Discovering three places of worship and study in London

When I arrived in London from Switzerland at the beginning of January to start my six-month internship at the Dialogue Society, I did not expect I would be offered a place at the Dialogue School as part of my training. I did not even know that such programme existed.

Actually, I was lucky enough that my placement coincided with that of seven postgraduate students in Dialogue Studies at Keele University. So, between one task and another, I managed to join my colleagues to learn more about essential skills such as time management, networking, public speaking while reading and discussing important thinkers who wrote about dialogue: Karen Armstrong, Tenzin Gyatso the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Daniel Jankelovich, to name but a few.

In addition to the Dialogue School sessions, we were given the opportunity to discover intriguing places in London and I would like to spend the rest of this column sharing my experience about three visits we made to three different places, but, as we will see, similar in many ways.

During our first London trip, we gained a fascinating insight into West London Synagogue of British Jews, Britain’s oldest Reform synagogue (the current building dates from 1870). After exploring the building with Rabbi Lea Mühlstein, seeing the entrance hall, the synagogue itself and the lovely children’s synagogue and learning centre, we concluded the visit in the library where there was time to discuss and ask more questions over a cup of tea and biscuits. We spoke about Judaism in the UK and particularly about different ways Reform Judaism has developed to actively respond to the challenges of modernity, whilst remaining rooted in four-millennia-old Jewish tradition.

A few weeks later, our mentor Taptuk led us on a visit to Wesley’s Chapel, built in 1778 by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. As the “Mother Church of World Methodism”, the Chapel attracts thousands of pilgrims each year from across the globe. This time we were hosted by Revd Jennifer Potter who gave us a brief overview of the history of this beautiful Georgian building and that of Methodism in London, in the UK and around the world. At the end of the visit, there was time to ask questions and speak more about the role of the church within its local community. Jennifer explained to us that Wesley’s Chapel contributes to social cohesion by bringing together people from all walks of life at every Sunday’s worship service. People from different backgrounds meet in other places too – Jennifer gave the example of gyms – but this does not necessarily mean that they would speak and listen to each other. In this sense the Chapel is a privileged space for bringing people together and creating room for dialogue. Our discussion with Jennifer covered possibilities for dialogue between Muslims and Christians as well as intra-Christian dialogue.

Finally, the visit to London Ikeda Peace Centre introduced us to Buddhism and Soka Gakkai International (SGI), a movement based on Nichiren Buddhism. Neville Murray hosted us at one of the SGI London branches in Wakefield Street, near Russell Square; a spacious and bright red brick building. There, we heard of the daily Buddhist practice of chanting to the Gohonzon, the object of devotion in Nichiren Buddhism which has the shape of a scroll with Chinese and Sanskrit characters. Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, which is the Lotus Sutra’s name and which literally means “I devote myself to the Lotus Sutra”, enables every person to find her/his Buddhahood, a state of absolute happiness and freedom. Besides its function as a temple where members gather to chant, the Ikeda Peace Centre is also – and especially – a cultural centre where people meet, study and organise events.

The West London Synagogue, Wesley’s Chapel and the Ikeda Peace Centre are located in different areas of the city, are run by different people from different religious backgrounds, but they all share something in common. What makes these three unique places very similar?

The first word that pops up in my mind is ‘openness’. Lea, Jennifer and Neville welcomed us very warmly and made us feel at home, answering our many questions honestly and asking us about our views and opinions. Entering these places allowed us to leave out the winter for a while, which has been so long and cold this year, and learn in just a few hours a great deal about interreligious dialogue, listening skills and respect.

‘Complexity’ is the second word these centres make me think of. During the visits, it took me a little while to realise that most of the time a very simple question does not arrive at a clear and definitive answer, but is followed by other questions and long explanations and discussions. These centres seem to me to be well equipped to deal with such big issues as religion because they are open spaces where complexity and dialogue about complexity are not only welcomed – they are encouraged.

The visits to West London Synagogue, Wesley’s Chapel and the Ikeda Peace Centre were a fantastic opportunity to put into practice the teachings and theories we read about during the Dialogue School, for instance ‘Socratic dialogue’ (1 2), where, having realised how little we know, we are able to seek the truth and make space for an empathetic understanding of one another. Because things are so complex, openness to difficult questions and unknown realities is essential, as appreciation of complexity can help us develop this positive attitude towards an open dialogue and the making of space for the other.

Elisa Conti

Elisa Conti

Elisa is currently interning at the Dialogue Society as a scholarship holder of the Leonardo da Vinci Programme. Born and raised in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland, she decided, after finishing high school, to move to the French and German parts to make the most of the multilingual nature of her country.

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