By Martha Holmen
Anglicans in the diocese looking to make connections with other faith communities have two new advocates to help them. The Rev. Roshni Jayawardena, incumbent of Trinity-St. Paul, Port Credit, and the Rev. Jeff Nowers, associate priest at St. Aidan, Toronto, are the diocese’s new co-coordinators of interfaith ministry.
Over the past several years, the Rev. Canon Gary van der Meer, the diocese’s previous interfaith officer, brought together a group of people interested in interfaith ministry. Before he moved to a different diocese earlier this year, he approached Ms. Jayawardena and Mr. Nowers about the possibility of being co-chairs of the group. They agreed, and Canon van der Meer took the idea to Bishop Andrew Asbil, who decided to form an official Bishop’s Committee for Interfaith Ministry.
As co-chairs of the committee, Ms. Jayawardena and Mr. Nowers will work alongside a group of 10-12 people, almost all of whom have connections with interfaith organizations or activities. “In the past, anything to do with interfaith ministry was consolidated into one person as the interfaith officer, whether it was Gary or his predecessors,” says Mr. Nowers. “Now because this work is so expansive and so pressing and so necessary, we have a bishop’s committee and more people involved. I think it’s a really good development.”
The new co-coordinators both say they’re eager to continue the work of building relationships across faith lines. “I feel really excited about it. I was part of the interfaith committee that Gary helped build, just for a little bit, but interfaith work and ministry has always been part of my life,” says Ms. Jayawardena. “My family is an interfaith family. I’m married to an Ismaili man. It’s just been part of my norm, and because of my reality, I feel called to explore it in my ordained ministry.”
Mr. Nowers also has a personal connection that has spurred his interest in interfaith dialogue.
“I’m married to a woman whose extended family lineage is Sikh, so that has opened me up a lot to interfaith encounters. I also have a really deep interest in Buddhism,” he says. “Reaching out to people who think differently, learning from them, is really healthy and important.”
One of their priorities will be empowering and equipping members of the diocese to form their own interfaith connections. “I think people are nervous, because if you’ve never entered into a relationship like this, you don’t know if the other person’s going to turn you down,” says Ms. Jayawardena.
They’ve started meeting with every clericus in the diocese to hear from local clergy about what they need from the committee. Mr. Nowers says he expects that those meetings will help inform the direction they take. “This ministry will evolve and grow. Really, it’s about what the needs are among parishioners across the diocese, and clergy. What do they need to learn? What do they want to learn? What do they want to do?” he says.
Ms. Jayawardena says she’s already seen enthusiasm for this kind of conversation. Last Epiphany, Bishop Asbil led a Zoom study on interfaith and ecumenical ministry, which drew more than 100 participants for each session. “There’s energy for this, there’s curiosity for this in the diocese. It’s evident,” she says.
As they start talking to more people across the diocese about their work, their message to Anglicans is simple. “I want them to know that they can do it. We’re here to support them, but interfaith ministry should not simply flow out of the two co-coordinators or the committee.
Whether they’re ordained or lay, they can reach out to their neighbour. They can start having conversations,” says Ms. Jayawardena. “It can be as simple as wishing someone well, or telling them you’re praying for them, or just learning about them. From my experience, it will help them grow in their faith and their understanding of God.”
Mr. Nowers agrees. “It’s one thing to go through an intellectual exercise of learning about another faith, which is important, but really at the heart of it it’s about making friends beyond your comfort zone,” he says. “It’s about being hospitable, welcoming them into your life. Ultimately it’s about making peace and facilitating peace.”
Anyone with questions and ideas for the Bishop’s Committee on Interfaith Ministry can reach out to the co-coordinators at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Reprinted with permission from the Diocese of Toronto, Anglican Church of Canada].