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Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Religious Freedom means the freedom not to believe

Do Unitarians have anything distinctive to offer the world of foreign affairs or international relations? I was forced to reflect upon this when I received an invitation to the Foreign Secretary’s Christmas Reception at the grand Lancaster House. Of course, I could simply have refused the invitation and said “nothing to do with us”. I am glad I went.

I learned that religious freedom is rising higher up the agenda for the United Kingdom Government but importantly securely based on a human rights approach. In the latest “Free and Freedom” (Vol 64, part 2, Autumn/Winter 2011, No 173) Malcolm Evans emphasises that international human rights law provides the framework within which issues concerning the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief are being addressed internationally. He identifies a problem that faith communities are often only interested in the rights of their own. He urges people of all faiths to champion the rights of others.This surely has the support of Unitarians. 

At the Reception I had the opportunity to talk to two members of the Advisory Group onHuman Rights whose role is to provide external advice to the Foreign Secretary on human rights in foreign policy, and on options for addressing human rights problems. We spoke about the importance of religious freedom and how it is influencing foreign policy. I emphasised that freedom of religion means the freedom to believe and also not to believe.

As a small faith group this is something distinctive we have to offer. We suffered from persecution in the past and the achievement of our civil liberties was the objective of one of the predecessor bodies of the General Assembly. We can speak up for all with little risk of being seen as partisan.

Paul Marshall has written:

“Religious freedom and religious persecution affect all religious groups. Some – Baha’is in Iran, Ahmadis in Pakistan, Buddhists in China, Falun Gong in China, Christians in Saudi Arabia – are now among the most intensely persecuted, but there is no group in the world that does not suffer to some degree because of its beliefs. Athiests and agnostics can also suffer from religious persecution…Religious freedom is also not confined to any one area for continent”.
(“Religious Freedom in the World” (2008))

We should rise to this challenge and proclaim the ongoing significance of the nineteenth century Unitarian slogan “civil and religious liberty the world over”.

What can we do? Unitarians and Free Christians in Britain have long supported the International Association of Religious Freedom. The purpose of the IARF is to work for freedom of religion and belief “because it is a precious human right that potentially enables the best within our religious lives, or our search for truth or enlightenment, to flourish.”. There are certainly opportunities to work with others through IARF both in the United Kingdom and internationally.

We can also be alert to challenges to freedom of religion and belief and seek to influence our Government, perhaps in co-operation with other churches and non-governmental bodies. Attendance at the Reception was for me a first step. Let's see where it leads.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Attempt to Revoke Civil Partnership in Religious Premises Regulations

I am disappointed and saddened at the last minute attempt that will be made in the House of Lords on 8 December 2011 by Baroness O’Cathain (see below) to revoke the regulations to allow civil partnership registration in religious premises and would urge its clear rejection. This appears to be a cynical effort to derail the measure on rather spurious grounds.

The amendment to the Equality Bill permitting registration originated in the House of Lords and was passed with wide support. The matter of churches being “compelled” to register was dealt with by Section 202 which stated that “nothing in this Act places an obligation on religious organisations to host civil partnership registrations if they do not wish to do so”. This is reinforced in the regulations. Churches are no more obliged to enable civil partnerships to be registered on their premises  than hotels or other commercial premises.

British Unitarian and Free Christians have welcomed this opportunity to recognise in public, and support, a commitment between two individuals to each other. I am sure we will be amongst the first to register some of our premises and have registration ceremonies. This is entirely a local decision for each congregation reflecting our commitment to congregational autonomy and democratic governance as we made clear in our submission during to the consultation by the Equality Office.

Compulsion in matters of religion goes against our long history of struggle for our religious freedom. We are confident that the legislation offers the protection to those churches who hold a differing view on this issue and do not wish to register their premises for this purpose. They have that freedom.

Unitarian congregations must not be prevented at this late stage in seeking to take forward our own sincerely held views and to offer same sex couples the opportunity to register their civil partnership”  

House of Lords Future Business

Thursday 8 December at 11.00am

†Marriages and Civil Partnerships (Approved Premises) (Amendment) Regulations 2011 (SI 2011/2661) Baroness O’Cathain to move that a Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Regulations, laid before the House on 8 November, be annulled on the grounds that they do not fulfil the Government’s pledge to protect properly faith groups from being compelled to register civil partnerships where it is against their beliefs. 43rd Report from the Merits Committee

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Interest in Unitarianism Growing Worldwide

“Interest in Unitarianism and Unitarian Universalism Worldwide is growing” was the message at a recent “Tent Summit” in Boston, Massachusetts organized by the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU).

Representatives of the five largest member groups of the ICUU gathered under a tent (well more a gazebo) to symbolise a meeting of people and organisations as equals, as partners and working together with a common objective regardless of age, size or wealth. The “tent” motif comes from the St Ethelburga Centre in London, an historic church which was destroyed by a IRA terrorist bombing of the City in 1993 but rebuilt as a centre for peace and reconciliation.

