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Monday, 7 August 2017

Religious Freedom and Blasphemy Laws

The following article in Faith Initiatives  (no29 October 2013) is based on a talk I gave to a joint International Association for Religious Freedom/World Congress of Faiths conference in Horsham, Kent in August 2013. I am circulating it now four years on to make it more widely available.


Religious freedom is one of the challenges of the age as we seek to appropriately balance rights and responsibilities.  British Unitarianism is currently commemorating the 200th Anniversary of the achievement of its legal religious freedom with the passage of the Unitarian Relief Act. This highlights the concept of Blasphemy and the challenges it presents to religions and law-makers.  In seeking to explore the issue of blasphemy I have found the definition used by the Pew Research Centre is of value, namely “remarks or actions considered to be contemptuous of God or the divine”.

Unitarians in Great Britain in July 2013 marked the 200th anniversary of the passing of what is known as the Unitarian Relief or Toleration Act. It was only in preparing a worship pack (1.) on these events for the General Assembly that the significance of the long-standing Unitarian opposition to laws on blasphemy became clear to me. The legal penalties against those holding Unitarian views were grounded in the Blasphemy laws. The Blasphemy Act of 1698 explicitly held the denial of the Holy Trinity by someone who had made profession of the Christian religion as a crime. This was repealed by the 1813 Unitarian Relief Act.

Unitarianism had emerged as an intellectual movement within both the established Church of England and Dissent (Presbyterian, Baptist and Independents). The legal penalties were rarely pursued although Dissenters still faced limitations upon their liberties; two of the most important, the Conventicle Act and the Five Mile Act, which places restrictions on religious activities, were abolished in 1812. The Unitarian toleration Act built upon these moves and was spear-headed by Williams Smith MP, the leading Dissenter in the House of Commons. Indeed, the legislation was popularly known as “Mr William Smith’s bill” (2). William Smith was chairman of the Dissenting Deputies from 1805 to 1832 and a leading opponent of slavery. (As an aside he is perhaps now best known as the grandfather of Florence Nightingale).

Smith has been accused of accepting an Act which would protect “respectable Unitarians” leaving the “wilder Deists outside” (3.). This is a challenge for all liberals; are you prepared to give others the rights you desire? At the time Smith was challenged that he had not gone far enough. He justified his position by claiming that he had set himself a limited objective which if he had not restricted himself to it would not have been achieved. As he said the Act enabled every denomination of Christian to preach their respective tenets without let or hindrance, “none, legally daring to make them afraid” (4). He publicly acknowledged that his religion did not need the protection of Blasphemy legislation; “let Truth stand or fall as she is able to support herself”.

Laura Tomes has argued that the “criminalisation of blasphemy is, historically, the attempt to secure doctrinal conformity in speech. Laws against blasphemy maintain fixed parameters by which to locate the religious “other” and serve to demarcate the speech and practices of the other from that of “true” believers.” (5.). She argues that blasphemy is not an inviolate standard but a boundary that has shifted according to the various meanings invested in it by religious communities. As theological constructions, laws against blasphemy have therefore been adapted and re-interpreted to fit changing social and cultural contexts. She highlights that English canon law criminalizing blasphemy was seen as an extension of seditious libel – an act of violence against the King and government. With the Reformation, the 1697 Blasphemy Act “judged the refusal to adhere to the doctrines of the Church of England as an offence against the statutory law of the realm”. By 1813 it seemed that the Church of England was more relaxed about implications of accepting the existence of “Unitarian” thinking.  

In England and Wales prosecutions for blasphemy declined during the nineteenth century. It was re-defined from an act of sedition to one of incivility. In 1967 in a purge of obsolete offences it was further re-defined as purely a common law offence; indeed there had not been a prosecution since 1922. The remaining common law offence of Blasphemous libel, having been subject to debate from the 1970’s and some controversy (the private prosecution of Denis Lemon, Editor of “Gay News” over the publication of a poem), was abolished in 2008 as part of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act. Significantly this followed the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act which legislated against hatred of persons on religious grounds.

