Follow by Email

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Erasmus Darwin and serendipity

Erasmus Darwin is well known in British Unitarian circles, not least as the paternal grandfather of Charles, and for his pithy put down that “Unitarianism was a feather-bed to catch a falling Christian”.

I recall reading the following hymn attributed to him and being somewhat surprised. Did he write hymns I asked? I had found it in a long out of print hymnal, “A Hymn-Book of God the Moral Ideal” complied by Rev Francis Haydn Williams, minister of Flowergate Old Chapel in Whitby, Yorkshire. It was published in 1909 and had been highlighted at a worship studies course by Rev Dr Vernon Marshall.

  “Roll on, ye stars; exult in youthful prime,
  Mark with bright curves the printless steps of Time;
  Near, and more near, your beamy cars approach,
  Or lessening orbs on lessening orbs approach.

  Flowers of the sky! Ye, too, to age must yield,
  Frail as your silken sisters of the field;
  Star after star from Heaven’s high arch shall rush,
  Suns sink on suns, and systems systems crush.

  But o’er the wreck, emerging from the storm,
  Immortal Nature lifts her changeful form,
  Mounts from her funeral pyre on wings of flame,
 And soars, and shines; another, yet the same.”

I am still staggered by the power of this image and hoped sometime to find out more about its origins.

I recently come across “Erasmus Darwin: Sex, Science and Serendipity” remaindered in a local bookshop. Written by Patricia Fara it was published by Oxford University Press in 2012. I was not really looking for it but there on pages 244-245 it jumped out at me. In the poem “The Temple of Nature” were the final eight lines as Darwin imagined nature rising like a phoenix from the ashes of a collapsed chaotic cosmos. The author relishes how serendipity played a large role in her research which I much appreciated and here I was too experiencing it.

There is an interesting section on Erasmus in Cliff Reed's "Till All the People's Are One" on Charles Darwin's Unitarian heritage.

So take time to rest over the summer and do let your mind drift and begin to see connections. Read something different and let serendipity play its part. Do enjoy your holiday if you are fortunate to have one.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Welsh Unitarians Celebrate Reopening of historic Hen Gapel Llwynrhydowen

Huw Edwards with Rev Eric Jones, Derek McAuley and Martin Gilbraith
Last Friday was an important day in the history of Welsh Unitarianism and indeed of the Nonconformist Chapels in Wales. It was a pleasure to attend the reopening of Hen Gapel Llwynrhydowen after its restoration by Addoldai Cymru, the Welsh Religious Buildings Trust. The well-known BBC broadcaster Huw Edwards, Patron of Addoldai Cymru, handed the keys to Rev Wyn Thomas and later spoke to the packed Chapel.

The Grade II* listed building has now been repaired and consolidated and will be used as a centre for activities for the local community.

Hen Gapel has a significant place in the religious, political and social history of Wales. The Congregation’s radical tradition goes back to its opening in 1733 as the first Arminian Chapel in Wales.

 Heini Thomas read a powerful personal  account of the events of 1876 written by her grandmother, Mallie thomas.

In 1860 Gwilym Marles was called to the ministry at Llwynrhydowen. He was radicalised politically during the “Hungry Forties” which were years of evictions and emigration provoked by agricultural depression. He was a strong advocate of the secret ballot. On 29 October 1876 the squire John Davies Lloyd, from whom the Unitarians rented the land upon which the chapel stood, evicted them citing their ‘radical’ non Tory, Unitarian ideologies as a breach of their lease. This was a national sensation and the following Sunday Gwilym Marles preached to some 3000 people on the road outside the chained gates.  A nation-wide fundraising effort saw a new Chapel opened in 1879. Following the squire’s death his sister, Mrs Massey (having challenged the Will) gifted the Old Chapel back to the congregation.

This was seen as an important test of religious and political freedom - the right of individuals to exercise their vote freely in a democratic society and to worship as they saw fit. These remain ongoing Unitarian values.

It was good to return to the "Black Spot" (Y Smotyn Du"), the small area of twenty square miles which resisted Calvinistic Methodist revivals, and the Unitarian stronghold in Ceredigion.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Is migration the Election issue? A Harecourt conversation

Last evening I attended a "conversation" (rather than an election hustings) at Harecourt United Reformed Church with support from Ekklesia think-tank and other agencies, including Housing Justice. The event saw the launch of a report on migration from Rev Vaughan Jones. I have prepared a story using Storify,com which gives you a flavour of the event.

The Ekklesia report draws on Rev Jones' long experience of migration issues - "Migration and the 2015 election: reframing the terms of the debate".