It was inspiring to share stories with colleagues from Canada, North East India, Transylvania, United States as well as the UK. I was joined by Rev Martin Whitell, Executive Committee Convenor and Rev David Usher, Executive Committee member, as representatives of the General Assembly.

We explored the potential for collaboration and partnership building upon the work of ICUU over the last 16 years. We looked back into our history of working across political boundaries. It is not for nothing that one of the predecessor organisation of the British General Assembly was “The British and FOREIGN Unitarian Association”. Our fore bearers had a vision of Unitarianism expanding across the world.

We looked at our own strengths and what we could contribute to support the wider Unitarian-Univeralist movement. There are emerging groups in many countries as well as individuals who find Unitarianism through the web. Priorities include access to education and training for Ministers, support for lay leadership, opportunities for cross-cultural learning and exploring how we can promote social justice as an international movement.

Thanks to the ICUU President and the staff team for organizing the event and to the Unitarian Universalist Association for hosting us. The challenge is to put in place concrete actions to take forward the priorities identified.

For British Unitarians the message should be to widen our vision of an expanding Unitarian movement in Africa, Asia and Latin America. We have skills, knowledge and funds to bring for mutual benefit for we live in a globalised world and by acting locally we can do so much.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Be Passionate, Connected, Empowering and Authentic and You May Survive

Most of us where brought up with Kodak being a familiar commercial name. Patrick Butler, head of education, health and society at The Guardian, tells their tale in Third Sector (23 February 2010). Kodak, of course, made camera film and was very successful. Yet for a while Kodak somehow “lost the plot”; they thought that digital cameras were a fad. Fortunately for them they managed to reinvent themselves as a digital camera company and then drew on the strengths of their brand name. They managed to stay ahead of the curve, survive and thrive but not without undergoing major change.

We live in a rapidly changing world. Patrick suggested that the following will be the survivors; the passionate, the connected, the empowering, the authentic. He was thinking about charities and voluntary organisations. What about religious groups? I would think that this is relevant both locally and nationally. Where in fact do we stand if measured against this test?

The passionate. Passion has not always been associated with Unitarianism. In a harsh phrase, Ralph Waldo Emerson rejected “corpse cold Unitarianism”. Waldemar Argow argues that “The ideal in religion is to establish the proper balance between mind and emotion” (1). Individuals finding a spiritual home with us often bring passion; we need to ensure this is harnessed and not snuffed out. Collectively, as a denomination we should show we really care about injustice not simply put our hands in our pockets for a good cause. Passion, of course, does not mean we give up our belief in reason but without it we won’t be able to keep our energy levels high.

The connected. Is your congregation embedded in your local community or fairly isolated? Opening your doors to community activities is one way to build connections. Perhaps you are excluded from local ecumenical activities; why not develop your own amongst liberal religious and secular people? Are you connected to district and national Unitarian activities that can help you grow and sustain your community life?

The empowering. Unitarian values of democratic governance at congregational level should set an example of empowerment and participation. They can be liberating for those once active in more hierarchical churches. Yet sometimes we don’t practice what we preach and this can produce conflict and tension in congregations. For example, how the General Assembly involves our young people is something the Executive Committee has been discussing.

The authentic. Some say authenticity can be faked; I doubt it. For all our interest in celebrities – people famous for being famous – we know deep down that this is a sham. People in our churches and chapels will see through the “mask” to the inner reality of our community life. Yet a caring community can make such a difference to individuals and families in an increasingly isolated world.

To be passionate, connected, empowering and authentic is a huge challenge. These raise deep questions for us as individuals, as local communities and as General Assembly. But the prize is a bright future. Like Kodak, we may have to reinvent ourselves in some very practical ways. But like them we can draw upon our strengths, particularly our heritage of service, tolerance and love of freedom.

1. quoted in Lingwood, Stephen (2008) “The Unitarian Life”, Lindsey Press, page 22

This blog post appears in "The Unitarian", No 1293, November 2011

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

At the Home Office

Chief Officer Derek McAuley pictured outside the Home Office with from left Michael Bartlet (parliamentary liaison, Quaker Peace and Social Witness), Rabbi Danny Rich (Chief Executive, Liberal Judaism) and Paul Parker (Recording Clerk, Quaker Yearly Meeting) prior to a meeting last week with Lynne Featherstone MP, Minister for Equalities, on equal marriage.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Inclusivity Award 2012

I am pleased to be invited to be one of the judges of the Inclusivity Award 2012 of the Accord Coalition. The details of the criteria and how to apply are set out on Accord Coalition's website as below. If you know of any school that is working to promote inclusive communities please encourage them to apply.

"The Accord Coalition’s Inclusivity Awards are open to all schools in England and Wales. At its core is the belief that schools thrive when they have an inclusive and tolerant ethos based on shared values. The awards will be judged by a distinguished panel of experts from a variety of different political, professional and religious backgrounds.