Laws penalising Blasphemy, as well as Apostasy and Defamation of Religion, are widespread and are regularly in the news. Pakistan, India and Greece have in the past year pursued prosecutions. The Pew Research Centre’s Forum for Religion and Public Life has found that in 2011) 32 (16%) of the countries and territories of world have anti-blasphemy laws (6.). They found that such laws were particularly common in the Middle East and North Africa (13 of the 20 countries in that region). In Asia-Pacific (9 of 50 countries) and in Europe (8 of 45 countries) the percentage was less and in Sub-Saharan Africa it was only 2 of 48. It is surprising that in Europe these included what we would regard as “liberal” states (Denmark, Netherlands, Germany) as well as more “traditional” (Greece, Ireland, Italy, Malta and Poland).

Blasphemy legislation is used to violate religious freedom; which is, of course, guaranteed under article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A recently published report by the British All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Freedom  entitled “Article 18 : an orphaned right”, whose launch event I attended on 26 June 2013, states that “While the UN has declared that everyone has a right to freedom of religion or belief, it has done relatively little to make this a reality”(7.).

It is used to harass political as well as religious dissent and also abused to settle personal disputes. Whilst there has been a lot of media attention of cases where those of other faiths are accused of blasphemy it is also used as a tool to suppress alternative, and also sometimes ironically, the majority traditions within a religion in a particular country. An accusation of blasphemy is particularly pernicious and dangerous. It is hard to refute and the legal system finds it difficult to address. The public can easily be inflamed by emotive rhetoric. Justice is rarely done even if the accused is cleared.

Unitarians are in many ways inheritors of the English Enlightenment tradition. It is therefore important to read defences of religious freedom from other perspectives. James Clark Kelly has gathered the views of Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers in his valuable book “Abraham’s Children” (8.).Those of each tradition were asked to write persuasively to those of their own tradition but also to those outside. I was particularly struck by the words of Abdurrahman Wahid, Indonesia’s first democratically elected President and who served as chairman of the world’s largest Muslim organisation, the Nahdlatul Ulama for fifteen years, with the title “God Needs No Defence”:

“Those who claim to defend God, Islam, or the Prophet are thus either deluding themselves or manipulating religion for their own mundane and political purposes, as we witnessed in the carefully manufactured outrage that swept the Muslim world several years ago, claiming hundreds of lives, in response to cartoons published in Denmark. Those who presume to fully grasp God’s will and dare to impose their own limited understanding of this upon others are essentially equating themselves with God and are unwittingly engaged in blasphemy”. (9.).

He argued that religious understanding is a process and that “anyone who is sincere in understanding his or her faith necessarily undergoes a process of constant evolution in that understanding, as experience and insights give rise to new perceptions of the truth”. Severe blasphemy and also apostasy laws has the effect of narrowing the bounds of acceptable discourse within the Islamic world. This was of course what took place within the Christian world.

I would argue that it is only from within a tradition that real change can take place and that religious liberals must work with and think critically about the religious tradition to which we belong. We must be careful and respectful when we address issues of deep theological sensitivity. This does not mean acquiescing whilst the human rights of individuals and collectively of peoples are trampled upon. It means engaging with the others in ways that reject stereotyping. This will not be without controversy as early Unitarian thinkers found when they critiqued the Christian tradition from which they emerged and found they could be accused of Blasphemy. Those of other faiths find a similar challenge. The position of atheists or those with no religious belief is equally to be acknowledged.  

Derek McAuley is Chief Officer of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches and a Committee member of the British Chapter of the International Association of Religious Freedom. He has recently been elected as a trustee of the Inter Faith Network of the UK. It is based on a talk to the IARF/World Congress of Faiths conference in Horsham in August 2013.

Notes

1. (2013) McAuley, Derek, “200th Anniversary of the Unitarian Toleration Act 1813”, General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, London
2. (1971) Davis, Richard W. “Dissent in Politics 1780 – 1830”, Epworth Press, London, p. 190
3. Henriques, quoted in Davis (1971), p. 193
4. Norfolk Chronicle, 24 July 1813 quoted in Davis (1971), p.194
5. (2010) Tomes, Laura, “Blasphemy and the Negotiation of Religious Pluralism in Britain”, Contemporary British Religion and Politics, pp. 237-255 http://academia.edu/1516981/Blasphemy_and_the_Negotiation_of_Religious_Pluralism_in_Britain
6. (2102) Pew Forum “Laws Penalizing Blasphemy, Apostasy and defamation of Religion are Widespread”, 21 November
7. (2013) All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Freedom, “Article 18: an orphaned right”
8. (2012) Clark, Kelly James “Abraham’s Children: Liberty and Tolerance in an Age of Religious Conflict”, Yale University Press, New Haven and London
9. Abdurrahman Wahid in Clark, Kelly James (2012) p. 212.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Celebrating the Declaration of Religious Freedom and Tolerance

Unitarians and Free Christians in Great Britain and Ireland join our Hungarian co-religionists in celebrating the Declaration of Religious Freedom.