"Both migration and elections are about choices – including, for many who wish to see a more just, peaceful and sustainable world – confronting what is often a depressing lack of palatable options provided by current thinking and vested interests. This paper by Vaughan Jones is about the relationship between migration (usually talked about as ‘immigration’, a one-dimensional term that itself betrays a particular way of looking at the matter) and the 2015 General Election. Its aim is to examine the people and concerns behind migration debates, and to point towards fresh perspectives that challenge deep-seated assumptions: assumptions that lead to less than humane policies and prescriptions, and which mostly ignore the larger geo-political realities impacting people movements. For the fundamental question is one that very few ask: “is migration really the issue?” Or is it a convenient way of avoiding other crucial global and local issues with which politicians find it difficult to engage? One route into these complex and vital concerns is provided by the role and perspective of churches and Christians – as influencers in public moral debate, and as diaspora communities themselves. The way they (alongside other civic groups) press for positive change, challenge widespread misperceptions, display hospitality and hold to a much larger vision can make a significant difference."

Friday, 27 February 2015

After Islamic State: can religious freedom survive?

Yes, seemed to be the answer at this seminar at St. Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace which I attended last evening. The two speakers; Professor David Ford, Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge and Dr Zaza Elsheikh, offered different perspectives. Dr Elsheikh was  a last minute replacement for Dr Usama Hasan of the Quilliam Foundation.

Professor Ford spoke about the need for pluralism with many voices, each drawing upon the integrity of their own tradition. He highlighted the work of Cambridge Muslim College and the role of Jordan in promoting interfaith understanding and rejection of religious justifications for violence eg the Amman Message of 2004, a and the Global Covenant of Peace. Islamic State needed to be tackled internally by Muslims as in the Open Letter to their leader from 126 senior scholars challenging their teachings and practices.

Dr Elsheikh focused more on Koran statements such as the Medina Charter with the challenge to Muslims; are you protecting Christians? Violence is not the response to insult. Pluralism is allowed. Walking towards the other is to be encouraged to build relationships across boundaries.

I was called upon to ask the second question and managed to highlight that I was a Board member of the Europe and Middle East Region of the International Association for Religious Freedom and that religious freedom was under threat in the midst of complex geo-political tensions in the Middle East; with religious and political divides.

I do not feel that the seminar really got to grips with the questions posed in the title. Perhaps this was in part due to the absence of Dr Hasan as Quilliam? Dr Elsheikh was able to talk about the attraction to young Muslims and her work against the grooming of young women. Prof Ford talked hopefully about developments in Libya which seemed surprising in light of recent chaotic events and the rise of an Islamic State offshoot.

Like many I probably left with a sense that I would have liked to have learnt more about Islamic State and where it draws its ideology from within its self-proclaimed Islamic context. The conversations at the break were useful and some attempt was made to encourage inter-action between attendees.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Gender and Leadership

With the naming of Rev Libby Lane as the first woman bishop in the Church of England I thought I would share this article on gender and leadership which appears in the latest issue of "The Unitarian" (December 2014).

Listening and talking to those from other Churches and indeed other faith groups can be illuminating. What we in our Unitarian and Free Christian community now take for granted is still contested in other churches. The whole issue of gender and leadership remains controversial.

The Church of England has finally approved the ordination of women as bishops having celebrated the 20th anniversary of women in the priesthood. 2014 also marked the 40th anniversary of the ordination of women by the Methodist Church.  The United Reformed Church will commemorate the 100th anniversary in 2017 of women ministers within the Congregational churches. Pope Francis stated this year that “women must have a greater presence in the decision-making areas” of the Roman Catholic Church.

I heard Kate Coleman speak at a conference I helped organize for MODEM on “Emerging Themes in Leadership” on “Gender, Leadership and the Church”. She said that it grieved her to have to say on so many situations that she is the first women in a leadership role. She is a Baptist minister and first woman chair of the Council of the Evangelical Alliance and former President of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. She emphasised the power of personal history in shaping our perspectives; not least that she once belonged to a Church that did not believe in women in leadership positions.
In many ways Unitarians have much to be proud of. Gertrude von Petzold was in 1904 admitted into our ministry at Narborough Road Free Christian (Unitarian) Church, Leicester, the first woman to have full ministerial status in any British Denomination. Mrs Sydney Martineau was President of the General Assembly in 1929-30. Women have comprised increasing numbers of ministers and GA Presidents (seven of the last 15).

We would undoubtedly find offensive the conservative theological justifications for discrimination – either that women are inferior and incapable of leadership (Traditional view) or that they are equal but should not lead in the home or church (Complementarian view). We would surely advocate an Egalitarian approach that Kate outlined as the third view; that women are equal in being and in leadership.

