ respective theologies on our way to London. In the middle of our conversation Faithal declared:
“I find Jesus more relevant to Muslim life and practice that anybody else!”
“What do you mean by that?”, asked Ala, who could not hide her amazement.
“In Mohamed’s time the prophet was addressing religious issues that are very different from that of today. He was addressing a community, which did not have a strong concept of one God. Jesus, on the other hand, was addressing issues of the religious fundamentalism of his time. And this is what is relevant for us as Muslims!”
“You are right, this is very true. Jesus addressed the issues of legalism, ritualism and hypocrisy. These issues are relevant not only for Muslims but for the majority of Christian communities as well,” I suggested.
“That may be true, but we need Jesus more then you Christians do!”, insisted Dr Mir.
By the time we got to the Lebanese restaurant near Marble Arch, the participants in the event were ordering their meals and we easily joined up with the group. Since everybody was late they had decided to have the meal first and then hold a prayer-service in one of the rooms of the restaurant. The participants were mainly young professionals. There was also one mother with a young boy. It was absolutely amazing to listen to the stories of their faith-journeys. Among them there were people with Saudi Arabian, Pakistani, Indian and even Chechnian background. I could not help noticing that all of them had come from very conservative and exclusivist backgrounds, but they realized that God’s way is to be inclusive, rather than exclusive, in the community of believers. The Inclusive Mosque Initiative is the only spiritual home where they are welcomed and accepted.
After the dinner we were directed to a room downstairs where the prayer was to be held. We waited and waited but nothing happened. Nobody opened the door. The manager of the restaurant, a Muslim, came to apologize that the room was not available! The congregants did not know what to do. Some suggested that the prayer should be postponed to another occasion to find a place where they could pray properly. On Edgware Road there are a lot of mosques but those mosques do not allow women and men to pray together. Some of them never encourage women to come to the mosque because a woman’s place, in their view, is not in the house of God but in the kitchen. The people of the Inclusive Mosque Initiative consider this absolutely unacceptable.
A Chechen young man, Hassan, and I suggested that we should not go home without offering a congregational prayer.
“Shall we go to one of the mosques here?”, asked somebody.
“No, we cannot go there because they will not allow us to pray together!”, said somebody else.
“They will not allow a woman to lead the prayer either,” somebody else clarified.
“Why don’t we pray right here in front of the restaurant?”, suggested Hassan.
I supported Hussein by saying “This is not a bad idea at all.”
Some of the people thought it was too provocative to offer prayer in front of the restaurant, outside of which a lot of people sat comfortably and smoked shisha. Some people said farewell and left; seven of us stayed. We found a place off the Edgware Road in front of a large and posh block of flats. In no time the direction of the Qibla was identified and prayer mats produced from bags. It was a dark and windy evening.
Halima, a lovely young girl, was asked to lead the prayer. Dr. Mir Faizal offered a call to prayer. Halima reverently took the imam’s place and led all of us in prayer. She was chanting beautifully. After my exercises in Arabic prayer I now felt comfortable with the language. There was something absolutely surreal and intrinsically beautiful about that prayer. A bunch of Christians and Muslims, men and women, ald and young all prayed on the tarmac in front of a posh London house. It was cold and damp; the wind was blowing my beard over my shoulder. There was something hilarious about this prayer. The house had motion-sensitive lights affixed to the first floor of the building and therefore every time we knelt and prostrated ourselves, the lights went off, and every time we stood up they went on. It appeared as if we had the lighting arrangements in tune with the prayer.
As we walked to Marble Arch I told Halima that there was something very Christmassy about this prayer.
“How do you mean?”, she asked.
“When Jesus was born there was no room for him in decent accommodation so he was born in a stable. Similarly the IMI is being born now and there is no room for it. “
“That’s a lovely thought,” said Halima and invited all of us to have some shisha together. That was first time Ala and I tried shisha. Next day I received a message from her saying: “Dear Archbishop, ‘Thank you for joining us yesterday. We thoroughly enjoyed your company and your support and very much appreciated.”
I am going to miss all my friends in England when I am back in Georgia. I have been so much enriched by these friendships with Anglicans, Baptists, Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Jews, Buddhists and, last but not least, with Muslims of various traditions: Sunnis, Shias, Sufis, Ahmadias.
Recently a religious journalist, Dr. William Yoda, wrote in a Christian publication that since I am returning to Georgia in early 2013, ‘Georgian society would do well to brace itself for new surprises.’ I think not only Georgian society but I myself would do well to brace myself for new surprises and new challenges in my life. I have been away from Georgia for a long period of time. Georgia has changed since I left it and I have also changed. Now Ala and I will need to re-learn how to live in ‘a new country.’ I am sure life is going to be as eventful as it has been here in Oxford. And I will not part with friends I have acquired in this country, in this ‘demi-paradise’, as Shakespeare called it.
Malkhaz Songulashvili, 1 January 2013, Oxford, UK.