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Friday, 29 July 2016

Unitarians promote same sex marriage in Church

British Unitarian and Free Christians have used London Pride to promote same sex marriage in Church with the production of an inspiring and colourful video.

Unitarian congregations across the country from city centre churches to chapels in small towns have been registering their buildings for same sex marriage. In many counties and cities we are still often the only registered religious building where same sex marriages can be conducted. We did not marry anyone on the day of London Pride! Hopefully we highlighted that if a couple wished to have a religious or spiritual ceremony that this is now possible in a Unitarian Church

A list of Unitarian buildings registered for same sex marriage is available on the General Assembly's website 

The video was filmed at London Pride when thirty-five Unitarians and Free Christians from across London and the South East celebrated Pride on Saturday 2 July 2016. The banners included "Unitarians marry in Church" and "You can marry in a Unitarian Church".

An initiative of the London District and South East Provincial Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches the film was produced by West Creative. The production of the film was supported financially by the General Assembly. Thanks to Ed Fordham for all his hard work to organise the group.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

"The Light of the Spirit" - Chalice Meditation No 6.

Photo by John Hewerdine
It was a joy to share in worship at last week's conference of the International Association of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU) at the Mennorode Centre, Nunspeek,The Netherlands,

Rev Kate Dean, Minister of Rosslyn Hill Chapel in Hampstead, London introduced us to one of the Chalice Meditations.The Chalice Meditations are a collection of sung meditations, with music by David Kent and words provided by Unitarian ministers from all parts of the UK.

David describes the Chalice Meditations as follows:

"When I was inspired to begin this project, my aim was to produce a prayerful resource that could be useful to congregations, regardless of their size. These pieces are written to be sung repetitively and to be easy to pick up for choirs and congregations alike.

The meditations can be sung in unison or in parts, unaccompanied, or backed by piano or guitar."

We sang very movingly on several occasions at morning worship Meditation No 6. "The Light of the Spirit" by Rev Sarah Tinker

"The light of the spirit is shining in you,
The light of the spirit is shining in me,
The light of the spirit is shining within,
So blessed we may be"

Sheet music, vocal guide and backing tracks are available - do go and listen.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

150th Anniversary of birth of Beatrix Potter

Tomorrow 28 July 2016 marks the 150th Anniversary of the birth of Beatrix Potter, the well known author, illustrator and conservationist.

She was brought up in a wealthy Unitarian family with a Manchester background. Rupert and Helen (Leech) Potter were active Unitarians and their close friends included Rev James Martineau, Unitarian theologian and philosopher, and Rev William Gaskell, husband of the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell. Their social life revolved around the Unitarian community surrounding Manchester.

Unitarians across the North West will be celebrating over this weekend:

Stalybridge Unitarian Church, where Beatrix Potter opened a bazaar in 1912, will be open on 28 July and 29 July from 1.30 to 4.30 pm with an exhibition. Refreshments will be available.

John and William Leech gave a plot of land on the edge of the Gorse Hall estate to build the church, which is situated on Forester Drive, Stalybridge. Donations from the Leech and Potter families enabled the church to open free of debt in 1870. The foundation stone was laid by Mrs Jane Leech, Beatrix Potter's grandmother.

Hyde Chapel Gee Cross will be open to visitors on 28 July, 29 July and 30 July from 1.00 to 4.00 pm with a display showing the Potter family connection with the Chapel. Helen and Rupert Potter were married here in 1863 and members of the Potter, Leech and Ashton families are buried here. Light refreshments will be available.

Dukinfield Old Chapel, where members of the Leech family are buried will be open on 29 July from 1.30 to 4.00 pm and 30 July from 11.30 to 4.00 pm. On 31 July there will be a service at 2.00 pm when Rev Dr Ann Peart, former Principal of Unitarian College Manchester, will talk on "Beatrix Potter's Manchester Connections". There will be an exhibition and "well dressing". Refreshments will be available.

Cross Street Chapel in Manchester's city centre, where her ancestors worshipped, will be open from Friday 29 to Sunday 31th July with a small exhibition.

Image in public domain.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Theresa May inspired by Joseph Chamberlain Birmingham Unitarian?

