April: Interfaith Travelling

On the 21st of March, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Harmony Day in Australia, I took a bus trip with some thirty-five other Hobson’s Bay residents to visit three local religious sites. I went because I am one of the members of the
Hobson’s Bay Interfaith Network. The two women sitting behind me joked with each other that they were going because there was going to be free food. (Was it a joke?)

The first stop was the Australian Islamic Centre Mosque in Newport. This was my third visit and the mosque is looking close to complete. Apparently there is only about 35% of the planned work left to do. (It’s taking so many years because parts are being built only as the community raises the money and this is a multi-million dollar collection of buildings.) The mosque is now being used as a place of prayer,  although the official opening hasn’t yet happened. There is carpet on the floor, although the shoe racks and the bookcases are still temporary.

Glenn Murcutt, the celebrated Australian architect, has worked with the community to create an Australian-style mosque. There is a lot of glass and natural concrete, and the aim is to have the building open to the outside and filled with light. It is an absolutely astonishing building. I am very jealous of the beautiful ‘lanterns’ in the ceiling that shine different coloured light into the mosque at different times of day and the amazing ponds that will soon have fish in them.

One of the sheiks of the mosque showed us through and explained the need for a new mosque in the area as more and more Muslims are moving in to Hobson’s Bay. He said that most are coming from Lebanon and that three thousand people have emigrated from one single village! The original mosque close to Newport Station was much too small; the new mosque will provide place for worshippers even during Ramadan.

Then we moved on to Our Dormition of Our Lady Greek Orthodox Church. And here I found how hypocritical I am. In the mosque the prayer areas are separated into the men’s area, the main floor, and the women’s area, the balcony above. I looked at that as a simple cultural difference. But when at the Greek Orthodox Church we were told that no women could enter the Holy of Holies because women could not be ordained I got very grumpy. I apparently expect more of Christians than I do of Muslims.

(Incidentally, the Dormition or falling asleep of Our Lady is the belief of the Orthodox Church that while Mary died a natural death, her soul was received by  Christ upon death and her body was resurrected on the third day, after which she was taken up bodily into heaven. We Protestants don’t believe this.)

The church is in the traditional Byzantine model, with three aisles and shaped as cross, imitating a Byzantine basilica. The aim is that in entering the church worshippers feel that they are leaving ‘ordinary’ life and entering a special place of peace.

The Mosque and the Church are being built at exactly the same time; while the mosque is trying to look as ‘Australian’ as possible, the church is trying to look as ‘traditional’ as possible. It’s an interesting contrast.

There are icons everywhere, although there are many more to be painted onto the walls and ceiling and added into the iconostasis, which separates the main part of the church from the sanctuary. Father George explained that the Orthodox don’t ‘worship’ the icons or the saints they depict. The saints are people for Christians to emulate, so the icons in the church are like the pop stars that teenagers put on their walls.

There were a couple of things that surprised me. One was that the church has pews. I’ve only ever been to Orthodox churches in which people stand for the liturgy (as happens in the Russian Orthodox Mission in the old Coffee House). Apparently the Greek Orthodox Church starting borrowing the idea of pews from the Western church about a hundred years ago. The other thing that I didn’t know was that Orthodox priests can only celebrate mass once in 24 hours, and mass can only be celebrated once on an individual altar every 24 hours.

At our third stop, Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Williamstown, I walked right past the Venerable Bill and up to the altar, so relieved to be in a religious building where my sex didn’t bar me from any area. My bus seatmate told me afterwards that my entire body relaxed when I entered the church; since it’s a church in which I’ve preached and co-celebrated the Eucharist I definitely felt that I was in a safe place.

We lunched at Holy Trinity in their lovely new hall and then finished our interfaith morning. Apparently there was a long waiting-list of people who wanted to join us but who couldn’t fit in the bus, so the Interfaith Network will definitely be holding more.

I have volunteered our church for a stop on one of the future tours. In comparison to the others we are a very plain church, with our white walls and clear glass (it was built as a Methodist building – Wesley would want all our money to go to the poor!) so we would need to find an organist for the day and introduce the visitors to our heritage of worship through music.