However, we should not rest on our laurels. A look at the Roll of Presidents in the Annual Report will reveal few women Presidents in the first column and that equality took a long time to come. Women ministers for so long did not receive calls to the “plum” ministries. We have not had a woman General Secretary/Chief Officer. So whilst we have come further than others on the journey to equality and made lots of progress in recent years we still need to be careful about the assumptions we make about appropriate roles and positions.

We are influenced more than we think by wider society and we should pay attention to the conclusions of the Everyday Sexism project ( that sexism does exist, it is faced by women every day and is a valid problem to discuss. Yes, even in Church.

Kate highlighted that “Great leaders don’t just appear, they are crafted over time” (Reggie McNeal) and urged provision of systematic training for women. Elizabeth Welch, former Moderator of the URC, observed the paradox that “those in power think themselves powerless; yet those who feel powerless think those in power have too much”. Males and females need to take note as gender is not only an issue for women. A good start would be to make sure we reflect on this in all our decision-making and in the design of GA leadership programmes.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Making Connections - Plenary Address to the Sea of Faith Annual Conference "Building Bridges Not walls in a Diverse World"

I was one of the three speakers at this year's Annual Conference of Sea of Faith at the University of Leicester, 18-20 July 2014, on "Making Connections". This article is based on my talk and appears in the latest edition of "Sofia" No. 113, (September 2014).

" I am not a theologian or minister so I offer no deep theological reflection. I truly believe that the purpose of religion is to make connections with the world, with others, with oneself and with the divine, the spirit, whatever phrase one wishes to use. I am also very conscious of the wise words of Margaret Mead:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has."

My focus has been on the role of religion in building a better world. When I was appointed to the role of Chief Officer in late 2009, I concluded that I needed to get out there and make connections. Society has moved on from simple models of how the world works. What are our responsibilities to one another? Is there a sense that just like in the wider society there is a deeper feeling of powerlessness in the liberal progressive faith environment – not only that we are failing to use our power to promote our values, but that we are not prepared to use that power to tackle the big issues?  I feel this about Unitarianism, as I told the National Unitarian Fellowship in April. I have drawn on some work by Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts, and some of his colleagues who did work on Connected Communities (in the sense of physical communities).1 He talks about this feeling of powerlessness leading to social pessimism. And he describes three forms of power, used here as the capacity to achieve desired objectives:

1. Downward power of hierarchical authority, associated most strongly with the state. Of course, this view of power characterised the Church as it developed over the centuries, right up to and encompassing much of the Reformation world in Europe. We know that global levels of trust in the leaders of government and other institutions, including the church, the press and the media have fallen to new lows. Government and business have not delivered against rising expectations. Technology has increased pressures. There has certainly been a decline of authority.

2. Lateral power of solidarity and shared values, generally associated with the power of community. The past 30 years have seen a rapid decline in active membership of, and even nominal allegiance to, civic institutions such as the trade unions, political parties and the organised church. These all offer opportunities for cooperative action across significant boundaries of interest and identity, with many opportunities to develop relationships.

3. Upward power of individual aspirations, which tends to be associated with markets – ‘…individualism is the strongest force of our times’ – yet is problematic for both society and the individual. I attended a conference on Post-liberalism, Individualism and Society at the Lincoln Theological Institute last weekend. Here liberalism refers to the current political and economic structures. Post-liberalism represents thinking that challenges this consumerist model of society, thinking often based on faith positions. That disquiet, of course, has a long history; Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America:

"I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls. Each of them withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest. Mankind, for him, consists in his children and his personal friends. As far as the rest of his fellow citizens, they are near enough, but he does not notice them. He touches them but feels nothing."

Each of these forces of power has plus points and negatives:
1. Hierarchy has strategic capacity yet has a tendency to be controlling.
2. Solidarity fosters selflessness but also breeds insularity and sectarianism.
3. Individualism can be creative and dynamic but selfish and irresponsible.
The solution is, in fact, ‘clumsy’: combining the three active forms of social power, while acknowledging and working with the tensions between them. Relying on one approach can be inflexible, so the way forward to address the problems we face is to mobilise all forms of social power.

