Religion Has to Face the Challenge of Engaging with the Unfamiliar; Wales Is in a Crisis of Faith - but amid Great Change Comes Exciting Possibility, Writes Gethin Abraham-Williams, the Former Chief Executive of Churches Together in Wales

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WALES used to be a nation of churchgoers. Not any longer.

If the goods on sale for next Monday's Halloween are anything to go by, today's believers are more likely to be switched on by a hotchpotch of the weird and the paranormal than they are by anything the church might be doing or saying about all saints and all souls.

Since this is now the prevailing culture, certainly in the West, where does that leave the traditional churches? Should they see themselves alongside a range of competing spiritualities or in conflict with them? Is partnership betrayal? It's always scary to face the unfamiliar. Sometimes that's justified. More often than not the unfamiliar can offer us new ways of seeing ourselves and our beliefs.

That in turn can have far-reaching benefits, individually and communally, intellectually and what we might term our inner spirituality. And let's not underestimate the international good that can come from paradigms of inter-religious co-operation.

For the churches, the 20th century's ecumenical movement provided a golden opportunity to take a good look at themselves in the mirror of history. The result was some welcome humility and a facing of their corporate inadequacy.

The current danger for the churches is a backing away from the promise ecumenism offers in order to shore up individual identities as attendance numbers drop. It is just possible the real reasons for decline are not because of sharing and the self-understanding that comes with a closer living together, but that there's not a lot more of it.

Isolation leads to extremism. Engagement with the other great world faiths was the next and current scary moment for the churches; and equally for other faiths seeing what's good in Christianity. It's still a highly contentious area and divides churches as starkly as political parties are split by attitudes to European Union.

The recent four-year series of special consultations between the three Abrahamic Faiths, under the heading of Fear, Democracy & Religion, organised by the International Strategic Affairs Group of the Church in Wales, in association with the Muslim Council of Wales and the Welsh Centre for International Affairs, was a huge step forwards in inter-faith dialogue.

Its most revealing expression was a residential conference in Gladstone's Library, Hawarden, when prayers to Allah and prayers to God, using the Jesus prayer, were as one.

Important as are all these encounters, between churches, between faiths, I believe their significance is lost unless they are viewed and interpreted in the light of what one academic has termed "a new spiritual awakening"; one that emerges "from an essentially non-Christian religio-cultural milieu". …