(For Uniting Church’s Urban Mission Network magazine.)
Looking back to when I arrived at Flinders as its Uniting Church chaplain in the late 1990’s, I can now identify some of the dynamics at play that would eventually lead to the formation of Oasis – inconceivable at the time!
The context was the university – a ground for open-ended research and innovation; and in particular, a Religious Centre, which had become identified with a Christianity seemingly intent on marginalizing itself by disconnection to the mission of the university.
A significant social context was the increasing recognition of cultural and religious diversity, the two inextricably bound, which seemed to threaten a conservative church and a conservative politics, but seen as an opportunity by the university.
Chaplains at Flinders were caught between these two loyalties – the church and its conservative religio-cultural exclusions, and the university, with its progressive intent on cultural inclusion, averse to discrimination and sectarianism.
It is to the credit of the Uniting Church, with its more open theology – its metaphor of journey with God and possibility of inclusion, that I was able to explore a solution to this standoff.
It began by inviting Religious Centre chaplaincy representation by representatives of world religions and, for me, the clarification of a key question for exploration: ‘How are we all going to live together?’
Weekly shared lunches brought us together, friendships formed, and chaplaincy began to express itself as ‘multifaith’ – cemented in working together on a national conference for university chaplains in 2003 and a refurbishment of the Religious Centre to reflect the new pluralist reality.
Later, we were able to identify the ancient practice of hospitality as the most significant impetus in our move toward multifaith – and the key practice to enact chaplaincy itself. I was able to document this journey in my book ‘An Improbable Feast – the surprising dynamic of hospitality at the heart of multifaith chaplaincy’, published in 2010.
Unwittingly, in achieving multifaith chaplaincy through hospitality we had also discovered ‘interfaith’!
‘Multi-‘ recognizes diversity, but it is not a sufficient basis for living together. We can recognize each other’s right to exist, but live in ghettos! ‘Inter-‘ describes what happens between. It is the glue of social cohesion and a key element in a society’s wellbeing – how we mix.
Oasis, launched in 2008, and embraced formally by the university in 2013, is about ‘inter-‘. It recognizes the diversity of cultures and religions, but is intent on developing a model and a language to respond to the question of our time: ‘how are we all going to live together?’