Joseph Chamberlain has been in the news this morning as an inspiration for the new Prime Minister, Theresa May. Labour MP Gisela Stuart has written in The Daily Telegraph "Meet Joe Chamberlain, the lost Tory leader whose ideas drive Theresa May." In today's Times we see one of May's key advisers Nick Timothy described as a "Chamberlain Conservative". He has written of the legacy of Chamberlain

Historian Alan Ruston in "On The Side of Liberty" boldly asserts "Joseph Chamberlain was a Unitarian born and bred, a fact of which he was openly proud...He was attuned to those aspects of the Unitarian faith that were commonly emphasised in the second half of the nineteenth century; the values of individualism, self-reliance, moral earnestness, and social action" (page 49).

He was a radical never a conservative and certainly not a Tory; although he left the Liberal Party over Irish Home Rule to become a Liberal Unionist.

Garvin has written "Chamberlain's inward life until he was nearly forty was directed by his religious upbringing..We may find here the germ of his assertive independence: of his anti-official or anti-orthodox initiative throughout his political career; or of his executive force as a leader of social reform" (quoted by Ruston page 51).

How Theresa May will measure up to his radical heritage and practical administrative skills time will tell?

His two sons Austen and Neville both reached high political office; the latter of course Prime Minister.

"On the Side of Liberty" was launched by the Lindsey Press in April 2016 and is available from Essex Hall (020 7240 2384) or from all good online booksellers

He features in the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography 

Image with permission on the National Portrait Gallery

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Hajom Kissor Singh and the Khasi Unitarians

One of the books I picked up at the second hand bookstall at the General Assembly Annual Meetings was “TŌ Nangroi: A Romance of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills” by Rev Magnus C. Ratter and published by the Lindsey Press in 1932. I always look out for publications that I have not seen before. We have a recently established archive of the Lindsey Press at Essex Hall, initiated by Howard Hague, however I did not think it was there. When I checked I was right. It is also not on the catalogue of Dr Williams’s Library. So it must be a rare book indeed. It was certainly out of print by 1945 when two chapters were reprinted in “Khasi Calls: An Adventure in Friendship” also by the Lindsey Press. I have added my copy to the archive.

Its significance is that it tells the tale of the Khasi Unitarians in North East India when they had been in existence for less than fifty years.  In an address recently at Rosslyn Hill Chapel I spoke about international Unitarianism and included these Unitarians who live in the Khasi Hills in the states of Assam and Megalaya. I recalled that their Unitarian story really began with a Khasi man named Hajom Kissor Singh. He was born in 1865 at Cherrapunjee - "the wettest place on earth".

I said “As the missionary schools were considered best, he not only got his education there, but he was also converted to their faith. Even as a child he showed interest in religious matters and his reading soon led him to asking questions about some aspects of Christianity. The idea of the trinity bothered him. He was looking for a religion more like the religion Jesus taught so he left the Calvinist faith. He read a book by William Ellery Channing and got in touch with a Unitarian Minister in Calcutta. Unitarianism  was exactly what he was looking for. He was a Unitarian even before he knew the name. Hajom Kissor Singh spent the rest of his life walking over the hills establishing nearly 40 Unitarian congregations which are still there - many in very remote villages. British Unitarians then offered support. Much later in the 1930s Rev Margaret Barr went to the Khasi Hills and devoted her life to the community; but never as a missionary. She was an educator and community builder. The General Assembly India Fund continues to offer support as does the Unitarian Women’s League.”

Reading “TŌ Nangroi”, which means “Progress Onwards”, gives a real sense of the achievement of Hajom Kissor Singh. Rev Ratter spent eighteen months in India from 1930. Whilst a British delegation had visited in 1928 it had been many years since the previous visits. As one man elderly greeted him “Good gracious, I’ve not seen a white Unitarian these thirty years!”.  In one of the hill villages it had been 37 years since the visit of the American Unitarian, Dr Sunderland. The book gives a fascinating description of the life of the Khasis and of their religious practices.      

Reflecting on the work of Hajom Kissor Singh I now realise the scale of what he did. We can glibly say that he was the founder of the Khasi Unitarians but this does not really convey the true nature of the man and his role. This Ratter captures well writing so soon after his death when his influence remained.