Building bridges and connections is crucial to rebuilding that sense of solidarity that has been in decline. I was stimulated to read about the seven laws of social connectivity which the Connected Communities programme outlined:

Law 1: Six Degrees of separation, Three degrees of influence

You may have heard of Stanley Milgram’s letter-forwarding experiment in the 1960s, in which he suggested that everyone in the world is connected up to six degrees of separation. That was questioned, but in 2002 reinforced by a study using email data of 48,000 people. However, connection does not necessarily mean influence. Research by Christakis and Fowler indicates that our influence only extends to three degrees. Robin Dunbar claims that we have the social and cognitive capacity for up to 150 people. Nevertheless, the research suggests a high degree of interdependence and that we do have power to influence behaviour, spread values and shape attitudes (Christakis and Fowler). So never under-estimate your power to influence others. What you do and say does have a real impact. I have been surprised by who has heard about me. One of our Unitarian ministers recently engineered an invitation to a meeting of university chaplains and others in his local city. He was surprised in conversation to hear: ‘You Unitarians and Derek McAuley have done a great job on same sex marriage. I follow him on twitter.’

Law 2: Birds of a Feather Flock Together

We shape our own network and create it in our own image; what is known as homophily. This of course means that our networks can lack diversity and access to often helpful information, ties and resources. Indeed, as well as what is known as ‘bonding’ capital – what holds us together as a group – you also need ‘bridging’ capital – those who build connections with other groups.
I would ask: are you in a metaphorical ‘gated community’? Do you only talk to like-minded people? I ask myself how far do my links and connections go beyond the liberal progressive elements of faith and indeed politics. At the Post-liberalism event I shared a platform with the Director of Advocacy of the Evangelical Alliance. He talked about William Wilberforce as a hero of evangelical social action (he didn’t use that term but you know what I mean). I was able to draw from an article in The Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, which shows that one of his key lieutenants in the cause of Abolition was William Smith MP for Norwich, chairman of the dissenting deputies and a Unitarian, member of Lindsey’s Essex Hall Chapel. Wilberforce was much pained at Smith’s Unitarian opinions but prepared to mix with Unitarians and other Nonconformists in defence of the causes he espoused. This caused puzzlement to many Churchmen. He worried: ‘They think that I cannot be loyal to the Established Church because I love dissenters’. Well, if Wilberforce can do it, so can you, and so can I.

Law 3: Location, Location, Location

The third aspect of networks is that they shape us, and have positive and negative aspects depending upon our position in the network. For example – as with a physical location – if you are at the centre, you get more information but can be easily contaminated if an infectious disease is going around.
Every decade we Unitarians seem to have a debate about moving our headquarters out of central London. We are in Essex Street opposite the Royal Courts of justice off The Strand and by Fleet Street. Why? Well, it was Lindsey’s original Unitarian chapel from 1774 in an auction house, when the City of London was densely populated. It became offices in the late nineteenth century. Yes, it probably would save us a lot of money to move, yet I would argue that it would significantly reduce our influence. Being in central London makes building connections with those who matter very easy. I am two tube stops from Westminster Station. I can pop down to an event in Parliament with ease.
At the end of April it was a pleasure to attend the Annual Reception of the All-Party Parliamentary group on the Bahá’í on the Terrace of the House of Commons, convened by Louise Ellman MP. She told me that her interest arose from her Jewish background and a visit in the 1960s to the Bahá’í World Centre in Haifa/Acre in Israel. She and her husband also knew of Ullet Road Unitarian Church in Liverpool. I managed to talk to Andrew Stunnell MP, former Liberal Democrat Minister and Methodist lay preacher. I also spoke to a young couple who had been married by my good friend Rev Gordon Oliver, Unitarian Minister Emeritus in Cape Town. Apparently, he conducted a lovely civil marriage ceremony for them, and had previously done so for the woman’s two sisters, prior to their Bahá’í ceremonies; the latter having no legal standing. It is a small world indeed. Others I was able to talk to were Harriet Crabtree, Director of the Inter-Faith Network of the UK; Rev Patrick Morrow, Council of Christians and Jews; Andrew Copson, British Humanist Association and Robert Papini and Pedjman Khojastem of the International Association of Religious Freedom. And, I would add, it was an opportunity to enjoy the view of the Thames on a nice sunny evening.

Law 4. Imitation Drives Contagion

This concerns peer-to-peer mimicry. Is this what lies behind ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’, fashion trends and fads in many areas of life? It seems we like to copy people and are likely to copy those we see most frequently. Within bigger systems the more ‘powerful’ organisations send out signals that others then imitate for acceptance and status. How far do we as individuals or as part of particular communities end up imitating the more powerful or the more successful rather than ‘ploughing our own furrow’?

