TRAINING AS AN INTERFAITH MINISTER

THE TIMES: DECEMBER 2004

On a bright, crisp autumn morning in October 2003, I joined a group of fifty other people at Regent's Park College in London and began a two-year course training as an Interfaith Minister and Spiritual Counselor. We sat in a large circle and as I looked around at me all the new faces, I felt excited, slightly nervous and extremely curious about what becoming an Interfaith Minister would involve.

The course is run by The Interfaith Seminary and its aim is to train non-denominational ministers to meet the spiritual needs of people from all faiths and none. "I believe our society is crying out for the kind of support Interfaith Ministers can provide," says Miranda Holden, Director of the Interfaith Seminary. "Support for people who want an active spiritual life but are not drawn to traditional religion. Or for those who are alienated from their religion by issues such as divorce and sexuality. But Interfaith Ministers can also help build bridges of understanding and respect between the religions, for instance by creating a wedding ceremony for a mixed faith couple that honours both their traditions."

The Interfaith Seminary started in 1996 and the course involves studying the world's religions, learning how to create and conduct ceremonies of all kinds; and training as a spiritual counselor. It is open to anyone with a genuine commitment to spiritual life, coupled with the desire to be of service and in my group there are people of all ages, all walks of life and all religions, from Christianity to Hinduism and Shamanism. There are also quite a few like me who are not allied to any particular faith.

Like so many people I know I was completely disillusioned by religion as a teenager and by fifteen I had become a vehement atheist. But throughout my twenties I was haunted by a nameless longing. Despite a successful career and a glamorous lifestyle something essential was missing and I was determined to find it. So I began searching and to my astonishment when I found what I was looking for it was God. Not the judgemental old man in the sky I had learnt about in church, but God the invisible and ineffable presence that is the source of all life.

With that understanding came a tremendous sense of peace and joy. I felt as if I had stumbled across the great secret of the universe and I wanted to share what I had experienced. In our cynical and selfish times it seems corny to say it, but I wanted to help and be of service. The question was how? I didn't want to sign up to a particular religion because I feel God transcends all faiths. At the same time I realized that the spiritual traditions have a great deal of beauty and wisdom to offer and I wanted to learn more about them. So when I heard of The Interfaith Seminary it seemed like the perfect course, encompassing both study and practical training.

In the first year the course focuses on the major religions. Starting with Shamanism, then moving onto Judaism, Christianity and Islam, we studied one a month and the impossibility of the task soon became apparent, for you could spend a lifetime studying any one religion and still not be an expert in it. And yet, even though we were only scratching the surface, it is amazing how much understanding and appreciation even a month's worth of study can bring.

For each religion we were asked to read from its sacred texts; to visit places of worship in order to gain first hand experience of each tradition and to incorporate the methods of prayer and meditation of that particular faith into our daily life. While studying Judaism we observed a Sabbath, taking a day each week to focus on our spiritual life. And for Christianity we practiced a beautiful form of prayer, called Centering prayer, which is used by Christian mystics to bring themselves into the presence of God.

But the custom I enjoyed most was Salat, the five times daily prayer of Islam. Given the current level of fundamentalism, I felt a certain apprehension about Islam. But I discovered that it contains great love and beauty. The word Islam means the peace that comes through surrender to God. Not violence and hatred, but peace! But that is the great danger of religion that it can be used to create peace and love or to justify violence and hatred. "A religion is only as perfect as the people who practice it," pointed out Amar Hegedus, an Imam who came as a guest speaker to teach us about Islam. "If it is practiced by ignorant and violent people, then no matter what their faith, it will lead to ignorance and violence."

For me Islam raised the central questions that anyone trying to live a religious or spiritual life must answer: what is your understanding of God and what does it result in? "Do you feed the birds in winter?" asks the great Sufi poet, Hafiz. "Do your visions of God make you become more human, more kind to every creature that you know?" So Islam made me really examine my own beliefs and motives. And each day, as I stopped five times to connect with God as I understand it - the invisible and ineffable source of all - I prayed: please show me how to let love flow through me, now and always.

At the end of each month we were asked to write an essay explaining what we had appreciated and what we had found difficult about that tradition. Every time I had the same problem, because the thing I still find difficult about religion is religion - the doctrine, the dogma, the rules and concepts about what God is and who is or isn't going to be saved. But this time instead of rejecting it entirely as I had done in the past, The Interfaith Seminary helped me to really grapple with it. "No one is asking you to take any of these religions on board wholesale," said Peter Dewey, Associate Director of the Seminary and a Church of England priest. "Instead read them with an open mind. There is wisdom and truth in every religion and there is a lot of unnecessary dogma too. It is up to you to decide which is which."

As the year progressed these two sides became increasingly clear. There is the formalized outer layer of creed and doctrine that is so often dogmatic and oppressive. But there is also a mystical side that runs like a golden thread through the heart of all the traditions and it is this that I found so inspiring. It is here that the differences in theology which separate the religions and have caused - and continue to cause - so much violence and bloodshed, dissolve into a single, universal truth: that God is infinite and unconditional love and that this love is the source of everything, including us.

Therefore every religion contains within it an invitation to discover the truth of who we really are and to embody that in our lives. This is the underlying aim of the Seminary too. "We are not asking you to believe anything here," says Miranda Holden, "we are teaching you how to have a direct experience of God for yourselves. The greatest gift you can give anyone as a minister is to see their true nature and the light that shines within them, but you cannot do that if you haven't experienced that same light within yourself."

So as I begin my second year of training, the course has raised some profound questions about the nature of religion and the purpose that it plays in our lives. It has also dramatically deepened my connection to the Divine and my awareness that there really is a presence of love and wisdom guiding my life, when I let it! And I have realised more than ever that spiritual life isn't separate from ordinary life - it is ordinary life. For every moment - with family, at work, waiting in line at the supermarket - is an opportunity to act with love and kindness and to remember we are all one in spirit.