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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.

Friday, 29 January 2016

“Conscientious Objection 100 years on” - Richard Durning Holt’s Diary

This week I attended a Reception at the Houses of Parliament arranged by Quakers in Britain to mark the 100th Anniversary of the Military Service Act. Rev Feargus O’Connor of the Unitarian Peace Fellowship was able to join me. We were reminded of the significance of the introduction of conscription and of the conscience clause in the Act providing for conscientious objection to military service which was a fundamental shift towards individual freedoms. Conscientious objection is now recognised as a universal human right but not yet implemented across the world. 

Richard Durning Holt (1868-1941) was prominent among those Liberals who tried without success to oppose the legislation. He was a member of a famous Liverpool Unitarian family and was Liberal MP for Hexham between 1907 and 1918 and prominent in Liverpool affairs and later nationally for the first three decades of the twentieth century. Another Unitarian opponent was H G Chancellor, MP for Haggerston.  Unitarians and World War 1 is a previous blog entry of mine.

Holt’s diary records his opposition and his disappointment at the outcome. It is held at Liverpool City library and an edition was published in 1988 by “The Record Society of Lancashire and Cheshire” (Vol CXX1X) by David J. Dutton. With the title “Odyssey of an Edwardian Liberal: the political diary of Richard Durning Holt” it offers some interesting insights on the passage of conscription Bill in early 1916.

Dulton points out that Holt felt that” the War was demanding unacceptable measures of encroachment by the state” (page 41). He was committed to the late 19th Century Liberal, and indeed nonconformist approach, to support for peace and voluntaryism along with restricting the role of the State.

2 January “The years opens with a gale and every prospect of political disturbance for the Prime Minister has let it be known that he has adopted the policy of conscription towards which the Tories have been pressing him for the past twelve months.”

9 January “On Wednesday and Thursday we debated the Conscription Bill, Sir J. Simon, who resigned the Home Secretaryship on the question, leading the opposition. They was a good deal of excitement and I thought the opponents made out a case (I was one of them) but sentimentality and fear of defeating the Government carried the day and we were defeated by 403 to 105. I told for the minority and also spoke I had hoped for a better show but several of our friends failed us at the last moment including dear J.W. Wilson, Chas. Hobhouse who was very strong against conscription most unaccountably went back on us, made an inconclusive speech and abstained.”

16 January “Came home on Thursday. We debated the Conscription bill on Tuesday and Wednesday when the Irish deserted us and some others and the division was 431 to 39. I did not speak but voted of course.

4 February “The little group who had opposed conscription formed themselves into a permanent organisation – Sir J. Simon, chairman, Whitehouse, secretary, J.H. Thomas, the railway men’s representative, Leif Jones and R.D.H. committee.”

He records that on 25 February 1918 he had attended what Dutton calls an “important” meeting at Essex Hall to support Lord Lansdowne’s proposals for peace by negotiation (17 March 1918).

He paid the price. The public did not share his views and neither did his local party and he was “forced” to seek another seat at the forthcoming General Election. 

Throughout his life Holt was active in Unitarian affairs. In 1903 he spoke at the National Triennial Conference held in Liverpool proposing a resolution condemning the Education Act. In 1918 he records that he was elected President of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association “an office I always coveted for the childish reason that I was the first whose great-grandfather (Richard Potter, MP for Wigan) had held it” (11 June 1918).  

Out of Parliament, having been defeated in 1918, he chaired a public meeting of the Liverpool District Missionary Society with Dr Estlin Carpenter and Sir Alfred Booth speaking in support of the League of Nations idea at the Royal Institution (19 January 1919). He chaired a meeting at the Unitarian Memorial Hall in Manchester which passed a resolution demanding that the Versailles Treaty be referred to the League of Nations (6 February 1923). 

An early diary entry sets out his Unitarian beliefs. Reflecting on the year end (31 December 1900) he notes:

“I trust and believe that the future will show an increase in and a strengthening of our own views of simple Christianity which I believe to be the true basis on which to establish the community.  I know I have expressed my meaning badly: I don’t want any established church – Unitarian or otherwise. What I mean is that in the main it is the belief that what God wants of man is that he do right, i.e. love his neighbour, and not that he profess particular theological opinions or requires a consecrated place or an ordained priest, which will bring with it a great improvement in our social and political conditions”.

Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The Christmas Bombings - "Cross Street Chapel has just gone up"

Cross Street congregation worship in the ruins

This year we remember the 75th Anniversary of the Christmas Bombings in Manchester of 1940 , when the historic Cross Street Chapel was destroyed, along with the Assize Courts, the Royal Exchange and the Market Place.

Yet in the midst of destruction the congregation at Cross Street gathered to worship affirming a faith in the future - the message of Christmas.

I found this photograph recently in the Essex Hall archives. The Chapel was rebuilt in 1959 and then formed part of an innovative redevelopment in 1997. I am proud to be associated with the Chapel.

James Edward Holroyd was a Ministry of Information press officer on that fateful night in 1940 and later wrote of his experiences in "Lancashire Life" (December 1980), republished in "A Lancashire Christmas" in 1990. He operated from the basement of the "Manchester Guardian" building in Cross Street and recalls John R. Scott, head of the Guardian - a newspaper with strong Unitarian connections - and MOI chief regional officer appearing from time to time. It was he who uttered the sad words "Cross Street Chapel has just gone up!"

Holroyd wrote;

"At about 1.30am on Tuesday the all-clear sounded, and I climbed a vertical internal ladder to the MG roof. A never-to-be forgotten Christmas Eve had been ushered in by a city ringed anew with fire. The Royal Exchange opposite, and Woolworth's beyond, were still burning, as were the much-loved Victoria buildings with their sequence of Aesop's fables carved in stone. The Market Place area - that remaining bit of city history - was an inferno, to be destroyed completely save for the miraculous preservation of the old Wellington Inn block." (p31/32)

The congregation and the City soon responded and as Holroyd says "Meanwhile, beneath the reeking pall of smoke, subdued Christmas celebrations went on; "Robinson Crusoe" was at the Place, Sargent conducted the Halle's "Messiah" at the Odeon...

Sunday, 8 November 2015

70th Anniversary of Unitarian attendance at National Service of Remembrance

2015 marks the 70th Anniversary of the first attendance of a representative  of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches at the National Service  of Remembrace at the Cenotaph in Whitehall.

Rev John Clifford, President of the General Assemblance will attend today.

This is how "The Inquirer" (17 November 1945) reported on the invitation to Rev Mortimer Rowe, General Secretary with the comment that this was the first occasion when Unitarians  had been officially represented at the Ceremony.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The Suffragettes and Essex Hall

I went last weekend to see "Suffragette", Sarah Gavron's political costume drama set just before the First World War when the campaign for the women's suffrage developed into civil disobedience.

Essex Hall, the centre for British Unitarianism, played a part in the Suffragette campaign hosting many public meetings - look carefully at the photograph opposite. Located just across the road from the offices of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Clements' Inn (now LSE), it was a convenient location and every Thursday evening public meetings were held either there or at Steinway Hall. Ticket prices ranged from 6d to 2s 6d but there was free admission on the night for women.

Essex Hall was the scene of the meeting on 10 September 1907 when Mrs Pankhurst explained that the WSPU was no longer to have a constitution resulting in many supporters leaving to form the Women's Freedom League. This more left-wing grouping was not only committed to democratic organisation but to furthering the cause of labour.

In December 1909 the mainly Anglican, Church League for Women's Suffrage, held its inaugural meeting at Essex Hall and in July 1912 it was the venue for the inaugural meeting of the Women Teachers Franchise League.

By 1912, as shown dramatically in the movie, the suffragettes had turned to smashing windows, cutting telegraph cables and placing bombs in pillar boxes and then even arson. Annie Kenny told a crowd at Essex Hall on 30 January 1913, with the Police present and taking an account of the meeting which is to be found in the Public Record Office:

"It is the duty of every suffragette and suffragist to go on attacking every pillar-box throughout the country and break every window without being caught".

Her speech at Essex Hall on 3 April 1913 resulted in her being arrested for incitement to riot.

The American newspaper "The Gazette  Times" on 1 May 1913 reported on a "Plot to Spirit Mrs Pankhurst from London" with a Miss Macauley (no relation) telling a packed meeting at Essex Hall, "From now on it will be war - real war". They highlighted:

"That the belligerent suffragettes are not daunted by the capture of their stronghold and the arrest of their leaders was evidenced by the attendance, which far exceeded the capacity of the hall. Hundreds of women, unable to squeeze in, remained outside the gates throughout meeting". I believe that the large hall at Essex Hall held 600 people, including in the gallery.

