DIFA Conference 2017

Author: Daniel Johnson

Date: 24 March 2017

Lambeth Palace was pleased to host the 2017 Diocesan Interfaith Advisers Conference. Nearly fifty people were able to join us for a day that included not only DIFA's but clergy, chaplains and ordinands with an interest in interfaith work.

Our keynote speaker was Canon Dr Sarah Snyder. Sarah was recently appointed Archbishop's Adviser for Reconciliation. She is a theologian specialising in Christian, Muslim and Jewish relations. She is also a trained mediator.

KEYNOTE ADDRESS: Interfaith and Reconciliation

Sara kicked off her talk by sharing with us the story of her own immersion in the world of reconciliation, trying to resolve a significant problem between the Tuareg people and the Malian Government.  The latter trying to settle these nomadic Sufi people in an effort to tax them. Their nomadic lifestyle, however, raised issues as their cattle strayed into land owned by settled farmers, helping themselves to the resources available. The nomads urgently needed a bridge between themselves and the government. Having gained their trust Sarah and her husband were able to advise them on how best to present their case to Government; something that had never happened before. Thankfully, through this process, each side was able to acknowledge the needs of the other, resulting in a lasting reconciliation.

At the heart of Sarah's message was a call to return to scripture as our basis for reconciliation. The first chapter of Genesis reminding us that it is human beings TOGETHER that flesh out the full image of God. Moreover, the diversity in human beings was no accident and needn't mean uniformity as we seek to reconcile; a theme echoed in the Bible, but also in the Qur'an, the Hebrew Bible and other sacred texts. She then moved us on in the Book of Genesis - to Chapter 18, which shows an exemplary model of the role of hospitality in reconciliation. As Abraham spots three strangers on the horizon he prepares to welcome them only to realise that their guests have come to deliver gifts. The realisation that they were not the hosts but the guests mirrors a shift that has occurred in the interfaith world in recent years. Initially, churches, often the only ones with infrastructure, were hosts but now frequently find themselves as guests as other religious communities have put down firm roots amongst us.

Sarah acknowledged that part of any reconciliation work must recognise the historic role of Christians as persecutors. The need for a public repentance on these darker moments in our past is essential to moving forward. Fortunately, we have the perfect model in Jesus who shows us through a 'cross-shaped reconciliation' that what can be achieved between God and people, can also be passed on to divided neighbours. Sarah was keen to recognise that we do not always agree how best to love our neighbours but that our diversity of approaches is the most powerful witness to the truth of the Gospel.

Practically, Sarah left us with six useful markers for a successful encounter.

1. Recognise that all relationships start with encounter
2. Recognise that without risk nothing will happen
3. Respect for and listening to the other is key
4. Relationships are based on integrity. This is true for both parties.
5. Be humble - recognising one's own unjust behaviour
6. Relationships are an opportunity to reconcile through serving the other.

Sarah gave us a great overview of the connection of interfaith and reconciliation. She pointed out, with reference to South Sudan, that women play a pivotal role in the process since they are often the first to spot escalating tensions within a community. Sarah left us hungry to hear more practical examples about how these key principles play out in the field.

You can download the full text of Sarah's address here:


We were grateful to have an update by Paul Hackwood and Liz Carnelly on the ongoing work of Near Neighbours. So far around £5million pounds has been spent in local community grassroots activities translating into around 1500 projects. A lot of the money has gone to distinct areas, specifically women's groups, new migrants, and young people. Near Neighbours currently works in eight locations with a vision expand to twenty, provided DCLG wish to continue to expand the project. Sadly, it is very difficult to read where the government stands on this or similar initiatives. Positively, the programmes run by Near Neighbours have been regularly evaluated and the feedback has been consistently positive. Paul has recognised that conversation about social cohesion has changed. This has been driven by a recognition that the prosperity enjoyed by parts of the society in the last few years had led to profound inequality for many others. Specifically, the issue of how immigration affects poorer communities has been highlighted. Also highlighted is the sense of disconnect between Westminster politics and the communities where Near Neighbour projects run. With this in mind, concerns were raised over some negative aspects of populism, whilst trying to recognise the need to acknowledge genuine concerns of communities. It's hard to know how issues like this will play out in the country but Near Neighbours are keen to hold to a worldview that is plural, that is open to dialogue and maintaining a shared space where people can air their concerns. The programme is, therefore, going to be restructured. Near Neighbours wants to try and create more of a level playing field for dialogue and debate going forward where people can talk about how we 'live together well'. The restructure will also emphasise the local context by investing in key local people, particularly entrepreneurs, to drive the work. The small grants fund will keep running.

For those interested in learning how to get a Near Neighbours project running please see:


In response to feedback given in previous years, we offered three well-attended interactive workshops:

Theological Developments in Interfaith Engagement – Rev Dr Richard Sudworth
Engaging with Sikhs and Hindus – Dr Andrew Smith
Presence & Engagement in a Post-Brexit Society – Rev Dr Tom Wilson & Richard Bennett

Delegates with follow up questions are free to contact the relevant workshop leaders. Please contact us through the website for contact details.


Demelza Jones presented the results of a research paper co-authored by Andrew Smith. This fascinating piece of work provides a snapshot ‘map’ of the ethno-linguistic minority congregations currently operating in Anglican church spaces across Birmingham.

You can read the whole report here: 


Presence and Engagement is due to report to General Synod in July 2017, sharing the progress of the work to date and setting out a vision for the next five years. The conference provided an opportunity for attendees to hear from Mark Poulson and Kat Brealey about how plans for this are developing, and offer feedback on what might be highlighted to Synod members.

The day was an encouraging reminder of all the great work people are doing within their diocese. For those who were able to stay it was great to be able to carry on our conversations in the pub afterwards.