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Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Why I signed the Open Letter that Britain is not a Christian Country?

I was probably one of the few people of faith among the fifty-five to sign the open letter to the Daily Telegraph on the Prime Minister’s claim that Britain is a “Christian Country”. We have been assailed as “atheists”, “secularists” and shamefully by a Conservative MP as “un-British”.  This proves the point about the dangers of conflating religion and nationhood. As I heard a prominent Baptist say; individuals can be Christians – followers of Jesus - not countries.

Whilst religious humanism has a long history within the spectrum of beliefs of the Unitarian Movement I signed because the issues raised undermine the sort of multi-cultural and multi-religious society that we are attempting, albeit imperfectly,  to build. This brings all sorts of challenges; not least of immigration and social inclusion in many of our urban areas; and politicians have a responsibility to speak wisely.

Unitarians have had a long commitment to civil and religious liberty the world over. Of all the Churches they found it easiest to understand and embrace the reality of science and modernity. Orthodox Christianity struggled for decades and whilst maintaining the vestiges of power and influence, most notably Establishment, a large role in education and Bishops sitting in the House of Lords, lost all the major intellectual, political and social battles.

To claim therefore that Britain is a Christian country just does not match the lived experience of most people.  All the evidence shows is that Britain is a secular society and one in which people of all faiths and of none can live and work together for mutual benefit. No one faith should be privileged. This does not mean that faith does not influence individuals and communities in their actions; however, attempts to impose religion-based viewpoints on others must be resisted.

Of course the impact of Christianity over the long history of our nations is obvious. This is not disputed. However, other influences too played their part; the pre-Christian pagan cultures overlaid by the Church, the classical values of Greece and Rome, the Enlightenment and growing secularisation and more recently the spirituality of the East. This makes us what we are today.  

Such a claim is also not helpful to the Christian Churches conveying an out-dated impression of their role and influence. The reality of plummeting attendances. financial pressures, fewer clergy and a myriad of other problems may not get the attention they deserve when the rhetoric is of a Christian Britain and things are alright then!

In my view whilst I can see the attraction to those of other faiths who welcome the use of the term “Christian Britain” as reinforcing their own position, they unfortunately fail to fully understand that its appeal is invariably to those who tend to question the multi-cultural and multi-religious nature of modern Britain and want to turn the clock backwards.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Celebrating Same Sex Marriage in England and Wales

Just come back from a press conference arranged by the Cutting Edge Consortium (CEC) to celebrate the introduction of same sex marriage in England and Wales on 29 March 2014.

I am on the far left and great to meet again Rabbi Danny Rich (Liberal Judaism), Paul Parker (Quakers), Rabbi Laura Janner Klausner (Movement for Reform Judaism), Rev Sharron Ferguson (MCC and LGCM), Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham and Maria Exall (CEC).

Whilst lots of joy it must be tempered with knowledge that there is much more to be done. The press conference soon focused on the Church of England's position; with two retired Bishops also commenting.

Look out for an article which I was asked to do appearing in tomorrow's Pink News.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Sea of Faith Conference 2014

I have been invited to be a plenary speaker at the Annual Conference of the Sea of Faith Network being held at the University of Leicester from 18 to 20 July 2014. The Sea of Faith group has its origins in the popular television series in the 1980s and a number of subsequent books of theologian and philosopher Rev Prof Don Cupitt. The phrase has, of course, its origins in the poem of Matthew Arnold in 1867 "Dover Beach" who found an image for the decline of religion in the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the Sea of Faith. Sea of Faith as a group grew out of discussions of this work and remains at the radical edge of Christianity in Britain with supporters from many traditions, including several Unitarians.

The theme of the Conference is “Making Connections”.
“We want to explore connections of all kinds – between different faiths, between people who belong to a particular faith group and people who don’t, between religion and science, religion and politics, religion and sex, religion and music, religion and art, between young and old and many more. We have three exciting keynote speakers who all have, in their different ways, considerable experience of making connections, to lead our thinking but we will also be relying on members and guests to bring their own thoughts and experience to share. As the old musical chairmen used to say this Conference’s contributors will be “principally yourselves!”

I have been asked to deliver the opening plenary address and the closing reflection. Interestingly the other external speakers are Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society and Pippa Evans, one of the founders of the Sunday Assembly, the so-called “Atheist Church” and there will be a Sunday Assembly on the final day so it is good to see Sea of Faith reaching out.

I have experienced such wonderful insights as well as being able to have a much bigger impact than could have been imagined from making connections. I hope to talk about how new thinking about networks influence how change happens.

The conference is open to all and I hope that some Unitarians and Free Christians will attend as we have much to give and, of course, to learn.

Information on the Conference and how to book is available on the Sea of Faith website

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Faith and Place in 20th and 21st Century England

I have pleased to participate in a workshop at English Heritage yesterday on use of historic assets and creating new faith spaces in England. We had a eclectic mix of old denominations; Quakers, Free Churches and Unitarians, as well as the new churches, who often have to decide whether or not to buy buildings from other users that may be listed.

