It’s 8am and the smell of coffee and porridge is wafting up the stairs. I make my way down the higgledy piggledy staircase of this big comfortable house, and join a table in the dining room. There, the Imam of a large congregation in the Midlands is in deep conversation about the refugee crisis with an Archdeacon. The head of a Jewish international aid charity contributes her thoughts before being pulled away by a Rabbi colleague because the kosher breakfasts have arrived. At five similar tables in the room, conversations - thoughtful, political and light-hearted - between Muslim, Christian and Jewish religious and community leaders, journalists, teachers and charity heads, are playing out.
Whether discussing how best to care for bereaved congregants, being astounded by one another’s ways of thinking about God, or comparing family photographs, these interactions are forging deep bonds between some of our country’s most influential faith leaders. There is only one place in the UK that this scene could be playing out, and that is the Senior Faith Leadership Programme.
Now in its fourth year of running, the SFLP (formally CCLP, the Cambridge Coexist Leadership Programme) has brought together close to 100 religious leaders from across the UK. The participants gather three times during their year-long programme, each time for a 3 day ‘residential’. It has been hosted in the impressive yet intimate St George’s House, within the grounds of Windsor Castle, with St George’s as a key project partner; these environs give a sense of being in a rare bubble, but one which will have quite an impact when it pops in the world outside. One of the Christian leaders on the programme, an RAF Chaplain, describes it as “living, learning and sharing in community for a precious few days”. The participants are together from first thing in the morning (prayer for Muslim participants – others invited to observe – was recently at 4:49am) until last thing at night, with programming often finishing after 10pm. There is down time too of course. Guided walks around Windsor Castle, long mealtimes, and evenings off with options of relaxing in either the alcohol-free sitting room, or one with an honesty bar, provide opportunities to hear about one another’s lives, views and communities. Plenty of social time is built in because the not-so-well-kept secret of the programme is that however good the sessions are – and we think they’re very good – the really important lasting effect of SFLP is found in the relationships between participants.
"The Senior Faith in Leadership Programme exceeded my expectations. The programme had a very diverse group of truly inspirational individuals, both participating and presenting, offering different insights beyond what I am accustomed to. Every session is highly customized and carefully thought through to address the important leadership issues that religious leaders face. The most beneficial part of the CCLP has been learning about the different meanings of leadership and the most effective ways of engaging with one's own community, with other communities, and with the wider secular and religious context. The CCLP provided me the opportunity to be with ideological, prominent religious leaders and activists of different faiths who challenged each other, shared best practices with each other and helped each other to be self-reflective. CLLP, therefore, has given me something beyond skills and models of leadership. It has given me an opportunity to form fellowship and friendship with a diverse and stimulating group of leaders. The friendships we have formed and the mutual trust developed between participants will give me the confidence to work with leaders from across communities for the mutual benefit of our communities. The Cambridge Coexist Leadership Programme is a great investment in the future. I would recommend it to all faith leaders!”
Qari Muhammad Asim MBE
Imam, Makkah Mosque Leeds
And there have been some astonishing relationships built during the programme. In particular, a number of surprising Jewish-Muslim collaborations have emerged. We could think about two female participants, one a Rabbi and the other a Muslim religious leader, who stood on stage together addressing a G8 summit, the Orthodox Rabbi who said he could have never imagined feeling so close to a Muslim religious leader and now regularly hosts Muslim guests for Shabbat, or the dozens of reciprocal invitations to conferences, festivals and places of worship. Most unexpected has been the intra-faith relationships formed between participants from different denominations of the same religion who, outside this safe space, would be unlikely to talk and collaborate. Participants of the programme have jointly organised inter-faith pilgrimage marches, an inter-faith vigil after the Woolwich murder, conversations in the wake of troubles in the Middle East and closer to home, and networks to keep their relationships current and strong. Invitations to weddings and festive meals regularly fire around participant groups, and alumni continue to organise reunions and retreats. These relationships are the most important outcome of the SFLP and will last long after the buzz of the programme itself ends, with impossible-to-measure ripples of impact.