Looking more widely are their any lessons for us on church growth?. After all he went from zero members to 200 in ten years, continued to build and gain public recognition and leaves a legacy of a thriving Church today:

1. He was a remarkable man of “outstanding ability and keen spiritual perception” yet paid attention to his own development needs; for example, he studied theology under the postal guidance of Miss Emily Sharpe in 1893.
2. He sought outside  help and advice yet growth could only come from within. For most of the period described there was no resident external minister to lead or assist despite their pleas for help
3. He did not act alone; at the same time as he found Unitarianism another man, U. Heh Pohlong, the Khasi minister of an orthodox church at Nongtalang, was similarly exploring Unitarianism and had already formed a group. David Edwards, a trained worker, soon joined them and latter became the first ordained minister.
4. Conviction led to action but he started with one woman and two men in the original church in Jowai.
5. The generosity of external supporters in the US and then Britain supported their work.
6. The importance of women in leadership roles.
7. Caring for each other was as important as seeking new adherents.
8. Conflict and “quarrels” arise when “little-minded men” met “big issues.”
9. What was achieved was not without opposition, ridicule and disappointment – Ratter implies that his biggest may be the failure of Western Unitarians to send him a teacher - perhaps a rebuke to his British readers and a spur to action. His personal life was full of tragedy too.
10. His service-book was crucial to the preservation of the Unitarian Union; to Ratter it was a “unique and truly great achievement”. His writing was therefore of immense significance.

Some thoughts whilst you are washing the dishes! (as Rev Patrick O'Neill always said)

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Fleeing Persecution: Asylum Claims in the UK on Religious Freedom grounds

The All Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion and Belief launched its latest report in Parliament on 7 June 2016 which I was pleased to attend. "Fleeing Persecution: Asylum Claims in the UK on Religious Freedom grounds" was jointly produced with the Asylum Advocacy Group.

I was impressed by the positive approach and realism underpinning the report and the work of the APPG and the Asylum Advocacy Group.  It is recognised that some applications are not credible, which need to be identified as well as genuine claims that are not being accepted and that Home Office staff have to make incredibly nuanced and difficult decisions.There is a clear desire to work closely with the Home Office to improve the support and training of their staff to improve the quality of decison-making. Bishop Angaelos, who also spoke at the CCJ event I attended on 27 May, was, as usual, forthright and well informed.

Prof Geoff Gilbert of the School of Law and Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex pointed out that persecution on religious grounds was often seen as an identifier for other characteristics and was easy to be over-looked. He reaffirmed the significance of the 1951 Convention on Refugees but that as there was no international refugee Court decisions were made on a country by country basis although jurisdictions did influence each other. He saw the development of the concept of "cumulative discrimination" over the next few years.

The parallels drawn with the experiences of LGBT asylum seekers was interesting and merits further exploration. The same issues with credibility seems to recur.

The report can be found at Freedom Declared website of the Group

Friday, 27 May 2016

City Breakfast Seminar on Relgious Freedom

 It was a pleasure, though an early start today, to attend a breakfast seminar arranged by the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) on "Religious Freedom - Is it on the decline? What is its future?"

Three speakers gave their personal perspectives to a large audience; His Excellency David Saperstein, (Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom for President Obama) Christina Odone (Director of Centre for Character and Values, Legatum Institute, ex-editor of the Catholic Herald) and His Grace Bishop Angaelos OBE (General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK), Vice President of the CCJ and Vice President of the Jewish Leadership Council, Henry Grunwald kindly chaired the seminar.

David Saperstein answered the question as "Yes" and "No" by quoting from Pew reports that 78% of the world's population suffer serious restrictions on religious freedom, which has slowly risen yet three quarters of all countries don't restrict freedom. He highlighted the important role of the Reports of the State Department in "naming and lifting up the plight of the oppressed" with a new report being published in two weeks. He ended by stressing the importance of of the interfaith community working together and that they can make a difference.

Christina Odone suggested that believers in Britain were "being harassed and held in contempt because of their faith". She saw a conflict between people of faith and those she saw as "liberals". This extreme conservative approach, smacked to me of the same intolerance against people of faith she spoke about.  We need to break down stereotypes and draw on the well-known words of Pastor Neimoller, as Bishop Angaelos actually did, about doing nothing when they came for those of other groups and having no one to protect us when they came for us.

During question time Ambassador Saperstein noted the challenges of civil rights in tension and reminded the audience of past discrimination against various groups with "no Catholics or blacks" signs.

Bishop Angaelos is a fine example of what can be achieved by someone from a small community of faith committed to working together with others of like-mind but conscious of the demands of modern media, He said that the situation of religious minorities in the Middle East was complex and building up over the decades. He urged religious leaders not to be tribal and speak only for their "clan". In the question time he saw the need to be reactive and responsive to changes in society or religion would become irrelevant.

The meeting was hosted by Investec and thanks to them and CCJ trustee Zaki Cooper for organising the event.