The judges are especially interested in the way that schools address issues of religion and belief, both inside the school and through relationships with local, national and international communities. While the approach to different religions and beliefs will be the focus for judges, it may also be helpful to mention how the school’s inclusive ethos guides its policies on ethnic, cultural and socio-economic differences, as well as gender, age, disability and sexual orientation.


Ofsted describes the features of a school with an outstanding contribution to community cohesion as:
“The school has made an important and beneficial contribution to promoting community cohesion in its wider region or even nationally. Its planned actions to promote community cohesion are underpinned by an effective analysis of the school’s context (including faith, ethnic and cultural, and socio-economic factors). The school’s evaluation of its actions shows a significant impact on its own community. Learners have a strong sense of common values, integrate actively with learners from other groups, and are respectful of others’ differences. Learners themselves make a strong contribution to the promotion of equalities and the elimination of prejudice and discrimination.”

Our two key criteria

We agree with Ofsted, but we go further in two important ways. Firstly, we believe that many schools promote inclusion, cohesion and equality as a core part of their school ethos, and it is those schools that we want to hear about. We want to recognise fact that shared values shape the way that the schools sees themselves, and the way that they are seen by the community.

We therefore would like to see evidence not only of individual projects but also the strategic vision and school ethos behind them. Furthermore, we want to celebrate schools that nurture active citizens who are confident in themselves, tolerant and respectful of others and keen to make a difference in society.

This leads to our second key difference. Because we are convinced that cohesion, inclusion and equality are concepts that must be rooted in the ethos of schools, we feel they cannot be in isolation from other policies that affect the school and the wider community. For that reason we ask for details of a broad range of activities (curriculum, admissions, assemblies, visits etc), not just about specific initiatives established to promote community cohesion.

The scope of the awards

Prizes will be awarded to the schools that have done the most to embody an ethos of inclusion. Other schools may also be commended for their work on inclusion, cohesion and equality either as a whole, or with reference to a particular outstanding feature. For this reason we suggest schools highlight a policy that they feel has been especially successful or innovative."

Campaign for Robin Hood Tax intensifies

I have given my support to the following letter to the Prime Minister from chief executives of a range of voluntary sector and other organisations who support the Robin Hood Campaign for a financial transactions tax

28 October 2011

Rt. Hon. David Cameron MP
Prime Minister
10 Downing Street
London SW1A

Dear Prime Minister,

In February 2010 we launched the Robin Hood Tax campaign, calling for a tiny tax on financial transactions to tackle poverty at home and overseas, provide vaccines and life saving treatment for the world’s most vulnerable, and tackle the impacts of climate change. Eighteen months later we are just days away from a G20 summit where a financial transactions tax (FTT) will be debated. We have the support of over 115 organisations in the UK, hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, 1000 international economists, hundreds of parliamentarians, campaigners in over 50 countries, world leaders such as Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, and global figures such as Bill Gates.

But we don’t yet have the support of the UK Government.

We are calling on you to change this now, and work with other G20 countries to introduce a Financial Transactions Tax when you attend the G20 summit in Cannes. Your government has said that you are not opposed to an international financial transactions tax and that you will engage on this issue. But we fear that instead the UK Government is acting to block debate. This is despite the fact that the UK has one of the largest transaction taxes in the world, the stamp duty on shares, and is a world leader in showing how to design and implement such taxes without global agreement.

The UK is also leading the world with its commitment to reach 0.7% of GNI as ODA and is in a position of strength to champion development and climate finance. We therefore also call on you to argue that the revenues from an FTT are used in part to support international development efforts, and to provide the minimum $100bn pledged for climate finance.

A Robin Hood Tax would be the most popular tax in history. While you are at Cannes, please act for those hit hardest by the financial crisis. Act to protect essential public services in the UK, to tackle poverty at home and overseas, and to address climate change.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Chancellor urged to support Financial Transaction Tax at G20

Last week I gave my support to the following letter to George Osborne MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer, from the chief executives of over a hundred organisations urging him to support a financial transactions tax at the meeting of the G20 nations:

"We write to you ahead of the forthcoming meeting of G20 Finance Ministers on the 14th October to urge you to support the efforts of the French G20 Presidency to implement a Financial Transaction Tax (FTT).

International momentum for a tax on financial transactions is growing rapidly. Alongside key figures such as Angela Merkel and Bill Gates are the voices of campaigners in over 50 countries.

The concrete proposals for a Europe-wide tax are a welcome development in that they demonstrate the feasibility of an FTT amongst a group of willing nations. However the Robin Hood Tax campaign is categorical that the revenues from such a tax should not be for the EC budget, but should be used to protect front line public services, to tackle poverty at home and overseas, providing vaccines and life saving treatment for the world’s most vulnerable, and to address climate change. We are joined in this argument by the French President but also Bill Gates who supports the implementation of an FTT to help finance development, citing the UK Stamp Duty as an example of its viability.

