ADDRESS TO PARTICIPANTS IN THE IFTAR DINNER￼
St Mary’s Cathedral House, 6 April 2022
I welcome you all to Cathedral House this evening to celebrate our twelfth annual Iftar dinner. Can I say how pleasing it is for us all to be together, as representatives of our respective faiths, for a night of food, faith and friendship.
I salute Dr Lisa Buxton, representing First Australians and directing our Aboriginal Catholic Ministry. With her I acknowledge the elders past and present of the Cadigal clan of the Eora nation, traditional custodians of the land on which we meet.
I acknowledge and welcome from the Muslim Community: His Eminence, Dr. Ibrahim Abu Mohammed; His Eminence, Imam Abdul Quddoos Al Azhari; Shaykh Yahya Safi, Imam of Lakemba Mosque; Sheikh Shafiq Abdullah Kahn, Founder and Director of Al Faisal Colleges; on behalf of the Shiite community, Mrs. Widyan Al-Ubudy; Mr Ahmet Polat, CEO of the Affinity Intercultural Foundation; members of the Australian National Imams Council (ANIC) and the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC); and other imams, sheikhs and representatives of the Muslim Community.
From the Jewish Community I welcome: Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Elton from the Great Synagogue; Mr. Lesli Berger, President of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies; Mr Jeremy Jones of the Australian-Israeli Jewish Affairs Council; other Jewish leaders; as well as faith leaders and representatives from the Buddhist, Hindu and Ba’Hai communities.
From the Christian Churches I recognise: His Grace Archbishop Kanishka Raffel, Anglican Bishop of Sydney and Metropolitan of the province, with Bishop Michael Stead of South Sydney; His Grace Bishop Bartholomew Charioupolis of the Greek Orthodox Church; His Grace Archbishop Basilios, Metropolitan of the Antiochean Orthodox Church; His Excellency Bishop Daniel of the Coptic Orthodox Church; Rev. Jolyon Bromley of the Uniting Church; Mr Stephan Kerkyasharian representing Archbishop Haigazoun Najarian of the Armenian Orthodox Church; along with clergy, religious and lay representatives of various Christian confessions.
From the Catholic Church I acknowledge: Archbishop Amel Nona of Chaldean Catholic Church, and Bishops Terry Brady and Richard Umbers, Auxiliary Bishops of Sydney; Very Rev. Gerry Gleeson, Vicar General and Mr Chris Meney, Chancellor, of Sydney; Sr Giovanni Farquer RSJ, Director of our Archdiocesan Commission for Ecumenism and Inter-religious Relations, with other Commission members; leaders of other archdiocesan agencies, Catholic schools and universities; and other clergy and lay people who have joined us tonight.
And I welcome all other community leaders and faithful. It’s great to have you all in my home!
Next month Paris’ National Museum of the Middle Ages, the Musée de Cluny, will finally reopen after seven years of restoration. During its extended closure some of its greatest works went travelling and so in 2018 my next-door neighbour, the New South Wales Art Gallery, got to exhibit a series of six grand tapestries known as The Lady and the Unicorn. Designed in Paris around the year 1500, it is one of the greatest surviving works of late medieval Western art and known as the Mona Lisa of woven artworks. It has inspired many other artworks, as well as books, plays, films and more. Replicas even hang in the Gryffindor common room in the Harry Potter films.[i]
The tapestries are immense—they are each three to four metres high and three to five metres wide—and they are mesmerising in their intricacy, breathtaking in vibrancy and exquisite in their weaving. Each features the image of a noble woman flanked by a unicorn and a lion, as well as smaller animals, fruit trees and flowers. Most scholars think the series is a meditation on the garden of earthly delights, each tapestry an allegory of one the five senses: in Touch the noblewoman is patting the unicorn; in Sight she’s holding a mirror up to the unicorn so it might see itself; in “Taste” her servant is presenting her with some delicacies to eat, in “Hearing” she is playing the pipe organ and in “Smell” she is presented with a tray of carnations. The sixth tapestry is entitled “My Sole Desire” and has been the subject of many interpretations. Some think it represents a sixth sense—the inner wisdom of the heart that transcends earthly perception and the temptations of the sensory world.[ii] After all, in this work the lady is removing all the jewels she had worn in the previous tapestries. There are some things, it seems, that matter even more than the pleasures of the secular world. Interestingly, given tonight’s celebration, the Le Viste family pennant that appears in all the tapestries features the crescent moon and the rug under the pipe organ in the hearing tapestry is Middle Eastern.
The art of tapestry was known, of course, to the ancients, especially in Greece, Egypt and China, and from those centres textile design and weaving techniques spread across Europe, the Middle East and Far East. A designer conceives a work or series, often by drawing cartoons, and then a team weave together coloured threads to achieve the design imagined. It echoes in some ways creation in the Abrahamic traditions: a single artist, God, is the great Designer, the Author, the Cause behind the causes, the Master weaver who elaborates His ideas through a diverse cast of weavers, threads and colours. Patriarchs and prophets, saints and scholars, elders and laity: each plays a part in weaving together an image that hangs not on the wall of a gallery, but against the backdrop of the cosmos.
