We left Lambeth Palace having fully immersed ourselves in all things Lambeth we boarded the coach to head to our next stop, the London Central Mosque.
Our theme for the pilgrimage centers around Christian witness, martyrdom, and reconciliation. Over the course of this pilgrimage we have explored the many ways in which Christians have borne witness to the Gospels in England, including maintaining their faith in the face of torture and death. We have learned about how divided the church has been especially during th reformations of the Tudor dynasty that wreaked havoc on the people of England. And in light of these stories of division and violence we have learned how we are called to a ministry of reconciliation, a restoration, that St. Paul says has begun and ends in Jesus Christ. Having seen how the church has been divided internally and at times in need of reconcilaition, today we see what can be done in order to bring different faith traditions together to lift up our commonalities instead of focusing our differences.
We made our way around London as we headed towards Regents Park, which is a nicer area of London and is very different from the East End where we have been staying. The East End is an eclectic mix of working class neighborhoods and diverse cultural enclaves. You can get just about any kind of food in the East End, from Pakistani and Indian, to Thai, to fried chicken and pizza. However, Regents Park was very different. Beautiful, but different.
After walking a few blocks we came upon the mosque. It was designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd, an Englishman, completed in 1978, and has a prominent golden dome. The main hall can hold over five thousand worshipers, with women praying on a balcony overlooking the hall. The Mosque is joined to the Islamic cultural center which was officially opened by King George VI in 1944. The land was donated by King George VI to the Muslim community of Britain in return for the donation of land in Cairo on which to build an Anglican cathedral.
After waiting a few minutes because we were early we were greeted by the media and public relations manager Mr. Ayaz Zuberi. We once again timed our visit perfectly (I say sarcastically) because the day before was Eid which marks the end of Ramadan and their month-long fast from sunrise to sunset. So there was a huge party here the night before and most Muslims take the next day off, but Ayaz was gracious enough to forego a deserved day off to be with us and for that we were deeply grateful.
We began our tour in a conference room as Ayaz explained some fo the history of the mosque, how it came to be, and what they are doing to serve the Muslim community of London. From the conference room he took us out into the courtyard and into the mosque.
Inside, the mosque holds a chandelier and a vast carpet, with very little furniture. The inside of the dome is decorated with broken shapes in the Islamic tradition. There is also a small book shop and halal café on the premises.
We arrived in between prayer times so we then went down to the exhibition halls in the basement where Ayaz walked us through the different illustrations of the Muslim faith.
Our time in the exhibition hall was excellent as the pilgrims learned a lot about Islam. Some of the information people already knew, but a lot of it was new. I too learned quite a bit and this only reinforced the need for me to study about Islam, and even Judaism, as we begin to construct the language for dialogue so that we can work towards a greater understanding of each other.
While we were finishing up in the exhibition hall we heard the call to prayer. We went upstairs, and removed our shoes, and stood towards the back as hundreds of men poured into the mosque, stood foot to foot, and began their third time of prayer for the day. There were a few women in the balcony, but the majority were women. The men that came were from a multitude of nationalities and not just Arabs. This reminded me that while Islam is centered in the Middle East there are Muslims all around the world. The country with the largest Muslim population is not in the Middle East but Indonesia.
Their prayer time lasted about five to ten minutes and included a series of scripture recitations, bowing, and kneeling. It was a very physical form of prayer, and yet not very different form the liturgical calisthenics we engage with on Sundays in our tradition. After the prayer was over we gathered outside in the courtyard for a group photo and we walked back to the coach.
We all boarded the coach discussing what we learned and the bus was filled with different observations about our time in the mosque. From there we made our way to the South Bank where we passed by a few more iconic London landmarks. We had lunch at a lovely French restaurant just off the river walk along the Thames. After our late lunch we once again boarded the coach to head to Westminster for evensong.
We arrived in just enough time to get in line for evensong. I had hoped we would get to explore but I have learned that the cathedrals close around 4:00pm so that they can prepare for evensong, in which people are invited to join but it is not a time for picture-taking and exploration. In fact I wasn’t supposed to take photos, but I managed to take a few inside. The evensong was amazing and a great way to end our day before we all went our separate ways for dinner. One thing I really liked was the statues that are above the west entrance. They are statues dedicated to martyrs of the 20th Century and included some that I knew, and a few I didn’t know or at least didn’t know well.
We all boarded the coach and dropped off about half of the group at the South Bank as they wanted to have dinner in London. The rest of us went back to the Royal foundation for dinner a little closer to home. I really wanted to get back so that I could watch the Euro 2016 semi-final match between France and Germany, which sadly Germany lost. Despite the result it was great to watch the game a few fellow pilgrims from our group and before long other guests of the Royal Foundation found us and joined in our little watching party.
After the game we went to pack up as this was our last night at the Royal Foundation and in the morning we will head to Oxford for our final two nights of the pilgrimage. See y’all in the AM.