The UK has one of the largest transaction taxes in the world, the Stamp Duty, and is a world leader in showing how to design and implement such taxes to mitigate avoidance. Expanding the Stamp Duty to capture derivatives could raise billions in additional revenue for the UK. The UK is also leading the world with its commitment to reach 0.7% of GNI as ODA and is in a position of strength to champion development and climate finance. We would ask the UK government to support the efforts of European colleagues for an FTT as a key step towards finding wider agreement amongst a coalition of willing nations at the G20.

We represent just the leading members of the over 115 organisations in the UK who back this tax and who would warmly welcome your support for it. This would be the most popular tax in history. We ask the coalition government to seize this moment and support a Robin Hood Tax in the UK."

The General Assembly has given its support to the Robin Hood Campaign.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Perspective on the NHS - High Quality Health Care for All is the Sign of a Compassionate and Responsible Society

The latest report from the Care Quality Commission is a shocking indictment of standards of care for elderly people in parts of the National Health Service. As important is the revelation of how widespread the problems seem to be, affecting 55 of the 100 hospitals visited. Elderly people were found to be deprived of food, water and their dignity. No “ifs or buts” this is unacceptable. Having worked in an NHS body that suffered a similar breakdown in care and management I can well understand the impact on patients and their relatives and also on staff on wards or other services unaffected by the report’s findings.

This week has also seen debate in the House of Lords on the Health and Social Care Bill which was given a second reading. This seeks to implement a series of major changes to the way the NHS is run, offer patient choice, use competition between providers within a balanced regulatory system that promotes integrated care, transfers public health responsibility to local authorities and establishes Health and Wellbeing Boards. And this from a Secretary of State who said in opposition there would no top-down reforms of NHS structure.

What should be a Unitarian perspective on these changes to the NHS? As with any issue of faith and public issues it is best to see if the General Assembly has any stated position. If not, or if the position is out-dated, are there any general principles upon which we can draw? In this case we have the former.

In 1944 the General Assembly Annual Meetings approved a Resolution urging the Government to accept “without reservation” the principles embodied in the Beveridge Report on “Social Insurance and Allied Services” published in 1942. Beveridge identified the five “Giant Evils”; squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease, and went on to propose widespread reform to the system of social welfare to address these. Highly popular with the public, the report formed the basis for the post-war reforms, what became known as the Welfare State, which included the expansion of National Insurance and the creation of the National Health Service.

In 1989 an emergency Resolution was approved expressing concerns about changes to the Health Services arising from the Conservative Government’s NHS White paper “Working for Patients” without proper consultation or trials and urging the Government to reconsider the proposals which it was believed could lead to poorer quality of care and reduced choice for patients and be determined by cost rather than clinical need. The Government was urged to give priority to fully tax funded provision under the NHS of local hospitals and community health services which should be accessible to local residents, especially children and older people. The White paper was, however, implemented and laid the basis for the provider-purchaser split (in England but no longer in Scotland or Wales) and facilitated the introduction of non-NHS providers of services and greater “commercialisation”.

In 2000 the General Assembly “strongly” affirmed its commitment to the principle of a NHS free of charge to patients at the point of delivery and called upon the Government and the Scottish Executive to provide sufficient resources from general taxation to ensure the NHS was adequately funded to meet the health needs of modern society. The Budget Statement of March 2000 was welcomed.

A group of top doctors and health specialists has warned that the current reforms will do "irreparable harm" to the health service:

"The Bill will do irreparable harm to the NHS, to individual patients and to society as a whole. It ushers in a significantly heightened degree of commercialisation and marketisation that will fragment patient care; aggravate risks to individual patient safety; erode medical ethics and trust within the health system; widen health inequalities; waste much money on attempts to regulate and manage competition; and undermine the ability of the health system to respond effectively and efficiently to communicable disease outbreaks and other public health emergencies … It is our professional judgment that the Health and Social Care Bill will erode the NHS's ethical and co-operative foundations and that it will not deliver efficiency, quality, fairness or choice."

The letter includes signatories from across a wide spectrum of public health practice, including more than 40 directors of public health and some 100 leading public health academics.

The NHS Confederation’s Chief Executive, Mike Farrar said: "There is support for some of the principles in the Bill but at a practical level it has few enthusiasts and we need the Lords to help give the reforms a fighting chance of success. They still need to sort out some of the fundamentals - the accountability of all the key players in the system must be crystal clear, not least of the Secretary of State. And we also need peers to get beneath the surface of the legislation and give us the practical tools we need to tackle the major problems we face.”

In summary the position of the General Assembly has been to support the principle of a state funded and provided national health service provided free to patients. This undoubtedly reflects the Unitarian commitment to the inherent dignity of all individuals; including the needs for health, income and shelter, and an appreciation of our wider responsibility for community. Of course, no specific set of internal organisational arrangements for the NHS should be accorded “approval”; these must change as the environment changes. Indeed, involvement of community based and mutual organisations, such as co-operatives, could be seen as being closer to service users. As a former chair of a medium-sized community mental health organisation for young people I saw the value of being able to develop ground-breaking services that met real needs of marginal communities free from the pressures of the “standard” NHS body.

