Monday, 22 July 2013

Inter-faith hospitality

A reflection written for a Cleethorpes audience (which appeared in the Cleethorpes Chronicle on Thursday):

At the time of the Gulf War, a Cleethorpes man was the Anglican Bishop in the region. John Brown had been a boy in the choir at Old Clee church. He eventually retired back to Cleethorpes and died here a couple of years ago. In between, he first worked in places like Jerusalem and the Sudan where he learnt Arabic, so he was well placed eventually to take on the incredibly sensitive job of an Englishman being a Bishop in the Middle East.

He was always proud of being the subject of a fatwa – a formal ruling by an Islamic leader. The fatwa was issued by the Grand Mufti of the Yemen. It followed much patient work. It allowed Christians to worship in Aden. “It is our duty,” the Grand Mufti’s fatwa said, “to allow members of the Christian community to exercise their religious rites as is the case in our mosques and Islamic centres all over the United Kingdom”. The collection taken at the service in St Peter’s, Cleethorpes in thanksgiving service for John’s life was for the work of the medical clinic at Christ Church, Aden, which continues as a result; it serves those of every faith.

Of course, Christians and Muslims are not always so tolerant of each other. I recently visited one of the largest and most beautiful mosques in the world which is in Cordoba, Spain; it is now used as a Christian church and Moslems have not been allowed to pray in it for centuries. Meanwhile, in some other parts of the world today it is Christians who are the ones who are badly treated – we are not allowed to worship in public in Saudi Arabia and we are often attacked at worship in northern Nigeria.

So which story would be the best story about North East Lincolnshire today? Would we like people to report that we take the same attitude as the Grand Mufti of the Yemen? Or would we like people to tell others that we take the same attitude as the Christians in Cordoba?

Thankfully, there has been one consistent answer for many years. I have been reading about the opening of the Grimsby Synagogue in 1885. The report says there were cheers when a speaker referred to the generous donations made by Christian friends of the new growing Jewish community to help them build their place of worship. Over a century later, it was the Methodist Church (which still has a dozen churches open for Christian worship in North East Lincolnshire) which allowed the Moslem community to take over a former chapel so that it could have an Islamic Centre here.

A reflection with some of the same material and intent written for a Great Coates audience (coming out in the Village Council’s magazine for August and September)

At least one of those buried in St Nicolas’ churchyard in the 1920s was born in Hamburg. Edward Lewis was German, was naturalised as a British citizen in the 1870s, ran the Wellowgate Brewery in the 1890s, and lived for a short time at the Manor in Great Coates.

I hadn’t realised until last month just how many people travelled through Hamburg and Grimsby in the nineteenth century. The two ports sit on estuaries exactly east-west of each other. If you wanted to flee eastern Europe for the United States, it was to Hamburg that you would be likely to go. From there Great Central Railways could sell you a single ticket to take one of its boats to Grimsby and then to transfer to one of its trains to Liverpool. Among the huge numbers who did so were Jews being persecuted on what is now the Polish-Russian border - think ‘Fiddler on the Roof’.

A small fraction of these people travelled no further than Grimsby, and I’ve been learning that this is mainly from where the Grimsby Jewish community sprang (including the Goldberg family in Great Coates). The new community needed a place of worship. The future Lord Heneage (a Christian) gave the site, and, when the foundation stone was laid in the 1880s, there were reports of cheers when Christian donors were among those thanked for their contributions to the costs.

This all puts recent history in a very interesting context. One of those convicted recently for calling for the burning down of Grimsby’s Islamic Centre is reported as saying his blood boiled knowing that it was a former Christian church building. I wonder what support he is giving to his own local church to help keep it open. I wonder whether he realises that the Methodist church (which has a closed Chapel converted into a house in Great Coates as well as the closed Chapel converted into the Islamic Centre in Weelsby Road) keeps as many as a dozen Chapels open for Christian worship in North East Lincolnshire today. But how I wish he knew the story of the foundation of Grimsby’s synagogue.

There are things which should make our blood boil - including the way Christians, Jews and Muslims have often treated each other and sometimes still do - but making space for new communities to worship in our town surely isn’t one of them.

Edward Lewis was the father of the Herbert Lewis who has featured in the last two posts on this Blog; I have just obtained copies of his naturalisation papers which give his original name as Eduard Anton Louis Riemenschneider.

The picture was taken in the St Michael’s tower last week.

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