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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 black" 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.

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...