On January 13, 2017 the Hungarian Unitarian Church honours the 449th anniversary of the Declaration of Religious Freedom and Tolerance, an edict which might be considered as the first legal guarantee of religious freedom in the Christian Europe.

449 years ago, in 1568, on January the 13th, the Diet of Torda (Transylvania) proclaimed:
„His majesty, our Lord, in what manner he – together with his realm – legislated in the matter of religion at the previous Diets, in the same matter now, in this Diet, reaffirms that in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching. For faith is the gift of God and this comes from hearing, which hearing is by the word of God.”

The Hungarian Unitarians are celebrating this special day with events in Torda and Kolozsvár. The celebrations start in the morning in the Unitarian church of Torda with a worship service led by rev. Márton Csécs, minister of the Torockó Unitarian congregation and an address delivered by Zoltán Balog, the Minister of Human Resources of the Hungarian Government. The service will be followed by a visit to the Museum in Torda, which hosts the famous painting by Aladár Körösfői-Kriesch, commemorating the event.

The celebrations will continue with an evening worship service in the 1st Unitarian church of Kolozsvár, with rev. Csaba Mezei, Unitarian minister of 2nd Congregation of Kolozsvár as preacher, followed by an address by Lajos Mile, the Consul General of Hungary. A concert featuring the Flauto Dolce quartet and the Choir of the János Zsigmond Unitarian College will enhance the festivities.

The day will be closed with a reception at the Unitarian headquarters.

In 2015, the General Assembly of the Hungarian Unitarian Church voted in unanimity to recommend to Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists around the world to join in the proclamation and celebration of January the 13th as Day of Religious Freedom.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

The International Vision of British Unitarians - 2016 Channing Lecture


This blogpost is based on the William Ellery Channing Lecture which I delivered at Golders Green Unitarians on 23 April. 2016.
Channing Statute in Boston
Channing was the foremost American Unitarian of the 19th Century and when I was recently in Boston I was pictured alongside his portrait which is one of only two that have been displayed in the new headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

My lecture had the title “The International Vision of British Unitarians”. The UUA has a project “Heritage and Vision at 24” using new technologies to tell their story. The intention is “to expand on our storied past, and connect it in a living stream to our dynamic present and our exciting future”. This inspired me to look for some stories of our international engagement that would do the same.

I would suggest that in taking forward this international vision that the work of British Unitarians can be characterised in four ways; Mission,  Solidarity, Generosity and Inclusion. I have drawn from a period of our history; 1890s to the 1920s when we were strong yet it was a time of great change.

Mission

India remains a key part of our international story right from the foundation of the Madras Church by the former slave, William Roberts to Rev Margaret Barr working in the Khasi Hills from 1933 until her death in 1973. I told the story of the first visit by a representative of the BFUA to India in the 1890s. Rev Dr Jabez T. Sunderland had only intended spending a quiet summer and autumn in England in1895 before travelling to Egypt. He was prevailed upon by the “men from the B&FUA” to go as their representative on a four month trip to India reporting to the Annual Meetings in May 1896.

We remember today that Hajom Kissor Singh as the founder of the Khasi Unitarians in 1887 when he rejected the Calvinistic Methodism brought to his homeland in North East India by Welsh missionaries. He was given a volume of the works of William Ellery Channing and found he was a Unitarian. He began to hold services in his home and slowly gathered a small group. Sunderland visited and ordained a former Methodist evangelist as their first minister.

Yet at the time the more significant work he undertook was to develop closer relationships with the Brahmo Samaj, the liberal theistic Hindu group established by Raja Rammohan Roy, with whom English Unitarians had had a long association. Sunderland also spoke to huge audiences including on education to 6000 people at the National Congress of India; the forerunner of today’s Congress Party of India.

As a result of Sunderland’s visit the B&FUA appointed a missionary; initially only a visit by Rev James Harwood and then a three year appointment of Rev S Fletcher Williams. The latter believed that the best way to spread liberal religion in India was to support the Brahmo Samaj and his most enlightening experience was to join the Brahmos in conducting a religious service at the Albert Hall in Calcutta for several months each Sunday which drew Brahmos, Christians and Muslims in a united congregation.

