The smell of goat hair hangs thick upon the air and the rich texture of the prayer mats rubs between my toes. Stillness reigns; sunlight falls through the stained-glass window while outside the buzz of the City, muffled by the surrounding buildings, fades into a distant hum.
This is the Tent, a multi-faith space where people of any religion can come together to explore the relationship between faith and conflict. It is part of the St Ethelberga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, constructed on the site of a medieval Church after it was devastated by an IRA bomb in 1993.
The 16-sided structure was built according to traditional Bedouin techniques using materials from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Lebanon and stained-glass from Britain. Its clientele are as diverse: in the first three years after it opened in its current incarnation in 2002, it had 20,000 visitors from 39 countries.
Justine Huxley, Interfaith Projects Coordinator for St Ethelberga’s, says: “The Tent is an inclusive space where people can discuss questions of shared devotion. It is a very unique environment; somewhere you can create a level playing field.”
A pocket of tranquillity in the heart of the City, it is hard to believe that only 50 metres away is the bustle of Liverpool St Station and beyond, the mighty shrines to capitalism of the London skyline.
Huxley believes that:
“Our location is a mystery we haven’t quite solved”
Herself a retired trader for Deutsche Bank with a doctorate in psychology, she left the seductions of the City when she converted to Sufism – a mystical branch of Islam – ten years ago.
During her three years on the trading floor, she can only remember having one conversation about spirituality. She believes this “reflects the materialism and consumerism in our culture.”
Huxley is not alone in this belief. Religious leaders have been outspoken in their criticism of the government and last week, five Bishops of the Church of England condemned the fruits of Labour’s term in office. A poll of the General Synod, the Church’s parliament, by the Telegraph found that 86 per cent of Bishops supported their actions.
The Rt Rev Nigel McCulloch, the Bishop of Manchester, said: “The Government has acted scandalously. This is not just an economic issue, but a moral one. It’s about what we value.
“The Government believes that money can answer all of the problems and has encouraged greed and a love of money that the Bible says is the root of all evil.”
The Church has a long history of holding the government to account. From the moment that Henry VIII broke with Rome, the fate of the Anglican establishment has been intimately linked to politics. Yet the political clout of the Church has been in sharp decline for decades.
The number of priests in England and Wales has slumped by nearly a quarter in 20 years, from 4,545 in 1985 to 3,643 in 2005.
The primacy of the Anglican Church in British politics is fading as religious diversity grows and is replaced by a new emphasis on inter-faith dialogue.
In November, the House of Lords’ procedure committee is considering replacing traditional Anglican prayers at the daily opening of Parliament with multi-faith prayers modeled on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.
In response, Andy Burham, the Culture Secretary, has called for churches that were falling into misuse to be turned into cafes, gyms and inter-faith centres.
Churches have a “new, multi-faith, multi-racial community to serve,” he said.
“’We need to find new purposes with the support of the local community and we need to increase secular interest in our church heritage”
Huxley acknowledges this change, although she still believes there are many hurdles to clear before people of different faiths can truly understand each other.
Faith, be it in religion or the secular tenets that rule much of our lives, has been tested to its very core in recent months. Watching the news, it is hard to believe that it breeds nothing more than hatred and violence.
“There are some areas that are irreconcilable”, she says. “Christians and Muslims talking about the nature of God are never going to agree. But we can still learn from each other.”