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Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Accord Coalition Faith Schools Manifesto - Religious Education

I participated in the launch of the Accord Coalition's manifesto for faith schools at Central Baptist Church Bloomsbury. Further details of the six point manifesto and the launch event chaired by Rabbi Jonathan Romain are to be found of Accord's website.

My particular focus was on the need for inclusive religious education arguing that all children should learn about the full range of faiths and belief systems in Britain - not just one or none - by adding Religious Education to the National Curriculum.

At the press conference I said:

"We propose that Religious Education is added to the National Curriculum. We live in a diverse and multi-religious society and it is imperative that all children learn about the full range of faith and belief systems in Britain. It is so easy for stereotypes to build up about the beliefs of others which, of course, do not reflect the complexities and diversity within faith groups as well as between them. In referring to faith and belief systems this should include the range of non-religious belief systems.

Many schools provide excellent RE, including some faith schools, however, RE in others is narrow in scope and/or is instructional. Academy schools and most faith schools are able to determine for themselves the RE they teach which can lead to pupils not receiving broad and balanced religious education.

The relationship between religious freedom, culture and ethnicity and indeed politics requires knowledge of religion to ensure an understanding of a digital world where events in seemingly far-off countries can through the internet and social media be on our mobile phones and laptops.

As well as learning about religion it is also important that children learn from religion. That they make connections between what they learn in class and their own lives as part of their spiritual and moral development. Effective religious education can open up possibilities for all children."

Pictured at the event

back row from left: Derek McAuley, Rev Richard Bentley (CoE), Simon Barrow (Ekklesia). 
front row from left: Jonathan Bartley (Ekklesia), Symon Hill (Quaker), Rabbi Jonathan Romain, Martin Prendergast (Centre for the Study of Christianity and Sexuality)

Monday, 1 September 2014

Media and Responsibility - IARF World Congress

At the International Association for Religious Freedom 34th World Congress in Birmingham, England last week on the theme "Challenges for Religious Freedom in the Digital Era". I participated in a Panel on the "Media and Responsibility". This is my opening statement on social media.

"I come to this Panel as a user of media not a journalist, media commentator or academic. I suppose I am like many of you. I have seen the transition into the digital age and whilst not an innovator I am an early adopter (using the model of Everett M Rogers). I have an active twitter account with 1095 followers. Amongst active accounts the number if followers is only 61. I operate a facebook account and am in several groups; mainly Unitarian, as well as a Linkedin account. My Klout score, which is intended to measure digital influence,  varies around 50-54. The average is 40. With this degree of social exposure it is essential to maintain boundaries; easier for me perhaps but less so for those young people who grew up knowing nothing but the digital age.

Religious freedom is one of the topics I promote in social media. I monitor the use of the term. My conclusion is that religious freedom remains contested; believing in religious freedom is not necessarily a progressive stance. Yet like” peace, motherhood and apple pie”; we are all in favour of it.  But there are very different meanings ascribed to the term. We of course know this but social media gives this a very different spin which you will find when you begin to engage online. I found this in my own campaigning for same sex marriage rights in the UK; both sides of the debate claimed to champion religious freedom. Parliament on several occasions recognised the importance to albeit small religious groups of their wish to conduct same sex marriage on the basis of religious freedom. In the US religious freedom is however used to claim exemption from human rights standards.

One advantage of social media is that it may give a voice to the individual and the small group, however, such is the size of the internet is actually anyone listening or looking as we like to believe? I often talk about religious freedom issues on my chief officer’s blog; which has had more than 20,000 views, about 20 a day. I have a global audience; one third UK, one third US and the remainder from around the world most notably Russia, Germany, Ukraine and China. Very few from the African continent reflecting lack of access to the internet. Social media can give marginalised and excluded groups an opportunity to speak out.

Yet studies at the London School of Economics have shown that globalisation, of which the growth in the internet is a major driving force, is leading to declining levels of religious freedom. Visibility of minority religions results unfortunately in the fear of the “other” and the stereotyping which drives conflict and in my view seems to be magnified on social media. The concept of the “troll” – someone who delights in harassing others online - is truly shocking but not surprising given the anonymity of the internet. Some are sadists in personality type. Others are the fervent followers of religions. Some are likely to be both?

Of course the boundary issue affects those seeking religious freedom. Across the world individuals have been imprisoned for their online postings; in former days subversive writings would not so easily be seen and the author could preserve their anonymity.

The way forward must be, as in all our inter-faith work in IARF, to see the humanity in one another.  The internet space is not one in which this is easy; indeed it can facilitate dehumanization as shocking pictures online show."


Thursday, 17 July 2014

Women in Leadership: What Needs to Change?