Rev Mortimer Rowe in "The Story of Essex Hall" (Lindsey Press, 1959) highlights that Essex Hall was a popular meeting-place, especially of progressive or left-wing movements, He mentions that the Fabian Society used it for their public and other meetings and describes a particularly rowdy prohibition meeting in the 1920s but  he soon moves to denominational affairs. Of the Suffragettes nothing...

Yet Unitarians had from the very beginning been supporters of women's suffrage. Alan Ruston in a review article in the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society (April 2002) has noted the involvement of at least 27 men and women with Unitarian connections listed in "The Women's Suffrage Movement: A reference Guide, 1866-1928". The Rev Robert Spears was present at the very first meeting on women's suffrage, he reported in The Inquirer on 19 June 1999.

A final piece of fascinating information. I was aware that the Bahai leader, Abdul Baha, has spoken at Essex Hall in 1913. Indeed two weeks ago a Bahai couple from Paris visited Essex Hall on a tour of various locations in central London with which he was associated. Infact, he lectured on "The Equality of Women" at a meeting sponsored by the Women's Freedom League, as was reported in "The Suffragette" periodical.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Marriage Law Reform in England and Wales

The reform of marriage law in England and Wales seems finally to be on the agenda. Last month I met with the Law Commission to discuss the reform of marriage law and contribute to a national scoping study. The Law Commission is a statutory independent body created by the Law Commissions Act 1965 to keep the law under review and to recommend reform where it is needed. The aim of the Commission is to ensure that the law is fair, modern, simple and effective. For many years there has been no appetite for reforming marriage law; it has been put in the “too difficult” box.

Changes have, of course, been made over the years, not least the introduction of same sex marriage, but marriage is still fundamentally governed by the Marriage Act 1949, as amended. On this occasion it seems likely that further work will be requested from the Law Commission with a consultation paper leading to final proposals and perhaps draft legislation

The scoping study is therefore an important first stage in the process of reform of the law governing how and where people can marry in England and Wales. Their work does not cover Scotland as marriage is a responsibility of the Scottish Parliament. They wish to consider what issues exist within the current law, and possible avenues for reform. They were asked to undertake the work by the Government following the Government’s consultation on allowing the solemnization of marriage by non-religious belief bodies. This arose out of support in Parliament for such a change in the law when the issue was raised during consideration of the legislation on same-sex marriage. The Law Commission’s work is, however, wider than that of the consultation.

As part of the scoping study, they were interested to hear from different faith groups as to their experiences of the current law, any concerns they would like to raise, and any possible reforms they would like to see and that’s why they approached the General Assembly.  So off I went to the Home Office.

It was made clear that they would not be making recommendations for reform at this stage but that they wished to explore issues such as:
who should have the authority to solemnize marriages,
where marriages should be able to take place,
what forms marriages should be able to take,
what is required by way of prior notice and subsequent registration, and
how the law deals with ceremonies that fail to comply with some or all of the legal requirements.

The work will not include who can be married, so there will be no consideration of changing the age of consent or the restrictions on marrying within prohibited degrees; the question of whether or not religious groups should be obliged to solemnize marriages of same sex couples nor of the rights or responsibilities which marriage imparts, such as the financial entitlements of surviving spouses or the consequences of divorce.

Aside from consideration of same-sex marriage there has not been any substantive recent discussion on possible marriage reform at the General Assembly Annual Meetings. I managed in the limited timescale available to ask for views from Ministers and Lay People in Charge. There was a remarkable (for Unitarians!) unanimity of views, particularly on moving towards a celebrant rather than a building based system, as in Scotland and indeed Ireland.

When I met the Law Commission I was able to explain the distinctive nature of Unitarian and Free Christian marriage belief and practice emphasising its diversity. In many ways the religious/non-religious boundary central to the current law is not helpful to our approach which seeks to make the wishes of the couple central to the marriage ceremony within our inclusive framework. There is also a need for greater simplicity in the administrative processes which would help authorised persons.

The Commission plan to produce a paper at the end of the year with their findings. At the latter stages, of course, the General Assembly will have more opportunities to make a more formal response.

To many Unitarians and Free Christians our involvement in the solemnization of marriage is an important contribution to our local communities, offering a service to all rather than simply to our membership. It is something I am sure we value and wish to maintain.

That we were invited to join in discussions on the future of marriage law affecting England and Wales is another endorsement of our position as a small yet influential faith group often leading the way on social change. This is, of course, an important role that the General Assembly plays on behalf of local congregations. I look forward to seeing this issue progressing to legislation.