We did a timeline which will feature on English Heritage's website which helped me reflect upon the Unitarian and Free Christian contribution to the built heritage of England; not least adding the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth in Liverpool from the early 1600's to the listing and other significant chapels and churches. We hold these buildings in trust for the nation as well as our congregations and local communities which brings rights and responsibilities.

We explored many of the issues relevant to managing a listed building; including whether it is more expensive to maintain. Evidence is that it is but that day to day maintenance is not significantly greater once buildings are a reasonable condition. Listed status of course results in access to recovery of VAT, National Lottery Heritage Fund and National Churches Fund financial support.

All churches were urged to produce a statement of significance to underpin planning and funding requests.

I raised the issue of how changes in worship may no longer be reflected in the interior layout. Unitarians now no longer regularly preach from the pulpit but from the floor and different forms of worship need open space as does the hosting of musical or community events which is not facilitated by fixed pews.

It was interesting to explore how new churches are seeking premises and the opportunities and legal requirements surrounding disposal.    

There are lots of images of Unitarian Churches on the website of the Unitarian Historical Society.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Unitarians and World War One

2014 will mark the hundredth anniversary of the start of World War One. A national commemoration will involve a transformation of the Imperial War Museum, a major programme of national commemorative events and an educational programme "to create an enduring legacy for generations to come". More than £50million has been allocated and the Heritage Lottery Fund has announced an additional £6million to enable young people working in their communities to conserve and share local heritage of WWI. There is support of all the major political parties for this initiative although as the New Year dawned there has been a politicalised debate about the significance of the War.

The Unitarian and Free Christian movement marked World War One by a “Tablet to the memory of fallen soldiers and sailors”, unveiled at Essex Hall by Mrs Sydney Martineau on 12 January 1921. Believed lost in the destruction of the building in 1944 during World War Two, it was designed by Ronald P. Jones, cast in bronze and made by the Guild of Handicraft, Birmingham. The Inquirer (15 January 1921) reported that Mrs Martineau, in an impressive address, spoke with great sympathy of those whose beloved were represented among the Thousand who did not return; that they might be comforted in the thought of a noble service rendered by the Dead; and might those dear ones who survived and came back “realize more and more the price paid for our liberties, and for an ever-enduring establishment of Right as the dominant factor in the lives of nations”.

She referred to 10,000 from “our little community” who served in the armed forces. A Memorial Roll of Honour was also compiled and unveiled in 1922 which actually contained 1700 names of those who died listed in alphabetical order, including congregation. This was also thought destroyed in 1944 but was later discovered by Rev Peter Godfrey at Essex Hall, and is now at Dr Williams’s Library. We are endeavouring to locate the Roll and then to place a digital copy on the web which would give congregations and individuals an opportunity to use it for research.

Many Unitarians treasure the Nightingale Centre, the Unitarian retreat and conference in Great Hucklow. The Inquirer (16 November 1918), just two months after the cessation of hostilities, carried an appeal for £10,000 for the "Florence Nightingale Home for Soldiers, Sailors and other men of our community” which had been established by the Sunday School Association as a Unitarian National War Memorial. This was designed to meet a present urgent need but no Government funding was forthcoming to erect a building, therefore Unitarians got to work.

In churches and chapels across the country will be found individual memorials to those lost. Congregations, of course, mark Remembrance Sunday in various ways. Finding out more about the individuals listed on memorial plaques could be a useful starting point to produce a local and more human story of the war.

Nationally, this will also be an opportunity to reflect upon how Unitarians and Free Christians, individually and collectively, responded to the War. Alan Ruston has written with feeling of how the nonconformist churches were forced to face large moral and spiritual issues for which they were apparently so ill prepared. This was felt particularly by liberal Christian Churches who emphasized a belief in “the goodness of man and his God”. His article on “Unitarian attitudes towards World War 1” in the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society (April 1998) merits careful reading. He tellingly reveals that historians of Unitarianism had ignored the subject until he wrote in 1993 on two Unitarian ministers killed in action.

The denominational press shows that the majority of Unitarians supported the war effort, at least until mid-1917, with a notable minority taking a more critical stance. The views of some of the former are surprising; although we must be careful to assess the past in its own context not that of today. One legacy was the establishment of the Unitarian Peace Fellowship in 1916 (as the Liberal Christian Peace Fellowship) with its basis that “war and the preparation for war is unreconcilable with the teaching and spirit of Jesus”. The General Assembly in 2016 is an opportunity to remember their foundation and work for peace since then.

Alan also points out that his research found a quite different response to the war between Unitarian ministers and the laity, the latter being somewhat more sceptical including a few Unitarian MPs. Importantly, he suggests that World war One so seriously undermined the basis of the confidence of British Unitarianism that it “has not subsequently recovered its dynamism nor theological assurance”. 

