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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.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Controversy over Charles Darwin's Religious Views

The religious views of Charles Darwin have been in the news over the last few days. They even prompted a "Thought for the Day" this morning on BBC Radio 4 Today by Bishop Tom Butler. Like Bishop Butler, I do not consider the text of the letter that has come to light to mean he was an atheist as, for example, The Times described him.yesterday in a short item.

The letter was in response to Francis McDermott, a barrister and committed Christian. Darwin’s reply, penned on 24 November 1880 – exactly 21 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species – was to the point:

"Dear Sir,

I am sorry to have to inform you that I do not believe in the Bible as a divine revelation & therefore not in Jesus Christ as the son of God.

Yours faithfully

Ch. Darwin"

It is not wise to determine the religious views of any individual by a few words. Rev Cliff Reed, a retired British Unitarian minister, has traced the evolution of Darwin's religious thinking throughout the course of his life. The results of his work, in the Lindsey Press publication "Till the Peoples All Are One": Darwin's Unitarian Connections" (2011) may surprise many readers.

The book can be obtained from Essex Hall or all major online booksellers.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Welfare Reform Bill - Letter to the Editor in The Daily Telegraph

This Letter was published in today's Daily Telegraph from a number of faith leaders and others:

SIR – The extensive cuts being debated by MPs this week as part of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill include restricting child tax credits, removing the work-related activity component of the Employment and Support Allowance and further reducing the benefit cap.

Despite a welcome increase in the minimum wage, it is now widely understood that this Bill will make low-income working families worse off and penalise disabled people who are taking their first steps back to work.

An effective social safety net based on dignity and compassion is vital in any just society, yet this Bill will make the lives of already vulnerable households ever more precarious.

Paul Parker
 Recording Clerk, Quakers in Britain
Niall Cooper
 Director, Church Action on Poverty
Cathy Ashley
 Chief Executive, Family Rights Group
Dave Prentis
 General Secretary, Unison
Jonathan Arkush
 President, Board of Deputies of British Jews
Amanda Batten
 Chief Executive, Contact a Family
Megan Dunn
 President, National Union of Students
John Ellis
 Moderator, General Assembly of the United Reformed Church
Duncan Exley
 Director, The Equality Trust
Lt-Col Melvin Fincham
 Secretary for Communications, The Salvation Army
Sally Foster-Fulton
 Convener, Church and Society Council, Church of Scotland
Alison Garnham
 Chief Executive, Child Poverty Action Group
Rev Steven Keyworth
 Team Leader of Faith and Society, Baptist Church
Derek McAuley
 Chief Officer, General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches
Judith Moran
 Director, Quaker Social Action
Helen O'Brien
 Chief Executive, CSAN (Caritas Social Action Network)
Mohammad Shahid Raza
 Founder Trustee, British Muslim Forum, and Head Imam, Leicester Central Mosque
Chaya Spitz
 Chief Executive, The Interlink Foundation
The Rt Rev David Walker
 Bishop of Manchester
The Rev Steven Wild
 President, Methodist Conference

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.