Very pleased to give my support to the Women in Leadership event last evening at St Paul's Cathedral with a glittering array of speakers:

Liz Bingham - Managing Partner for Talent for EY
Shami Chakrabarti CBE - Director of Liberty
Ceri Goddard - Director of Gender at the Young Foundation
The Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin - Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons
Frances O'Grady - General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress

Not enough men were present to hear the strong messages about change. The acceptance of women bishops by the Church of England was applauded but there is much more to be done.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Challenges and Opportunities: the Unitarian Future

The following is the talk I gave to the National Unitarian Fellowship at the Annual Meetings in April 2014:

 Thank you for the invitation to speak this afternoon and to explore with you and hear your views. I agreed the topic with Tony months ago “Challenges and Opportunities: The Unitarian Future”.
 I would like to begin by describing some aspects of the present situation; the challenges and opportunities:
“.. faces many problems and cannot, on the basis of recent and current trends, contemplate the future with a great deal of hope.
…changes have been too local and piecemeal to constitute an adequate response
…there seem few reasons to believe it is likely to address its many challenges successfully.
… attendances have been declining over the past few decades. The numbers are alarming…however you measure it the trend is still relentlessly downward…and if the current trend continues it will get much worse…statisticians envisage a calamitous decline… in business only because of its considerable historic assets.
…all activities are less well supported than they used to be and the Church’s beliefs and ideas are less well understood
Inevitably the decline in attendance has had a negative effect on finances…it seems unlikely that it will be able to maintain the full range of …ministries…there are fewer full-time, paid ministers
When all the factors are taken into account, it does not seem unduly alarmist to say that things could become much worse yet – the patient may not survive
…internal focus is a classic symptom of lost direction and confidence.
…the difficulties…create heavy daily burdens and dilemmas for those whose task it is to lead….
However not all things have stood still
- Worship is different
- Buildings re-ordered to make them more useful
- Ministry is shared
- Most members recognise that they too have ministries
- Outreach takes place
This is infact not a description of the Unitarians but as some of you will have guessed but of the Church of England from Keith Elford’s recently published book “Creating the Future of the Church. I heard Keith speak last December at a Ministry and Leadership conference and he brings together his experience as a minister and as an organisational consultant. Does this however strike a chord? I think so.
Turning to our Unitarian future we somehow must not imagine that our predecessors were somehow not up to the task and lay the blame on them for our present predicament nor indeed naively believe that we have greater insight than them and that we know best. Indeed given our larger size then it is likely that access to intellectual, professional and practical resources was greater to help understand what was going on and take action in response. Taking the long view can give real perspective rather than be buffeted by the prevailing fads; do more of this, or of that, they are doing this why are not we!
Since the establishment of the General Assembly in 1928 in virtually every decade there has been initiative after initiative to address the identified problems of decline:
1930s   - series of articles in The Inquirer in 1936 on “Regenerating Unitarianism beginning with “A programme for regenerating our churches” by Rev Percival Chalk. If you run down his list there is nothing that would be out of place today suitably updated for our context. Yet the impact of the Depression completely undermined an Appeal for funds to triple the Assembly’s income and start new congregations. More churches closed and as John Keilty said in his 1959 Minns Lectures in the US “enthusiasm wilted under the stress of hard, cold facts”. A Commission put forward plans for groupings to meet ministerial shortages and financial stress but “independency” prevented any movement.
1940s  in the midst of the WW2 a Commission on our Free Religious Faith and for the first time a group of prominent Unitarians set out their thinking on faith a religion. Hand in hand with this thinking went practical steps. Even before Essex Hall was destroyed an appeal for funds - £100,000 – and large sums were raised.
1950s publicity drives into the 1960’s – the language of mission was used again but shortage of money and staff.
1960s GA established a Commission on the place of the Unitarian Churches in the modern world – theology, leadership, education and religion in the community. In mid 1960’s the Foy Society congregational survey set out for the first and only time where we stood at congregational level.
1980s falling numbers and declining influence focus on growth and development – the quality of leadership. One result was 1993 Presidents Commission on Education and Training.
2000’s Task Force and governance changes

Some will say let’s leave the past to the past. I believe this is wrong. As I read recently “Looking backwards and seeing how change happens is part of futuring” (RSA 9 Oct 2012). Lets us not repeat the mistakes of the past; but learn from them.
Returned to Keith Elford. He sees that the Churches’ particular problems stem from one larger problem. The Churches are still struggling to come to grips with what it means to be part of a secular, multi-cultural society – egalitarian, democratic, composed of multiple faiths and cultures.
His view is that the Church must articulate what Church is for and where it is going in a society like ours.
Professor Linda Woodhead work has made her very unpopular in some Church of England circles. She wrote in the Church Times in January this year “The Church’s greatest failure has been its refusal to take decline seriously. The situation is now so grave that it is no longer enough simply to focus on making parts grow again. The whole structure needs to be reviewed from top to toe, and creative and courageous decisions need to be made”. Has this any relevance for our tiny movement.

