St Ethelburga – haven for peace

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Stood for five centuries – outlived the chaos and damage wrought by an IRA bomb – now a haven for peace and reconciliation, St Ethelburga. Magda Ali speaks to its interfaith activities co-ordinator Justine Huxley.

At a time when Britain seems to be so deficient from spiritual discourse, that field seems rather fictional. For some however, St Ethelburga’s centre for rehabilitation and reconciliation located in the heart of London is that urban oasis field. “The level plane field where different faiths can meet in the middle,” says its interfaith activities co-ordinator Justine Huxley.

Still standing five centuries – tucked away among the City’s lofty glass and steel office blocks. You wouldn’t know it existed unless your very spirit told you. You walk into a very narrow passage way, until the Andalusia feel just takes hold of you. To enter St Ethelburga, is to migrate from the chaos of this world to a spiritual encounter with oneself. The space itself is quite remarkable – quite different from its neighbouring surroundings; cars, streets, construction sites and the likes.

For spirit – The centre blends an unusual cocktail of inter-faith dialogue and discussion, analysis of sacred scripture, devotional gatherings, meditation and storytelling. It is a soothing mix, but it’s hard to picture this picturesque sanctuary as a stake in the city, yet the very peculiarity is what gives it appeal. The sanctuary that hosts over 100 public events a year has become an interfaith hotspot for dialogue, peace and reconciliation.

In a dainty garden at the back of the building, you see a tent, you walk to the tent. If it’s Thursday evening, members of the Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu faiths will greet you: “Saimu, Shalom, Shanti, Maitra, Tai, Salaam, Peace “– the very carves stained on the mosaic glass window tiling. Really, it has a sacred feel to it – the intimacy of the round space, oriental lights, and vibrant settee – even the smell of the finest Goat’s hair woven in Saudi Arabia – something of the Bedouin folklore tradition is encapsulated. You take a seat, and for a moment, you feel at peace – the perfect setting, for a discussion of faith, reconciliation of differences, and transformation of conflicts for interfaith collaborations.

The contemplative urge is manifest – the need for St Ethelburga’s is imperative. “Recovering the calm” a new guide recently launched my St Ethelburga’s urges architects to include prayer rooms and quiet space in office to meet the religious needs of employees and promote diversity. The guide suggests that prayer space should be considered much earlier in the process of building – on par with other facilities. The project has been supported by Communities and Local Government Secretary, Hazel Blears, who says: “I believe we can all benefit from finding a little time to reflect and rise above the daily routine.” She says that such spaces may also be seen as symbolic of the need for diverse peoples to work and practise alongside each other for the sake of peace and community cohesion.

Ms Huxley, who converted to Islam, after her travels to Turkey, Morocco and parts of the Middle East understands how crucial this space really is. She says she had to travel a great deal to finally find peace within. St Ethelsburga’s is a “facilitation of exploration,” she says. “The unity of spirituality that encompasses all faith traditions goes beyond dogma and brings a facet of universal commonality.”

Evidently, this unusual space is invaluable to those of who – are committed to interfaith engagement. Though reconciliation can seem somewhat artificial if proposed in vacuity, dialogue is adaptable and the centre is only now beginning interfaith education programmes that are pivotal to its mission. Ms Huxley adds: “Reconciliation does not mean a compromise of one’s own philosophy but rather an acceptance of another’s.”

We may disagree with each of us has to say – but we must defend each others right, to our death, the right to say it – as Beatrice Hall did a century ago.


Written by Magda M Ali

November 14, 2008 at 10:25 pm

One Response

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  1. Where is this place. and is it open to public all the time?


    January 2, 2009 at 3:59 am

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