Today our work with India continues especially in the Khasi Hills and Unitarian talent and money has gone to support the causes close to the heart of Rev Margaret Barr, however, our links with the Brahmos are weak.

Solidarity

My second theme is solidarity, meaning support and assistance to existing Unitarian groups. The links with the Transylvanian Unitarians go back to earliest day of the B&FUA. This story was the support and advocacy given the Transylvania in the post-World War One era and is I believe the most important contribution of British Unitarians to public affairs certainly in the last century. It shows a high degree of political mobilisation and sophistication due to the leadership of B&FUA Secretary, Rev W. Copeland Bowie. The campaign was widely covered in “The Inquirer” of the day whose role as a campaigning tool at the time has not again been recognised.

The end of World War one say the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the harsh military occupation of Transylvania by Romania. Reports were received that the Unitarian Bishop Joseph Ferencz had been imprisoned – it seems held hostage for the good behaviour of his community - and British Unitarians began to use all their political muscle to raise their concerns. By the end of 1919 “The Inquirer” was reporting on expulsions from Kolozsvar, “pillaging and executions” and of historic significance to Unitarians, the destruction of the memorial stone in Deva to the memory of Francis David – what we would call cultural genocide today.

In November the Rev W H Drummond was sent by the B&FUA to Transylvania and was the first Englishman to visit after the end of the War. He returned via Paris where he reported to the British and American delegations to the Peace Conference. His three page report was published in full in “The Inquirer” and reproduced as a supplement. Such was the Unitarian influence that on 30 January 1920, Rev Copeland Bowie was invited with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Rev F B Meyer to meet the Romanian Prime Minister of Romania at the Carlton Hotel. When Transylvania was transferred to Romania under the Treaty of Trianon safeguards were given on minority rights and violations remained a concern to Unitarians.

Today we recently joined ICUU in supporting the Unitarian Church in Burundi when its leader and members suffered as a result of political unrest. Rev Fulgence Ndagijimana has fled to Canada seeking refuge and his family are in the US British Unitarians raised funds for the Church and I used political contacts to raise his persecution and imprisonment directly with the Foreign Office. Others in Canada and the US did the same.

Generosity 

The third feature of British Unitarian international engagement is that of generosity. In five years the Special India Fund raised the equivalent of over £530,000 at todays value. An appeal for the “Starving Children in Europe” was launched by the B&FUA for a collection at the services on Sunday 28 December 1919 and raised £2,569 which is about £131,000 at 2016 prices. This was at a time of “home” demands, including an appeal for £20,000 (£1million) to support the “Stipends of Ministers and the Education of their Children” and £10,00 for the National Unitarian War Memorial – “The Florence Nightingale Convalescent Home” in Great Hucklow..

Today the Unitarian Clara Barton Red Cross Fund has raised what must be fast-approaching £100,000 for emergency and crisis relief and locally Unitarians are active fundraisers for many causes.

Inclusion

The story here is a desire to bring together religious liberals in an inclusive way and led in 1900 to the establishment of an International Council of Unitarian and other Liberal Religious Thinkers and Workers (Now IARF).. Great international congresses took place before the advent of World War One. It had been intended in October 1914, had war not intervened, to have a World Pilgrimage of Religious Liberals funded in part by the B&FUA, which entailed a group of diverse western theists journeying round the world but especially to encounter the East.

Today we continue to participate and lead in IARF both globally, regionally within the Europe and Middle East region and nationally in co-operation with others such as the World Congress of Faith, Religions for Peace and the Interfaith Network. Having led the way the interfaith scene is now much fuller and rich.

In conclusion I feel that the tension – I hope creative tension – between the various themes still raise issues for us. The International vision of British Unitarians was not about expanding Unitarianism across the globe but more a commitment to promoting liberal religion. This is a staggeringly open and inclusive perspective for the time and indeed for today.






Friday, 7 October 2016

Unitarian Congregational Growth and Change 2.

My last blog has produced some positive feedback so I would like to follow it up with more advice for congregational leaders on growth and change. I hope it is also encouraging for ordinary chapel and church members who may worry about the future. This draws upon work carried out in East London by The Centre for Theology and Community (CTE).

