Ecumenism, and Interfaith dialogue, have for long been done in an accepted and unquestioned way which is quite inimical to the admirable instincts of the present Holy Father Pope Francis. Let me explain what I mean.
Such dialogue has tended to be attractively scholarly and impressively academic. The participants have been persons whose qualifications, based upon their published work or upon the teaching positions they hold in academe, have been such as to demonstrate their eminent suitability for their selection. Their meetings have taken place in elegant surroundings conducive to courtesy and the very best manners. And the topics have usually been academic. Take ARCIC. It was, in the era when ARCIC was directed towards full organic unity, naturally felt suitable that all the half-millennium-old areas of division .... Justification ... Transubstantiation ... Priesthood ... should be sorted out. So, words and nuances being deftly weighed up, beautiful verbal formulae were crafted, refined, and agreed. (Topical and live questions such as the Ordination of women were, naturally, ignored, because even the most imaginative wordsmiths cannot fudge them. You either ordain humans of the female gender, or you don't.)
But let us take up instead the instinct manifested by our beloved Holy Father's memorable phrase that shepherds should smell of their flocks. Apply that to Interfaith dialogue, and what do you get? At random, for starters, let's consider dialogue with Islam. What would such dialogue smell like? If conducted by participants who smelt of the constituencies they represented? If it dealt with topics that smelt of the real world, rather than with crafting statements that smelt of the lecture-room and the history book? So ... what topics?
Perhaps violence, and not least sexual violence, is most in the news at the moment. Here in England the media have been dominated daily by stories from city after city in which gangs of Islamic men of Pakistani origin have targeted, groomed, raped, abused young white girls in (literally) thousands. In the Middle East, we have heard how ISIS, after capturing a town and slaughtering men and boys, rounds up girls and women, checks them for virginity, and auctions them. They are then forcibly converted to Islam, forcibly married, and raped. Subsequently, their 'husbands' may desire to divorce them and sell them on, although their value at auction will have been diminished by 'use'. Those kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, who have now so gracefully faded out of the headlines, were declared to be destined to a similar fate.
It would be ridiculous, not to say wickedly inflammatory, to imply that all adherents of Islam share the same characteristics, any more than all Christians, or even all Catholics, are the same. Nor should all Catholics, or all Moslems, be regarded as in some way guilty of and answerable for whatever some other of their coreligionists are reported to think or to do, or to have thought and done in the past. That would be plain unjust as well as plain untrue. But the Church should avoid the other extreme, which could be characterised as the Nice talking to the Nice. Partners in Dialogue on each side should represent the the complete spectrum of the varied tendencies within their tradition. There is no point in dialoguing only with those with whom we ourselves happen to feel most comfortable, those who smile sweetly at us. If anything, it is those who are the least 'clubbable', those who interrupt us in mid-sentence with an angrily jabbing forefinger, that should be given the most detailed hearing. In particular, it would be as well never to use terms which have become laden with approval or disapproval, but which are actually meaningless. I have in mind, in particular, the terms 'moderate' and 'extreme'.
Partners in Interfaith Dialogue should also, I suggest, be less academic, and very much smellier. An exiled bishop, perhaps, who smells of his defiled churches, his slaughtered menfolk, his raped and beaten womenfolk. A Christian woman, if one could be found, who smells of the violence she has undergone. And, of course, Moslems would be entitled to nominate imams who had seen their mosques being stolen and converted into churches, their women and girls raped by Christian gangs; as well as women representatives who had suffered horrible atrocities at the hands of Christians. Some academics, naturally, could still be there, smelling of their books, to make their own relevant contributions. The meetings would happen in centres of conflict ... Baghdad, perhaps, or Damascus or Cairo, alternating with whatever 'Christian' cities the Islamic side nominated as having hosted anti-Islamic violence (Srebrenica, perhaps?). Archbishop Michael Ramsey memorably described Anglican theology as Divinity done within the sound of Church Bells. I suppose I am suggesting Interfaith Dialogue done within the sound of gunfire and screams.
We have Pontifical Councils for Interfaith dialogue, and all the rest of it, splendid bodies of men with the most splendid intentions, which are presumably funded ultimately by the alms of the Faithful. In future, activities which these bodies finance should smell of the current realities. They should have the authentic smells of blood, of cordite, of semen.