“The experience of being a student of the CCLP programme has been very helpful for me as a community leader within the Jewish community. I have learned techniques for resolving difficult issues that I have already put into practice in a number of environments. I have built my confidence in working with the media, helping to share Jewish values in London and the UK. I have also, I feel learned to be better at dealing with uncertainty, which helps me to innovate in my community and beyond. Because of the unique way in which the CCLP programme is run it has both broadened and deepened my work with others. I have got to know many Muslim community leaders through the programme and worked with them already outside the times of programme. Our Synagogue is hosting a number of these leaders over the coming months helping our congregation of 3000 to get to understand issues which challenge the Muslim community. I feel that this will be transformative and help to create relationships which mean we can work with each other at bad times as well as good. The depth has come also from the relationships which blossomed between the Jewish students of the programme of several denominations. It is unusual for Reform and Orthodox Rabbis to study together and through CCLP we did. Since the time of the programme and due to the relationships created over mealtimes, walks and through learning together we have worked with our local Orthodox Synagogue over a local crisis which affected us both. This would not have happened without us Rabbis knowing each other through the programme. I know that CCLP lessons and relationships will be part of my Rabbinate for many years and expect them to deepen through the alumni programme. I look forward to recommending colleagues to apply for the programme themselves.”
Rabbi Mark Goldsmith
North Western Reform Synagogue
So what is the magical formula to create such powerful and counter-intuitive networks of very different leaders? What happens on the Senior Faith Leadership Programme which bonds participants together so effectively? Running throughout the programme is Scriptural Reasoning – naturally, given the Cambridge Inter-faith Programme’s involvement with the programme. The participants study texts from the Qur’an, Bible and Tankah, on the theme of Leadership, side by side. A recent module looked at Moses as a self-doubting and despairing leader, alongside a Gospel story in which Jesus teaches his disciples a lesson in humility, alongside a Qur’anic tract in which Moses appeals to Allah to grant him the skills necessary to approach Pharaoh.
Scriptural Reasoning, however, is the only ‘religious’ content in the programme – the participants are far better at teaching one another about the nuances of their beliefs and communities than the faculty could hope to be. The remainder of the programme focuses on leadership skills, with mini-lectures on subjects from group dynamics to navigating conflicting polarities, negotiation exercises and plenty of participant-led structured conversation. There is an entire module dedicated to media, in which participants can learn how to draft a script for a God-slot broadcast, or are briefed on dealing with a journalist looking for a sensationalist story. The programme gathers leading politicians, academics and religious figures to address the group either formally or in an after-dinner slot. The aim is to create leaders who are better than before at what they do in their own communities, in addition to having a new window to the leaders of very different communities. The testimonials speak for themselves, but we believe that SFLP creates the necessarily high-level atmosphere in which significant relationships between extraordinary people can be forged across divides.
Canon Steven Saxby
Executive Officer, London Churches Social Action
Vicar, Walthamstow St Barnabas Church
Looking back over the first four years of the programme, we have come a long way. While the UK has many excellent inter-faith dialogue initiatives, this leadership programme was aiming to do something different. We wanted to attract leaders who might not have otherwise considered speaking to a religious leader from another faith, as well as those who had experience in inter-faith dialogue. And we wanted to immerse them in a time-intensive residential programme away from their families and communities.
So to break into new religious worlds, and establish the trust needed to take leaders away from their hectically busy lives for almost nine days of the year, was a big ask. We needed very quickly to establish a solid reputation which would make recruiting at a high level a possibility in future. And we needed to communicate methods and messages like Scriptural Reasoning without plunging our participants far beyond their comfort zones. We have achieved this, as well as more than we could possibly have hoped, something evidenced by the numbers of high-level leaders who want to participate in an SFLP and the extent to which our alumni take forwards the networks they have build. So much of this success is due to the creativity and leadership of the course Director, Krish Raval of Faith in Leadership. Krish brings his own considerable leadership skills and expertise to bear in the programme, and has gathered a stellar Faculty of religious leaders, community leadership experts and alumni of the programme to lead the SFLP.
Founder & CEO, Making Herstory
So where next? With an alumni group of around 100, we want to work with this incredibly powerful network of people, allowing them to make connections across year groups. We are exploring the possibility of taking this proven model overseas, and in particular have been approached regarding creating a women-only programme in the Middle East. The future is brimming with possibilities, but for now, we look forward to watching the impact made by 100 British Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders, with address books full of friends whose religious lives are radically different to their own.