All Saints, Bedford - “Faith in Queen’s Park”

Author: Andy Walton

Date: 08 September 2014

By Beth Green, in association with The Revd. Sonya Brown

Sometimes, just looking out of our window, or on our doorstep is a good forst step to being 'present and engaged.' The Revd Sonya Brown says the immediate surroundings of All Saints Church are reflective of the demographics and ‘feel’ of the area. The sites of worship for the Sikh and Muslim communities lie in close proximity; all on one road. Upon her arrival to the parish six months ago, the first to greet Sonya were her Muslim neighbours, and this open hospitality has set the tone for her time here since, creating a wonderful sense that difference is not simply tolerated – but invited and embraced with open minds and hearts.

Reflecting on her experiences elsewhere, Sonya says that in contrast to areas where larger Muslim communities have posed a threat of ‘take over’, sentiments are very different here. The fruit is a thriving, outward looking church of around 80 worshippers with a mission, broadly speaking, to be engaged with the Queen’s Park community, while remaining aware of the contextual complexities.

According to Sonya, ‘presence and engagement’ is the biggest calling in our contemporary condition of religious and cultural difference and, ultimately, means ‘loving our neighbours’. Historical and present migrations have created diversity, where potential tensions lie close to the surface. Sonya believes that we need to be faith communities that live and learn together, in love. She says the parish system of the Church of England means there is a responsibility to draw alongside, and stick up for, those who are persecuted and stigmatised – which in many communities today, might well be their Muslim neighbours. In the All Saints’ context, this means drawing alongside and supporting a younger generation of Muslims who, in the midst of cultural tension, are straddling cultural lines, often uncomfortably. In doing this, Sonya believes that communities might remain reconciled.

‘Faith in Queen’s Park’ is a charity hosted by All Saints Church, and is the means by which much of their mission is realised by ‘using sport, local heritage and music to help individuals flourish and bring diverse community together.’ Faith tours are particularly popular here, with primary school groups touring the sites of worship in the area, led by people of each faith group. In these spaces that might be unfamiliar to many, children are quick to become engaged, rather than anxious. The hospitality and openness demonstrated by each faith group, Sonya says, is reflective of their authenticity. Meanwhile, the planning committee behind each and every initiative of the ‘Faith in Queen’s Park’ project serves as an inter faith project in itself - as different faith groups work together in planning, management and delivery of sports matches, choir performances and school tours.

Sonya reflects that inter faith tensions can quickly become political, with global happenings often having repercussions locally. Inter faith efforts can often make those of other faith groups feel ‘targeted’ in their paternalistic manner. Her hope is that these challenges will be kept in mind and the work of “Faith in Queen’s Park” will expand, involving more and more of the All Saints congregation. As their surrounding context might continue to change, Sonya feels the church must play a role in helping people come to terms with change, and with its implications for how the church can serve its neighgbours. In this, Sonya hopes that living in a diverse context presents opportunity for learning and growing where elements of truth are to be seen in other faiths. Rather than a fear of difference, her hope is that ‘presence and engagement’ will see a further broadening and deepening of faith in her local context.