Today we face rising demand from a growing and ageing population, increased expectations from patients accompanied by increased costs of new drugs and technologies. However, the claims of solidarity that underpin a Unitarian perspective need to be safeguarded in any changes; protecting what is valued and ensuring that the poor performance exposed by the Care Quality Commission is addressed at every level of the NHS. High quality health care for all is a sign of a compassionate and responsible society.

Monday, 10 October 2011

New Book - An introduction to the Unitarian and Universalist traditions

As a minority faith with a small number of members finding material about Unitarianism can be difficult and I would therefore recommend a new book from the prestigious Cambridge University Press. By Andrea Greenwood and Mark W. Harris, “An introduction to the Unitarian and Universalist traditions” does what it says on the tin!

The book is an introduction over 250 pages to the Unitarian and Universalist movement. These traditions came together in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations in the United States. But this is not a book about the origins of the Association. It describes the historical and global context for a worldwide liberal free faith.

The first half of the book is an historical journey from the beginnings of Unitarianism in the Reformation with a focus on Poland and Transylvania. Unitarianism was snuffed out on the former but still survives in the latter region of modern Romania.

British and Irish Unitarians will be interested in the short chapter on Great Britain. This is quick canter through key events in our history; all the key figures are there. The paragraph on Ireland is scant and inadequate not just in understanding of historical events (speaking as someone with an Ulster Presbyterian background) but also in describing the relationship between the British General Assembly and the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland. The stream of Unitarian thinking which influenced America and then India is enlightening. A niggling error is to describe William Gaskell as ministering in Birmingham for over fifty years; particularly as five lines later Gaskell is described as remaining in Manchester.

The conclusion that institutionalized Unitarianism in Britain walked a precarious line of claiming legitimacy, yet fearing the constraints of any affiliation seems a fair assessment. The “dramatic” membership loss is starkly set out; 80% in 65 years yet it is wrong to say that buildings lost or damaged in World war Two were not replaced; the 1950s saw a stream of rebuilding that many hoped would auger well for the future. It was not to be and at least one of these multi-purpose buildings, Cross Street Chapel in Manchester, has since been replaced by a stunning worship space.

There follows a description of development in America and then of the global reach; India, Japan, Jamaica, Korea, Czechoslovakia and Canada. It ends with the efforts to establish the International Council of Unitarian and Universalists (ICUU).

What is most shocking is how liberal religion was harnessed to US colonial interests in the Philippines through the founding of the Philippines Independent Church led by Gregorio Aglipay. The group splintered after World War Two and independence. The Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines, a current member of the ICUU, owes its origins to Universalism not these developments. Surely an ironic lesson on how a religious institution, even a liberal one, can be manipulated by state authorities.

The second half of the book is topic based with chapters on congregational polity, worship, sources of faith, science and ecology and education and social justice. British Unitarians feature by name and the diversity of the movement is reflected.

It is fascinating to realise how developments in one country can, and don't, influence others. This is a theme of the concluding chapter. Technology will foster bonds by making outreach, support and connection easier. The need to keep people who are currently attending as well as attracting new ones is raised as a question. The conclusion is that Unitarian Universalism is a this-worldly faith which surely unites churches in all parts of the world.

Available from all online book stores and to order from your local bookshop at around £16. Prices will vary.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Implementation of civil partnership registration in religious premises not a substitute for same sex religious marriage

The announcement by the Equalities Minister, Lynne Featherstone MP, at the weekend that a consultation on same sex civil marriage will commence in March 2012 is welcome but in so many ways remains disappointing.

It would be churlish not to acknowledge the progress that has been made by this and the last Government. The implementation of the Equalities Act clause permitting civil partnership registration on religious premises is moving ahead and I understand that the Government will publish its response to the consultation it held earlier this year in October and is on track for regulations to be in place by the end of the year. All good news for lesbian and gay people.

Whilst I welcome the publication of a date for the consultation to commence I am disappointed that it is not until March 2012. There is no reason why it should not move ahead before Christmas.

I am also concerned that the consultation will not include arrangements for same sex religious marriage. This is a discriminatory measure that is not sustainable in the longer term.

As a “free” church Unitarians and Free Christians are very conscious that the state should not unduly interfere in our internal business. We also acknowledge our responsibilities as charitable organisations and as part of civil society to the wider community and the laws enacted by Parliament.

Our freedom to worship together and indeed for opposite sex couples to be married in our churches was hard won in the 19th century and it is disappointing that our wish to hold same sex marriage ceremonies appears to have been stymied by the requirements of the religious establishment. We do not wish to force others to act against their conscience but neither should the law force us to act against ours. Whether or not churches will conduct religious marriage ceremonies for same sex couples should be a matter for them.

