It all started in 2004 when the idea of an Oxford Council of Faiths was first put to an Interfaith Dialogue Group based in East Oxford.
There was already a variety of other interfaith dialogue groups actively working in Oxford -they ranged from those like the Round Table of Religions whose members had for 30 years focussed on gaining knowledge and understanding of each other’s faiths in a small personalised context, through the two- and three-way dialogue meetings of the Council of Christians and Jews, to the International Interfaith Centre which specialised in research and had produced the Directory of Faiths in Oxford. These groups were essentially about understanding and gaining respect for other theologies and practice; they were not necessarily knowledgeable about or in contact with each other.
The driving force for an Oxford Council of Faiths was a retired clergyman, David Paterson. He had been part of the development of two Councils of Faith in Leicestershire and seen how they can effectively contribute both to inter-community understanding and tolerance and provide a focus for liaison with secular bodies such as the Police, the Hospitals and City and County Councils.
Using advice and information from David’s Leicestershire contacts and previous experience, and working through the Interfaith Dialogue Group, an initial discussion document was produced.
This included such benefits as valuing and celebrating diversity, promoting an understanding of what it is like having a faith other than one’s own, working towards a community of friendship, mutual respect, sharing and learning among the cultures and faiths of Oxford, promoting harmony in the local community and building cooperation between the faith communities, to be available as a resource for Police, Universities, Schools, CVS, OREC, Health Services, Oxford City Council, Oxfordshire County Council and other Local Authorities, Regional Assembly, Development Agencies and other statutory and voluntary bodies and enabling all ethnic, cultural and faith communities to play a full part in the life of the city.
A small working group of representatives of six faiths, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist, met regularly from June 2006. Two members of the group also worked for Oxford City Council.
They decided to call a meeting of as many faiths as could be contacted and representatives of various secular organizations, to consult as to whether a Council of Faiths in this form was wanted and would meet their needs.
Held on 14 November 2007, the consultation event was attended by more than 10 representatives. The proposed aims for a Council of Faiths were universally accepted by the meeting. They included:
• build up cooperation between the faith communities;
• be available as a resource for local secular organisations – both statutory and voluntary bodies (listed above);
• work towards a community of friendship, mutual respect, sharing and learning among the cultures and faiths of Oxford;
• promote harmony and inspiration in the local community;
• initiate, develop and maintain good contact between the communities and with the communications media(press, television, etc.);
• value and celebrate religious and cultural diversity, and to participate in or initiate city-wide events which celebrate diversity;
• enable all ethnic, cultural and faith communities to play a full part in the life of our city.
As a result, a new steering group was formed, and with Bede Gerrard as Chair worked on a proposed business plan for the Council of Faiths which was put to Oxford City Council.
To meet the drive towards social and community cohesion, the Council generously agreed to fund the start-up costs and the 2008 Peace Walk. The steering group has also produced a draft constitution to facilitate the work of the Oxford Council of Faiths.
The new Council was launched on 19 June 2008 in the presence of the Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire, Sir Hugo Brunner; Oxford’s Lord Mayor, Susanna Pressel; and, from the national Interfaith Network, Harriet Crabtree (Director) and Stella Opoku-Owusu (Projects Officer).