So that’s a quick run through the challenges and opportunities. I could sit down now have covered my remit but you would probably feel short-changed.
I don’t think any of us would think these are easy questions with easy answers. The future of Unitarianism and indeed of organised religion in this country is becoming known as a “wicked” issue. They have complex causes and multiple stakeholders and are unlikely to be fully solved in the foreseeable future. They may demand far-reaching changes which will be complex and contested.
I would like us to explore the bigger questions. One of the responsibilities and privileges of being Chief Officer as all chief executives is that I am paid to think – I don’t do enough of it with all the other day to day work pressures but I really feel that this is what is expected of me for who else can do it. So two questions?

Firstly, what is Unitarianism and Free Christianity?
In thinking about this talk I was struck that in the 1940s in the midst of War Unitarians established a Commission on our Free Religious Faith. I was also struck with the statement on the back cover of “Unitarian Perspectives on Contemporary Religious Thought”, published by the Lindsey Press in 1999, that this “is the first substantial publication about Unitarian theology to be published for forty years”. If this is true perhaps this explains much of our diffidence and uncertainty about where we stand in a changing world.
Defined by the name “Unitarian”, with “and Free Christian” added when the full formal title is used, has this any meaning in our secular multi-cultural society where orthodox Christianity is no longer the default position against which we set up our stall. Of course we like Alice in the Looking Glass wonder. “When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master— that's all."

So as in our “a faith worth thinking about” pamphlet we stress our “traditional Insistence on divine unity, the oneness of God” but now add “because they affirm the essential unity of humankind and of creation”. In the post-modern age when there is no truth and no grand narratives this is of course acceptable.
With our work on the new GA website this has of course emerged as a question. I always regarded the “What we believe” pages as fairly inadequate. It is now to be “Unitarianism Explained” and the professional help we are using to help compose material in a web friendly way has challenged us in our efforts to ensure we assist the seeker in actually getting a clear insight about who we are. You may be interested to learn that the importance of community has been stressed given that many people pursue their spiritual path alone buying in practices from self-employed practitioners.

For too long we have allowed a very individualistic view of what Unitarianism is. “Everyone is on their spiritual journey and you can believe what you want” – this is of course a parody but points us to some insights. Of course you cannot believe what you want and remain part of a Unitarian community; there are actually boundaries.  
I was also struck by comments in a blog by UUA Minister Peter Boullata in December 2011 with the title “The Liberal Church Finding Its Mission: It’s Not About You”. He challenges us “There’s a difference between a free and disciplined search for truth and meaning, unencumbered by doctrine and “a religion that’s all about you and whatever you want”. Certainly what drew me to a Unitarian community is that it offers one of the few places where issues of true meaning can be explored and where wisdom and teaching is respected. It is also about looking beyond the needs of those present and as Keith Elford says asking what is the Church – your community – for and where is it going.
I am a firm believer that in meeting the needs of those outside the community we can build community within. My commitment to effective social action and service cannot be doubted, however, it must be based upon a deep spiritual and theological underpinning for us as a religious movement.

I will now turn to the second question; how does Unitarianism organize itself for the future?
For this I have drawn on some work by Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts.
Here we are at the Annual Meeting of the General Assembly.
What are our responsibilities to one another? Is there a sense that just like in the wider society there is a deeper feeling of powerlessness – not only that we are failing to use our power to make Unitarianism stronger but that we are not prepared to use that power to tackle the big issues. About society he talked about this leading to social pessimism. To explain power is used here as the capacity to achieve desired objectives. Matthew Taylor describes three forms:
Downward power of hierarchical authority associated most strongly with the state
We know that globally levels of trust in the leaders of government and other institutions including the Church and the Press and Media has fallen to new lows. Government and business has not delivered against rising expectations. Technology has increased pressures. There has certainly been a decline of authority.
Secondly, the lateral power of solidarity and shared values generally associated with the power of community
The past 30 years have seen a rapid decline in active membership of and even nominal allegiance to civic institutions such as the trade unions, political parties and the organised church. These all offer opportunities for cooperative action across significant boundaries of interest and identity. There has been a decline of solidarity
Thirdly, the Upward power of individual aspirations, which tend to be associated with markets
“…individualism is the strongest force of our times” yet is problematic for both society and the individual.
Each of these forces has plus points and negatives.
Hierarchy has strategic capacity yet has a tendency to be controlling
Solidarity fosters selflessness but also breeds insularity and sectarianism
Individualism can be creative and dynamic but selfish and irresponsible
In the absence of countervailing forces, fatalism will fill the gap.