The Government should not see implementation of civil partnership registration in religious premises as a substitute for same sex religious marriage.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Exploring the significance of Tagore's first name - "lord of the sun"

Writing in The Guardian (8 July 2011) Amit Chaudhuri's "Rereading Rabindranth Tagore" explains the significance of "Rabindranath"

"Tagore's first name sounded like gobbledegook to Larkin's ears, and Dickens, who met Tagore's grandfather Dwarkanath in London in 1842, had this to say of that name: "I have spelt it backwards, but it makes no less tremendous nonsense that way." But there's a narrative behind the names. "Dwarkanath" means "lord of Dwarka" – Dwarka is Krishna's home; it's another name for Krishna, and is a properly Hindu name. Tagore's father's name, Debendranath, means "lord of the gods", and has a clear religious connotation. "Rabindranath" means "lord of the sun"; it announces a shift from the invocation of the gods in Bengali naming toward names that suggest or contain light or radiance. Debendranath, a prime mover of the unitarian Brahmo Samaj, is, in naming his son (indeed all his sons), moving away from the old, populous Hindu universe to a sphere of immanent illumination: the world of the so-called Bengali "enlightenment".

Monday, 11 July 2011

Sephardic infuences on liberal religion

Last weekend I attended a performance in Manchester’s Reform Synagogue by Mor Karbasi as part of the “Sacred Sites” element of the Manchester International Festival. It was a dramatic and stunning performance drawing upon songs inspired by the Jewish Sephardi culture of 15th century Spain to new Ladino-influenced compositions. In the words of the programme, “Mor’s music is heavily inspired by and influenced by her deep connections with the Jewish faith, and her love for Spain and Morocco”.

The performance brought to mind a surprising theme of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s magisterial “Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490 – 1700”. He records the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian peninsula and the creation of a Sephardic diaspora. He traces the way that the “traumas, excitements and uncertainties released by the destruction of Muslim and Jewish civilisation in Spain fed into Spanish mysticism”, such as the Carmelite spirituality of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross but also to the alumbrado (“enlightened ones”) movement. The later movement, of whom many were crypto-Jews, influenced the “Spirituali” movement in Italy of evangelical humanists who were later to face their own expulsion. MacCulloch indicates that they made a “great” contribution to the anti-trinitarianism or Unitarianism which flourished in East Europe, most notably the Polish Movement which became identified with the Italian Sozzini, known as “Socinianism”.

Miquel Servetus, whose anniversary of his birth we celebrate this year, is described by MacCulloch as “the classic martyr for radical religion” and being inspired by what was happening in Spain and Portugal.

These challenges to Christian orthodoxy interacted with questions amongst the Sephardic Jews who had found refuge in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, which having achieved independence from Spain now valued freedom and tolerance. Amsterdam was also home to radical Christians; including the Libertines, Arminians, from the Dutch Reformed tradition, and then the Socinians fleeing the counter-reformation in Poland. Out of this mix emerged Benedict Spinoza. This is a surprising tale of how recurrent Sephardic connections flowed into liberal religion.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Accord Coalition publishes comprehensive review of evidence on faith schools

Evidence based policy-making is talked about but rarely implemented and education policy seems to suffer from lack of robustness.

It is great news that the Accord Coalition has today published a major new resource of information collating a wide variety of contemporary evidence and research about information on the policy implications of state funded faith schools and their practice.

"Accord’s ‘Databank of Independent Evidence on Faith Schools’ has been made freely available on the organisation’s website and has been produced to help journalists, researchers, legislators and members of the public. All of the information dates from 2001 or later, and the majority was produced in the last three years.

Topics covered in the report include research looking at faith school’s impact upon social and community cohesion, their level of attainment, religious discrimination in employment and admissions, the provision of Religious Education, Collective Worship, Sex and Relationships, as well as various statistical information and opinion polls."

The General Assembly is a member of Accord and is pleased to be associated with its work. This is a mine of useful information for anyone concerned about the role of faith schools in our society.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Love, Civil Partnerships and Marriage

I spoke on "Love, Civil Partnership and Marriage" at the GMB (General and Municipal Boilermakers) Trade Union "Shout!" fringe meeting prior to the Trades Union Council (TUC) LGBT Conference earlier this week. The General Assembly works with several trade unions as part of the Cutting Edge Consortium.

I explained the background to Unitarian support for equal rights for LGBT people arising from our historic commitment to civil and religious liberty.

I said "Love” in all its diversity cannot be limited to institutional arrangements about marriage and civil partnerships. I recognise that for many LGBT people these are not for them. But equal marriage rights does make a statement about society’s acceptance of equality for LGBT people more generally.

In 2008 Unitarians asked the Government to allow Civil Partnerships on religious premises little knowing that this would soon be raised as a real possibility. We were pleased to support Lord Alli’s amendment to the Equality Bill along with our close friends in the Quakers, Liberal Judaism and the MCC. This support according to Stonewall made a real difference. We have always been open to couples rejected elsewhere; such as mixed faith weddings and of divorcees; and for those who want to have a more personalised service. We know that many gay people of faith have wanted this every important event in their lives to be recognised in a place that is significant to them and some of our Ministers carried out same sex blessings.

