A joint Nativity service celebrating both Christian and Muslim traditions attracted more than 150 people to Padiham Unitarian Chapel on Sunday 20th December 2015. The joint service won high praise from attenders; comments afterwards included: ‘a truly remarkable service’, ‘a joyful sharing of faith’ and ‘a great event which inspired friendship, love and respect among those who attended’.
The service was led by the Padiham Unitarian minister, Rev Jim Corrigall, with Sufi Muslim leaders Shaykh Nasser and Rauf Bashir of the Free Spiritual Centre in Nelson. It included readings from sacred scriptures, prayers for peace, carol singing, and Sufi mystical chanting (in Arabic, Urdu and English).
Chanting was led by young Muslim men, by young women (the ‘Sisters’) and by Shaykh Nasser. An inter-faith women’s choir from Burnley sang a Christmas song, ‘I saw a ship’, and also provided backing for the chorus for the Sufi chanting in English.
Worship leaders explored – in separate addresses – the significance of the birth of Jesus Christ, and of the Prophet Muhammed, and noted that the service came at a time of tension and conflict in many parts of the world. The leaders made clear that Peace is central to both Christianity and Islam.
The service was enabled by the fact that, in 2015, the birth-date of the Prophet Muhammed fell on 23rd December (under the Islamic calendar) – it only comes this close to Christmas Day once every 33 years.
Those attending included Unitarians, Sufi Muslims, Christians of several denominations, as well as people of other faiths and of no faith. The service was followed by a shared meal of soup and curry, served by young men from the Free Spiritual Centre. Rich conversation was enjoyed over the meal, with deep appreciation expressed for the chance to share experiences of different faiths.
How did this service come about? Well, firstly, Unitarians and Sufi Muslims have much in common. Sufism, as a mystical expression of Islam, values individual approaches to spirituality and the Divine, in a similar way to Unitarians.
Secondly, in the 1990s, Padiham Unitarian Chapel built up good relations with Sufi Muslims in the North-West of England, during the ministry of the Rev Andrew Rowley. Over the past year, Padiham Unitarians have been re-connecting with Sufis from the Free Spiritual Centre in Nelson.
The Rev Jim Corrigall commented: ‘After taking up the Padiham ministry in late 2014, I began attending Sufi chanting sessions in Nelson. Then this past autumn, Sufi leaders came to one of my services at Padiham Chapel (it was about my pilgrimage to the Holy Land), and afterwards we discussed ideas for joint activities. Once we Unitarians realised the proximity of the two Nativity dates, we felt a joint Nativity service would be very fitting. Our Sufi friends agreed, and so we began working toward this day.’