It is sometimes uncomfortable being a Unitarian. I recall Rev Dr Ann Peart, former Principal of Unitarian College Manchester, talking about attending a Unitarian District Association event with Graham Kent, the ecumenical officer of Churches Together in Manchester. She wrote: ‘As might be expected, we expressed our sadness that we as Unitarians were not accepted as full members, and were excluded from some gatherings. Graham replied that because we had important differences from mainstream Christian bodies, we must expect not to be included, and that perhaps our vocation was to be ‘on the margin.’ Ann went on to describe the work of Heelas and Woodhead on Kendall, which confirmed: ‘Unitarian communities, placed as they are on the margins of mainstream Christianity, have the potential to bridge the different worlds of congregational life and holistic “new-age” spirituality.’ Of course many religious leaders over history, including Jesus of Nazareth, came from the margins. In building our own connections we must remain true to who we are. As the popular hymn Spirit of Life, often sung in Unitarian services, stresses: roots hold me close; wings set me free.

Law 5: It’s Not What You Know, it’s Who They Know

This law stresses the importance of belonging to groups. The traditional phrase ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’ is only true because of who they know and how well.  This is what is known as Reed’s Law; network growth is geometric not arithmetic. Membership of one group breeds membership of another in a multiplier effect. Your connection to another group will significantly increase your resources. I know this from my connections across the progressive environment. We support the Accord Coalition, chaired by Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romain. We support assisted dying and were invited to a new group of faith leaders supportive of change, led by, yes, Rabbi Romain. The Accord Coalition staff member is based at the British Humanist Association office. The BHA are active with us in the Cutting Edge Consortium, which works to combat religion-based homophobia and transphobia. I can see key people regularly on real issues that matter.

Law 6: Experimentation gets Results

Networks have emergent properties that cannot be explained with reference to their parts. You cannot predict the impact of your actions. Networks are complex systems and it is best to try things out on a small scale. For example, I do wonder how the network of individuals and organisations campaigning for same-sex marriage achieved such a major result despite being so weak in many ways. How did a consensus for not only civil but religious same-sex marriage emerge across all the political parties? How did the connections we had built between the Unitarians, Quakers, Liberal Jews and Movement for Reform Judaism have such an impact?

Law 7: Weak Ties Get you Working

Ties between people vary in strength and the nature of your connections is often more important than their number. It is interesting that opportunities, say a new job, often arise from people we do not know very well who have connections to other networks. These weak ties are only strong if they connect two strong networks. To me this means that it is important to be grounded in a strong network. The small Unitarian movement is tremendously ‘strong’ and cohesive. Nearly 10% of our membership come to the Annual Meetings. Many of the same people have been around for many years in various organisational roles. In times of change organisational memory is rarely lost. So whether it is your local church community or a national network like SOF, do nurture and value it. It enables you to go out and engage in building connections with others in similarly strong networks and perhaps you can make a difference together."

1. Rowson, J; Broome, S and Jones, A Connected Communities: How Social Networks Power and Sustain the Big Society, (RSA, London 2010).

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Accord Coalition Faith Schools Manifesto - Religious Education

I participated in the launch of the Accord Coalition's manifesto for faith schools at Central Baptist Church Bloomsbury. Further details of the six point manifesto and the launch event chaired by Rabbi Jonathan Romain are to be found of Accord's website.

My particular focus was on the need for inclusive religious education arguing that all children should learn about the full range of faiths and belief systems in Britain - not just one or none - by adding Religious Education to the National Curriculum.

At the press conference I said:

"We propose that Religious Education is added to the National Curriculum. We live in a diverse and multi-religious society and it is imperative that all children learn about the full range of faith and belief systems in Britain. It is so easy for stereotypes to build up about the beliefs of others which, of course, do not reflect the complexities and diversity within faith groups as well as between them. In referring to faith and belief systems this should include the range of non-religious belief systems.

Many schools provide excellent RE, including some faith schools, however, RE in others is narrow in scope and/or is instructional. Academy schools and most faith schools are able to determine for themselves the RE they teach which can lead to pupils not receiving broad and balanced religious education.

The relationship between religious freedom, culture and ethnicity and indeed politics requires knowledge of religion to ensure an understanding of a digital world where events in seemingly far-off countries can through the internet and social media be on our mobile phones and laptops.

As well as learning about religion it is also important that children learn from religion. That they make connections between what they learn in class and their own lives as part of their spiritual and moral development. Effective religious education can open up possibilities for all children."

Pictured at the event

back row from left: Derek McAuley, Rev Richard Bentley (CoE), Simon Barrow (Ekklesia). 
front row from left: Jonathan Bartley (Ekklesia), Symon Hill (Quaker), Rabbi Jonathan Romain, Martin Prendergast (Centre for the Study of Christianity and Sexuality)