As for the future Lynne Featherstone MP, Minister for Equality, has launched a opportunity to debate same sex civil marriage and to “Work with all those who have an interest in equal civil marriage and partnerships, on how legislation can develop.” (July 2011)

The history of marriage reform in this country is one of the Church of England slowly giving up its monopoly. Unitarians and other dissenters, apart from Quakers and Jews, had to marry in the CoE until 1837.

In Scotland a recent paper by the Scottish Human Rights Commission had the rather pointed title “Ending the Segregation of same sex couples and transgender people”. The SNP Government is committed to consulting on the issue and the First Minister is on record as supporting equal marriage.

As the mainstream Churches oppose civil partnerships on their premises they will undoubtedly oppose any legislation on same sex marriage. They will do this because marriage has always been central to the Church of England’s role as national Church. They and other churches (including Unitarians) carry out what are state functions in many other countries; marriage in church is not an add on to a civil ceremony; it is legally equivalent and came before civil marriage. The challenge will be that same sex civil marriage will redefine what marriage is and raise the issue of same sex religious marriage. We and the Quakers and Liberal Jews will, of course, argue for this seeking real equality.

The religion and society thinktank Ekklesia, which backs reform, has suggested that the civil and religious aspects of weddings should be separated, freeing the state to offer marriage and partnership rights to all, and enabling various religious bodies to decide independently which relationships they wish to bless without preventing others from acting differently. This may be a way forward but represents a major change to marriage law.

There was a vigorous discussion in the forty strong audience. Issues affecting trans people were raised and this is something that I had not addressed and about which I have much to learn. The relationship between gender reassignment and marriage law in complex and very different to those affecting LGB people. We also had a good debate on what should be the tactics; seek to achieve civil marriage law recognising that religious bodies will oppose change or try to achieve a permissive right for those faith bodies who wish to undertake same sex marriages or alternatively seek major marriage law reform more generally.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Civil Partnerships on Religious Premises

Yesterday was the deadline for submissions to the Government's Equality Office on the consultation paper on civil partnerships on religious premises.

The General Assembly has submitted a detailed response to the list of questions. The focus is on implementation not the principles.

We supported the legislative change in the Equality Act 2010 allowing for registration and the subsequent publication of the consultation document.

There are serious concerns about the levels of fees that may be required and some of the practical details.

I have been pleased to work with other like-minded organisations, such as the Quakers, Trades Union Congress and Stonewall, in discussing our different approaches and then sharing copies of responses. We didn't always agree but the dialogue was important and I am sure we can build upon it as implementation proceeds.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Is there a Future for Community?

“Is there a Future for Community?” seems a provocative question. “Of course there is” would be the immediate reply of many but is this response grounded in evidence? This was the topic for a Council of Christians and Jews sponsored Seminar today at the Institute for Government with the Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks and Professor Robert Putnam, Harvard University; well known for his book “Bowling Alone”.

Hosted by Lord Adonis, former Government Minister and chaired by Daniel Johnson, Editor of Standpoint, it drew a high quality audience. Prof. Putnam introduced the key findings of his latest book “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us” (with David E. Campbell). He said that in the US religious people are “nicer” than secular; meaning that they give more, volunteer more and behave in more neighbourly ways. This seems a startling conclusion.

Apparently what denomination or faith groups you belong to does not make a difference; neither does the theology. What matters is frequency of engagement; going to Church or Synagogue or Mosque is therefore good for you! His work on the United Kingdom was already showing similar conclusions.

He also highlighted the dark side and emphasised that this must not be forgotten in any reporting of his work. Religious people can be somewhat intolerant of dissent and polarise opinion in public. This is counter-balanced on the ground in the US by the close inter-faith friendships that most people have in that very diverse nation.

Lord Sacks helpfully defined community; “Where they know who you are and miss you when you are not there”! These attributes were found in religious communities not Facebook or Twitter. Echoing Prof Putnam he rightly said that theology makes an interesting subject but religion makes a difference in the world by joining us to others.

Journalist, Matthew d’Ancona asked why this was so? There is as yet no answer and Prof Putnam is looking for the missing ingredient which ensures this is the case for religious groups and not other social movements or organisations.

Clearly the UK offers a very different picture to the US with (as with the rest of northern Europe) low levels of Church attendance. You should not therefore hope to build the “Big Society” by having a “revival” of religion. But what attributes are there to congregational life that provokes engagement with others; often outside the faith group to which you belong? I believe that Unitarian communities offer opportunities to engage with others on issues of meaning; there are few other spaces to do this in our busy world. So lets forget the secular-religion grandstanding and debate and focus on what brings us together across the various divides.