They have found that attitude rather than theological tradition is the key determinant of growth. Our tendency has been on occasion to see churches with rigid doctrines that are growing and then excuse ourselves by saying that we demand more from those who commit to us; it is harder to be free-thinkers. So it is not all about evangelical churches with their Alpha courses. Growth is actually happening in churches with very different theologies and liturgies. On this evidence I see no reason why Unitarian and Free Christian churches should not grow. But as the report observes “the degree of intentionality behind growth is related to the likelihood of growth. Those [congregations] that have seen significant growth, it seems, have made structural changes in terms of leadership or “models” of church”.

These growing churches have a clear vision of their goals, and engage in “conscious self-reflection” on what it means to be both faithful and effective in their local context. There is no one-size-fits-all pattern to follow, however, three factors seem important:

Pursing a deeper common life of worship and prayer
An enterprising use of assets, including property, for mission
A commitment to working for the common good with others in the local community

Attitude must underpin these approaches. Unitarians should be able to apply these factors to their local situation and I know some congregations are already doing so. This is where we can draw upon our own tradition of reason; we have never been afraid to look at the evidence and learn even if it challenges long held beliefs.

So let us not dismiss growth as simply an obsession with “bums on seats” but an opportunity to change lives. As Canon Archie Richie has written “an empty church cannot embark on any of the activities we rightly value; worshipping God, growing together, showing hospitality and acting for social justice”.

We certainly have the skills locally to reflect on changes in the demographics of local areas and how we can connect to the people who now live there. If we do not do this the evidence is that, especially in urban areas undergoing rapid social change, we will slowly fade away. Community organising has proved to be one way to change the focus in a congregation – especially in developing new leaders through action.

So are we “missing a trick?" “Next Steps” has reinforced that our 2020 congregational growth programme should be expanded and more new or rekindled congregations established, what others call “church planting”.  Without this all the evidence from many studies is that decline will not be reversed. So are we willing to reflect, learn, change and adapt.

This blog first appeared in The Unitarian (October 2016) as "A View from Essex Hall"

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Unitarian Congregational Growth and Change 1.


One of the most useful aspects of the recent Conference in the Netherlands organized by the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU), the global Unitarian body, was the opportunity to share practical experiences of congregational life. Congregations remain the way that our Unitarian faith is expressed in most parts of the world; recognizing of course that for some the online experience is now part of the mix.

We had the one-to-one chats over coffee and meals and drinks; we do this’ what do you do? Really! There were more formal networking opportunities and also a day of workshops and a day of more substantial learning sessions. There were excellent programmes for individual personal development which should enhance leadership capacity around the world.

I was particularly struck by the similarities as well as the differences between the UK and The Netherlands, who were represented by the Vrijzinnigen Nederland (VJ) a liberal religious group about the same size as British Unitarians; but with fewer groups. I already have good contact with them and their director Wies Houweling has been to a British Unitarian Annual Meeting.

In one session I heard about a self led congregation and the phrase “professional amateur organisation” was used,  which I interpreted to mean that all that was done, although there was no paid “professional” leader, was of the highest quality. This congregations has grown from 60 to 100 members; with Sunday attendance from 10 to 40. They asked the members initially “if we change, do you want to be part of it?”

Over more than ten years they have changed the:
Role of the Board (ie the committee)
Role of the community – which is seen as a source of creativity as everyone has a special gift
Role of Sunday services (which is seen as the most important change)
The building – especially the symbols used

A positive approach was adopted to change but quality was key. Other learnings were that nothing is permanent and that renewal never stops. Infact; knowing that those activities that are going well will not last should make us look to the future and new ideas. Another lesson is to resist the temptation to compare yourself to others and that in the end you must find your own solution. Also, look to your roots for keys to the future.

This was reinforced by another session on the Dutch experience where it was emphasised that the liberal religion should be about connecting rather that separation as with orthodox religions with their focus on maintaining group identity. In a group we talked about how locally Unitarians can play a leadership role in connecting people. We of course often do this is individuals. The challenge is to reach out to other religious people and other groups; often simply to get them around a table when they would not otherwise be able to do so. So are their issues in your community that needed to be talked about but are not?

I shall be developing our relationship with Vrijzinnigen Nederland further as we have much to share and learn from each other. Their connections especially with other liberal groups and in the academic arena are particularly impressive and raise issues for us. So lots to do all round.

This blog first appeared in The Unitarian (September 2016) as "A View from Essex Hall"

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.