On the whole, the level of religious tolerance in this country is good. People rub along together fairly happily, more conscious of personalities than creeds and glad to be part of the interesting mix that is modern Australia.
But tolerance isn't enough. We could be doing more - we should be doing more - to build deeper understanding, respect, harmony and cooperation between Australia's faith communities.
That means getting to know each other better, including the customs and sensitivities that come up when gathering with people of different faiths.
Graciousness, friendliness, a reasonable knowledge of your neighbours' religion, and a willingness to learn more about other faiths should set the tone for any worthwhile interfaith gathering - religious or secular.
The following guidelines are a starting point of considerations to make when planning an event that involves people of different faiths. Guidelines specific to some faith groups can be found on separate pages.
Inviting People of Other Faiths to a Uniting Church Gathering
Set the tone of your event (secular or religious) by addressing leaders of other faiths appropriately. Learn more about titles and terms of address for religious leaders though the links below, but always ask the particular people involved what titles they prefer, as this may differ from individual to individual.
Titles and Terms of Address for Religious Leaders
(link to website of Tanenbaum Centre for Interreligious Understanding)
Titles and Terms of Address for Christian Religious Leaders
| pdf version |
Everyone involved in the welcoming process should know their guests' titles and names. Name tags will help.
A number of religious leaders don't shake hands with the opposite sex. Speaking your greeting is acceptable.
Here are some examples you may want to use. The Hindu greeting Namasté which is said with your palms together (as in the Christian prayer gesture) and a slight bow means I salute the Divine in you. The Jewish greeting Shalom means peace. The Muslim greeting As-Sal?mu `Alaykum means peace be unto you and the response to this greeting is wa `Alaykum As-Salaam which means and to you too.
These greetings do not use the name of the Divine and are therefore acceptable to all faiths.
A number of religious leaders, due to religious protocol, are unable to sit next to people of the opposite sex. Cultural considerations may also factor in to seating etiquette for religious leaders.
Seating on a stage is best done in alphabetical order by names of the participants, or by their religions. However please note the religious protocol above and check seating arrangements with the participants in advance. Be sure to ask if there are any special requests on how seating is arranged.
After introducing a guest and calling him/her to the podium to speak, bowing to the person would add a gracious touch.
Most Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and other Eastern religions are vegetarians. Most Jews observe restrictions concerning food and its preparation. Most Jews and Muslims will not eat shellfish and pork. Most Roman Catholics give up meat on Fridays and during Lent. Orthodox Christians observe various abstinence practices during Lent and on special days. Most Protestants have no dietary laws.
We recommend that only vegetarian food, fresh or dried fruit and soft drinks be served. If you must serve meat, please use a meat that will not offend any religions, such as chicken, lamb or fish. These need to be kosher or halal. Please refrain from serving alcoholic beverages.
Ways of preparing and serving are described on the page providing etiquette guidelines for individual faiths.
Welcome is when an Indigenous person from that land itself invites you to use the place, while thanking their ancestors for looking after the land.
Acknowledgement is when a non-Indigenous person or an Indigenous person who is not from that land, thanks the people of that land for looking after it. Where the name of the Traditional Custodians in known, it is specifically used. Where it is not known, a general Acknowledgement is given.
Here is a short example of a general acknowledgement:
Let us pay our respects to the traditional owners of this place we are standing on. Let us also acknowledge the graciousness of the first peoples of this land who have looked after this beautiful country for centuries and continue to do so.
Please also note that it is not appropriate to tell an Indigenous person what to say in either a Welcome or an Acknowledgement.
When planning your programme remember to be sensitive regarding the following:
- Dress: Dress conservatively. Shorts, strappy tee shirts, short skirts, sleeveless blouses etc. should be avoided. Wear suitable footwear and not thongs.
- Seating: See above (under Seating)
- Games: Gambling games such as Lotto should not be played. Raffles and Lottery games are also not recommended.
- Dancing: Not recommended unless it is a "Women's only" or "Men's only" gathering. Sometimes participating religious groups might contribute a dance to portray a particular culture, but this will be done with sensitivity.
- Singing: There are a very few spiritual songs that all religions can sing together. However, some religious groups might contribute music which will convey that religion's spiritual words and this too will be done with sensitivity. There are event managers who are proficient in arranging appropriate musical items and/or liturgical programmes for interfaith gatherings and linking with some of the religions will solve this issue.
- Gifts: It is nice to show appreciation to speakers at these gatherings and the most appropriate gifts are gift coupons from book stores. However, if the speaker is from overseas an appropriate souvenir of Australia will be welcome.
Always communicate with your invitees or co-planners in the process of event planning. Questions asked in a respectful manner are likely to be appreciated and will help to avoid problems at the event itself. In addition, be clear about the purpose of your gathering. If the purpose is fostering understanding of one another's faiths, guard against being sidetracked into political and nationalistic discussions.
Checklist of Issues for Consideration When Sharing Property with Those of Other Faiths
- Are there any noise considerations - for example, might the group be particularly large and therefore noisey and require a council permit? Or, will the group require silence, and therefore need to be scheduled with this as a consideration?
- Are there likely to be 'clashes' of important events on the religious calendars of the two faiths in question, and if so, how might a resolution be found ahead of time? For example, will both faith groups be able to use the shared property for those particular events, or will one need to find an alternate venue at certain times?
- Will there be visible religious icons from the various faiths? How might Church Council feel about this?
- Will there be incense or other fragrant elements used by the various faiths? How might Church Council feel about this?
- Is this a proselytising venture on behalf of either faith?
- Are there any considerations around food preparation and disposal?
- Is this an opportunity for further conversation and dialogue?
- The Church Council may like to consider what a memorandum of agreement could look like.
Visiting the Places of Worship of Other Faiths
Dress and behave appropriately when attending services organised by your neighbours from other faiths. Arms and legs should be covered. In some situations covering or uncovering the head is expected. Doing what the others do is respectful, like standing when they do and bowing your head at least when prayers are being offered.
Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and most other Eastern religions remove their shoes and cover their heads before entering a Temple, Gurudwara or a sacred place in a house. Often men and women will sit separately. Do not touch statues. It is best not to shake hands with the opposite sex.
Men are expected to wear a Yarmulke or skullcap in Jewish Synagogues or Temples. Depending on the venue, men and women will sit separately.
Muslims remove their shoes before entering a Mosque. They also wash their hands and feet, because prayers are said on clean coverings (usually linens) on the floor. Men and women sit separately. Women are expected to cover themselves and show their faces and hands only. It is best not to shake hands with a person of the opposite sex.
Co-planning an Event with People of Other Faiths
If you are planning or hosting an event in partnership with people from other faith groups, we encourage you to utilise the ROF publication "So you want to worship together." This document and additional useful resources, including the Victorian Council of Churches publication, "Guidelines for Multifaith Gatherings," and the Australian Consultation on Liturgy publication "Guidelines for Multifaith Worship," are available on our Guidelines for Planning Interfaith Gatherings page. Especially note considerations of venue and location.
Good luck with organizing your interfaith gatherings. In the end what matters is showing our neighbours we care for them and this can only be done with respect and love. May your gatherings be filled with love and laughter and always rebound with our Divine Creator's amazing grace.