Unitarians should mark this centenary. Nationally there has been concern that “2014 is being scheduled as another zenith of nationalist pride”, as Richard Seymour wrote in The Guardian (12 October 2012). I am sure that Unitarians will commemorate and remember with dignity drawing upon the best of what we are but guarding against the temptation to white wash the past.

This is an updated version of an article “How will we remember the fallen?” which appeared in The Inquirer on 19 January 2013 (Issue 7810).



Friday, 20 December 2013

Unitarianism and Sunday Assembly

I have been asked on a few occasions recently what's the difference between attending a Unitarian or a Unitarian Universalist Church and a Sunday Assembly - which was known in its early days as the "Atheist Church". I have written in The Inquirer magazine recently on Sunday Assembly and what I call the rise of popular humanism, such as the work of philosopher Alain de Botton and School for Life and that on spirituality of Jonathan Rowson at the RSA as well as Sunday Assembly.

Sanderson Jones on the Sunday Assembly blog has an answer to the question "What's the difference between the Sunday Assembly and the Unitarians?". This is my perspective. 

The Sunday Assembly blog says that the difference is that Unitarians are seen as welcoming people of all faiths and asserts that Unitarians see all faiths as equal compared to their view that “there is no God so how should we live now” is what is important.  The are prepared to welcome people of all faiths, however, as everyone can benefit from their Assemblies.  He concludes however, 

"Before I started the Sunday Assembly I did research Unitarianism and many atheists found attending UU congregations difficult as they could occasionally break out into crystal spirituality, conversations of personal experience of God, and other things that humanists find very hard to deal with."

This statement does in some way highlight the distinction between the two movements. Unitarianism is an inclusive faith and we are prepared to describe ourselves as religious liberals. We are religious because we "unite to celebrate and affirm values that embrace and reflect a greater reality than the self." We accept that everyone has a right to seek truth and meaning for themselves. We nurture the spiritual dimension of life drawing upon a range of traditions as reflected in our objective. This means that Unitarian communities will have people with a wide variety of beliefs and you will find people with very different views from yourself. This we see as enriching not threatening. Indeed, as a previous blog of mine "Do Humanists Sing? " highlighted  research that found that humanists are not as rational as they would like to think. 

Unitarianism is very different across the world. For example the British General Assembly embraces Unitarianism in all its forms as well as Free Christianity; the remnants of a late nineteenth century movement to unite all Christians in a national free Church. The American UUA is a merger of two liberal denominations; the Unitarians and the Universalists and within which religious humanism gained much strength. 

More recently Sunday Assemblies have been described as a “fun alternative to the meetings held by Humanist[s] and Unitarians”. “Why on earth aren't people clapping and dancing around and jumping up and down at those gatherings?" Sanderson wondered in an interview with ABC News.

I have attended a gathering of the Sunday Assembly at Conway Hall. It reminded me of the informal Opening Celebrations of the British General Assembly. Most Sunday services in a Unitarian Church or Chapel are more subdued affairs, partly because the form of worship is more traditional (although the content is often very different from a mainstream Christian church) and partly it reflects the spiritual needs of the attendees. At other times, such as a second Sunday evening service or mid-week activities, unitarian practice can take many different forms; celebration , dance, meditation, labyrinth walking, Taize chanting etc. Unlike Sunday Assembly we have not prescribed or franchised models; variety is truly the spice of life. 

A Unitarian congregation seeks to meet the spiritual needs of the individual in the context of a loving community. We are there for the sorrows as well as the joys. We have trained leaders - ministerial and lay - to support and guide the community. Nationally and locally we offer a range of personal and communal religious education for adults and children. We similarly work together to promote social justice. We work closely with other progressive faith and non-faith groups and would certainly see Sunday Assembly as allies not competition. 


Monday, 11 November 2013

"Josiah Wedgwood: He was a Unitarian. He was devoted to changing the world"

I went to the new exhibition at the British Library at the weekend on "Georgians Revisited: Life, Style and the making of Modern Britain". It marks the 300th anniversary of the accession of King George I in 1714 and reveals the unprecedented economic, social and cultural changes in Britain under the four Hanoverian King Georges'.

Surprisingly religion gets barely a mention despite its significant during this period. Politics is restricted to a display of key events.

One man who gets a lot of attention is the potter, Josiah Wedgwood, with his own display cabinet of wares and a short video. We hear his biographer Jenny Uglow describe him as a genius. "He was a Unitarian. He was devoted to changing the world". He did so in so many ways; economically he realised the power of celebrity indeed Royal endorsement. On display was his famous anti-slavery medallion; with a kneeling slave and the plea "I am not a man and a brother". It was smaller than I imagined being barely bigger than a 10 pence piece. It sold in thousands was is one of the first instances where a product was used for political campaigning. She describes his involvement in the Lunar Society; the group of West Midlands radicals including Rev Joseph Priestley and Erasmus Darwin.

How right is Jenny Uglow to claim that as a Unitarian he was devoted to changing the world. His life illustrates the economic, social and indeed political changes in the period.