Recently the world has looked on with horror as the Russian army invaded Ukraine and, while the motives are clearly imperial, there is a religious dimension also: for it seems that Mr Putin will not abide an autocephalous Orthodox Church on his doorstep any more than he will an independent liberal democracy. In his view neighbours are part of the Russkiy mir and must be subject to the Russian Tsar in all matters political, economic and religious.
China, too, is treating its religious minorities badly, especially Falun Gong, Christians, Tibetan Buddhists and, most recently, the Uyghur, Kazak, and Turkish Muslims. The victims of this persecution are being interned, forcibly aborted or sterilised, enslaved, brainwashed, tortured or killed.
Some think religious differences inevitably cause religious conflict, but at the heart of these recent examples is intolerance of religious differences, and even of religion itself. Of course, the children of God have sometimes failed to demonstrate the love and peace of God towards each other as they should; there is much in our histories to repent of. But in modernity, people of faith are more often the victims than the perpetrators of intolerance and violence. Yet still the secularists mythologise that religion is the cause of most disharmony.
On this pretext, some would like to relegate religion to an art museum, where it can be enjoyed by the connoisseurs and the curious, but kept out of the public eye as an old-world taste. Sealed off from ordinary life by literal and figurative walls, it will be easier to reduce power to the gallery and restrict access over time. As long as religion remains in its private display space, the public square can be maintained as a religion-free zone. Yet behind so many of the horizontal coloured wefts that go to making the image we have of ourselves in this society are the vertical warps to which those threads are attached: threads regarding the nature of the human person and community, human dignity and rights, self-sacrifice and charity, valour and piety, all of which derive ultimately from understanding ourselves as created by a God who has revealed his will for our good. So much of our cultural infrastructure and intellectual apparatus—even the canons by which we criticise religion—are, as Tom Holland so well demonstrated in his recent book Dominion, themselves patrimony of the Abrahamic religions.
In its pretence to neutrality about religion, post-liberal modernity turns the lights out in the rooms that show so much that is true and good and beautiful. In imposes various neo-dogmas about the individual and common good, about sexuality, gender and family, the importance of the economy and ecology, about what makes human beings flourish, and the relative unimportance of the artistic, spiritual and other non-economic features of life. Recent years have seen marriage redefined and quite extreme laws made on abortion and euthanasia, efforts to exclude religious perspectives and voices from the public discourse, faux attempts to protect religious liberty when all the while religious institutions and practices are being restricted, campaigns to dictate to faith-based schools what they must teach and to faith-based hospitals what services they must provide and who will serve in both, ongoing politics to exclude faith-based providers from burying the dead!
Or we might think of how readily some public health authorities during the pandemic moved to close down places of worship, even before closing brothels or casinos or sports venues, how slow they were to recognise the importance for many people of the spiritual life and gathering for worship, and how reluctant some of them have been to acknowledge the centrality of churches, mosques, synagogues and temples in informing people about health issues, as well as providing pastoral care, social welfare and health care.
My point tonight is that whatever our views on the rights and wrongs of recent law and policy in all these areas and more, the idea that the secular state is somehow ‘neutral’ on them is absurd. Indeed, in the age of wokery, government bureaucracies, business leaders and media outlets are more inclined than ever to assume ‘moral’ positions on all sorts of matters such as gender diversity, marriage, climate and the rest which are far from ‘neutral’ or free of belief.
At a time when elements of the surrounding culture seem intent on relegating believers to places where the beauty and colour of their faith will not be seen, we would do well to recall that a tapestry is only robust when its threads are woven tightly together. And so, our own traditions, like individual threads woven tightly together, benefit immensely from cooperation and friendship, from solidarity and mutual respect, just as those great medieval tapestry-makers East, West and Middle East borrowed fabrics and techniques from each other. Together we can call this culture to an appreciation of things that may not be easily monetised or reduced to the tropes of the age, but which so enormously enrich our context and insight and living. And together we can call to account those forces in our world today that would weaponise religious, ethnic and cultural differences to inflict new horrors on the innocent. We pray that God convert the hearts of those who would use his name—or their hatred for his name—as a pretext for their own avarice and violence. We seek to hang the tapestry of faith, hope and love boldly in the squares both public and private where it is so sorely needed today. را ًخي للاه جزاك Jazāk Allāhu Hi.ran Khayran!
[i] 11https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/feb/13/lady-and-the-unicorn-mona-lisa-of-the-middle-ages-weaves-a-new-spell; https://theconversation.com/explainer-the-symbolism-of-the-lady-and-the-unicorn-tapestry-cycle-91325