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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.

Monday, 23 May 2016

What is a Unitarian? New video

"What is a Unitarian?" is a new video produced for the General Assembly which explores how British Unitarians see their faith today.

For more information

In the last six days it has been viewed 518 times so is clearly popular.

Thanks to Sarah West of West Creative.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

"The Vanguard of the Age" - the wall paintings of Edward Armitage at Dr Williams's Library

Preparatory sketch of James Martineau
There are many hidden treasures at Dr Williams's Library in London's Gordon Square but the most notable must be the wall paintings of Edward Armitage RA. The mural was painted in what was then the dining hall of University Hall (now the lecture hall of Dr Williams's Library) in memory of Henry Crabb Robinson. It was commissioned by his friends and completed by an advisory committee. 

Edward Armitage RA was a prominent figure in the Victorian art world and a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy.

It shows Crabb Robinson surrounded by his most distinguished literary and artistic friends. These include Wordsworth, Coleridge, Mary and Charles Lamb and Blake. Crabb Robinson had travelled in Germany and this accounts for the portraits of Goethe, Tieck, von Schiller and Herder. In total there were 47 portraits. At the end Armitage added a self-portrait with palette and brushes in hand.

The entire mural was covered over in the mid-1950s under whitewash and wallpaper and is known from engravings. It was fascinating to see some of Armitage's preparatory sketches and two of the engravings in the exhibition expertly curated by Jane Giscombe, a conservator at Dr Williams's Library. Tom Sawyer's evening lecture gave an insight into the murals and was, of course, delivered in the Hall in which we were acutely aware they remain "hidden" surrounding us! Descendants of both Armitage and Crabb Robinson were in the audience.

Lady Byron talks to Rev F W Robertson
As a prominent Unitarian Crabb Robinson had many friends from the Unitarian community and these feature strongly illustrating their contribution to literary, cultural and political life. Mrs Barbauld and Lady Anne Byron are two Unitarian women included; both influential in the development of education. Other Unitarians are Gilbert Wakefield; scholar and "political fanatic", Mark Philips MP, Thomas Thornley MP, Edwin Field; lawyer and law reformer; and three Unitarian ministers; Revs James Martineau, Lant Carpenter and John James Tayler.

The exhibition at Dr Williams's Library can be viewed by appointment by telephoning 020 7387 3727.    

Friday, 26 February 2016

"I am Thomas" - Thomas Aikenhead Unitarian Martyr

"I am Thomas - a brutal comedy with songs", created by "Told by an Idiot", the composer Iain Johnstone and poet Simon Armitage is now on tour.

It tells the tale of Thomas Aikenhead - the last person to be executed in Britain for blasphemy.

Amongst other statements overheard, he denied the Trinity and was reported, tried, sentenced to death and publicly hanged. He is remembered as one of the Unitarian martyrs.

It provides a salutary tale when freedom of speech is still challenged in so many parts of the world and blasphemy remains a crime.

I have not seen it yet but hope to do so when it comes to London in late April at Wilton's Music Hall.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Unitarians "the awkward squad"

Screen shot of me asking a question to the Panel
The British Academy, the UK's premier body for humanities and the social sciences has been promoting consideration of the role of "Faith" and last week held a debate on the intriguing question "Who cares if Britain is not a Christian country?". It actually turned into a discussion of the role of the Church of England as the Established Church in England (but not of course in Scotland where the Church of Scotland is established nor in Wales or Northern Ireland which disestablished their Anglican churches).

Professor Iain McLean in his discussion of marriage law indicated that the Unitarians succeeded the Quakers as the "awkward squad" in the late 1700's. Unitarians were thought to be much more dangerous; they dressed like everyone else! (see from 58:50)

I managed to get called to ask the final question which asked about whether the Church of England would be willing to include multi-faith elements if it becomes more of a sect as speakers had suggested. This prompted the usual pithy and slightly humorous responses to the final question. This is found at 1:23:46.