The solution is, infact, “clumsy” – combining the three active forms of social power – and acknowledging and working with the tensions between them. If we rely on one approach it can be inflexible – example of investment banks broken by act of an individual. Communes take solidarity to extremes and rarely last but need some hierarchy to enforce rules.
A way forward to address the problems we face is therefore to mobilise all forms of social power
How can this analysis help us? How do we understand how we have approached power?
Individualism is built into our DNA; the focus is on the individual in a community not on a community made up of individuals. We tend to take it for granted that people will come to us and leave as part of their spiritual journey. The congregation is sovereign; the own their own buildings and pay for their minister. The General Assembly is just that “an assembly” with no power over any congregation. Indeed in our Constitution there is no power of expulsion of a member body. Congregational autonomy of course means that innovation can take place with no need for approval however this means that we don’t tend to learn from failure. It also means that when congregations are in trouble they often only seek help when it is too late or never do resigned to closure – a fatalistic approach unfortunately.

Hierarchy of course therefore has a flawed history. The General Assembly came late in our denominational structures. For most of the 19th century the focus was on individuals taking forward collective initiatives not congregations. The task force changes more recently which led to the new structures of course point to a model of governance focused upon the board; the Executive Committee. We see the language of strategies, strategy groups, action groups, measures of success reflecting this approach yet the power to influence is weak. Externally there are expectations on the central structure yet not a willingness to give it real power.
Solidarity had however a unique quality for the Unitarian Movement which has been lost. We emerged from the dissenting tradition. The taint of persecution lingered well into the 18th century with the last physical attacks during the Priestley Riots in 1792 in Birmingham. Throughout the 19th century it remained just not respectable to be a Unitarian. This forged a sense of community reinforced by marriage with a network of wealthy Unitarian families spread across the country; now dissipated. In Lancashire Unitarian Methodism brought its own sense of cooperative values amongst working class congregations. With a seeming inability to pass on our faith inter-generationally and relying on mid-and late-life converts (can I use that word!) we have to continually re-learn our values as local communities.

Some conclusions therefore:
1. Recognise that there is not one easy or coherent answer; it will be “clumsy”. Some things will work and some things won’t. What works in one place; will not in another.  
2. Accept that too much emphasis on one approach will mean that we are unlikely to address the “wicked problems”
3. Ensure that our initiatives are based on a deep understanding of the complexities of the issues we face. Just because something works in another country does not for example mean it will work here; which is pertinent given the dominance of UUA thinking and approaches.

I will finish with some ideas to get you thinking where I think that change is needed:
Solidarity – Many of grew up in a period when in the public mind expressing solidarity with someone else pointed to going out on strike and was not then against the law. It is said that where you put your money says a lot about your values. With our individualistic congregational culture our resources are concentrated. I see congregational Accounts. I also see situations whereby a few thousand pounds could make a major difference. So I would ask how can we truly show solidarity with our neighbours financially? Is it morally right to sit with massive cash reserves when you could have more impact by investing it elsewhere?
What about our sense of solidarity with emerging Unitarians in other countries. We are amongst the most wealthiest country in the world yet some Unitarians in Africa exist on less than a $ a week. Where did the "Foreign" go in the BFUA when it merged to become the General Assembly?

In relation to the General Assembly’s work we do need to do less but better. We need to improve accountability and for example not expect volunteers to be managers of significant projects. This is were some of the ideas of hierarchy are infact beneficial as opposed to individuals doing their own thing however worthy. When the GA awards grants it needs to hold recipients accountable. If congregations benefit from “excepted” status at the very least they need to acknowledge what this means for them as an unregistered charity.

Reflecting on the first question can we not collectively come together to create circumstances whereby the issues of our faith can be addressed at some depth – we have got width not depth - academically and theologically. Hard-pressed ministers of tutors cannot do this. We need a lectureship at some university department of religious studies on Unitarian studies. But are we prepared to support this financially?

Finally what collective stories do we tell? If Unitarianism is not about creeds and beliefs surely stories and narratives – our own and that of others - is a way of expressing our identity.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Our Duty to Speak Out for the Poor

I have joined 75 charity and not for profit chief executives or equivalent in signing the following letter to The Times (16 June 2014) highlighting "Our Duty to Speak Out for the Poor":

"We are concerned that the complaint by Conor Burns, MP, to the Charity Commission over an Oxfam tweet highlighting some of the causes of poverty in Britain is an attempt to stifle charities and campaign groups taking part in public debate.

We are already concerned about the new lobbying Act which is likely to significantly restrict our ability to speak out on behalf of the people and issues that we represent for seven months ahead of the general election.

In the past decades campaigning organisations have persuaded governments to cancel poor countries' debts, remove lead from petrol, prevent the selling off of our forests, and allow Gurkha veterans the right of residence in the UK. Attempts to silence legitimate debate risk undermining our democracy"

For details of the signatories from A for Action Aid to Z for Zacchaeus2000:

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.