Friday, 10 June 2011

The Archbishop and Democracy

The Editorial by Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the “New Statesman” has certainly created a stir. He wrote that he hoped to start a lively debate about the future – from right and left. The statement that has attracted most attention is that which denied the mandate of the Coalition Government for its major NHS and education reforms and overshadows a more considered plea for a debate about the nature of democracy.

Unitarians were at the forefront of campaigns to open up the systems of government to the people. “Civil and Religious liberty for all the world over” remains our underpinning principle in social affairs reflected in the values of “freedom, reason and tolerance”. We had to struggle for many years to achieve these rights for ourselves; we know that many others still lack them.

Regretfully, people have had to give their lives for freedom and democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are inspirational. Yet, as in post-communist Eastern Europe, technical processes of democracy need to be supported by a functioning civil society respecting individual freedom and community values.

Rowan Williams acknowledges that some political thinkers are looking at theological traditions that can lead to paternalism. He points to a theological position on sustainable communities, based on the idea of St Paul, of the mutual creation of capacity; “building the ability of the other person or group to become, in turn, a giver of life and responsibility”. He argues that democracy should ideally be religious in its roots but not exclusive or confessional and measure its policies against Paul’s standard. He sees the state as a “community of communities”.

There are obvious dangers in this approach. Williams rejects a “Balkanised” focus on the local; surely this is a risk as communities have traditionally been seen as geographically local. The rights of individuals to pursue their own interests can often be undermined by appeals for community solidarity. We see this is in the religious sphere in some countries where changing religion is unacceptable and even prohibited. The complexities of identity in modern societies – of origin, class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and location – provides a rich menu from which people draw.

Finally, I am struck by the irony of the complaint that the Government lacks a mandate coming from an unelected member of one of the Houses of Parliament, who sits there by nature of his religious office. The General Assembly has no stated policy on House of Lords Reform and the future role of the Bishops in the Church of England, however, surely going back to first principles would result in a conflict with democratic principles and their ultimate removal. Few nations have representatives of religious bodies in their legislature seeing it as reflecting pre-modern ideas of Christendom and indeed the confessional state Dr Williams rejects. Such a change would of course liberate the Archbishop to speak the truth as he sees it.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Britain's First Railway Murder - a Unitarian Connection

Guest blog by Alan Ruston, President Unitarian Historical Society

The publication in May 2011 of a book describing a nineteenth century murder highlights the violent death of a London Unitarian. Kate Colquhoun has written under the title Mr Briggs’ Hat: A Sensational Account of Britain’s First Railway Murder, Little Brown, 352 pages, £16.99.

Thomas Briggs was the chief clerk of the merchant bankers Robarts Curtis & Co of Lombard Street. This made him the senior banker below the directors. He was born in Cartmel, Lancashire in March 1795 and had worked his way up the banking tree, and was now living in Clapton Square Hackney, a most desirable large residence. In those days Hackney was where the aspiring middle class sought to reside. He had a numerous family, and had been brought up an Anglican. However hearing a sermon by the redoubtable and intolerant Bishop Blomfield he decided to look elsewhere. Briggs’ stockbroker friend JE Netherville (another figure with Unitarian connections) who lived in Dalston introduced him to the Rev Robert Aspland, then (early 1840s) minister at the New Gravel Pit Chapel Hackney.

Briggs with his extensive family joined the Hackney congregation. In the 1850s, he was a member of the main committee, the treasurer 1853/4 and from 1856 part of the sub committee charged with erecting a new Gothic style building which they did in 1858. Thomas Briggs took and active part in this process. He was for at least twenty years a regular attendee at worship on Sunday mornings.

On the morning of 9 July 1864 he set out to walk the short distance to Hackney train station and soon arrived at his office. About 9pm the train stopped at Hackney and people raised the alarm as blood was flying out of a first class compartment. Soon Thomas was found still just alive with severe head wounds, but he died the following day. His funeral was held at the Church with a large congregation and he was interred in the burial ground; his family memorial stone was still present in quite recent times.

New style police investigation methods had recently been introduced and suspicion soon fell on Franz Muller, a young German born tailor working in the East End. A twist arose as Muller decamped to New York but the police went there to arrest him. A sensational trial followed widely reported in the newspapers. The evidence was circumstantial, some of it resting on Briggs’ hat that was found in Muller’s possession. He was well represented but the circumstantial evidence was so strong that he was convicted and hanged in the November, one of the last public executions at Newgate.

Changes in the rules of evidence not long after may have helped him, and because he had an accomplice (not found) it was thought the intention was robbery not murder. There was a public outcry but the law took its course. A unique case, not only because it was this first murder on a train, but is considered to be one of the main reasons the communication cord was introduced on trains. And then there was the British police going to New York to arrest him, new and exciting.

The Inquirer took an interest in all this. An obituary and the main features of what happened were described in the 22 July 1864 issue and an editorial on 5 November, just before the execution took place. The Inquirer thought execution was wrong and that the charge should have been manslaughter. Incidentally, James Martineau who many thought the Inquirer slavishly followed, would have disagreed with this stand as he was a strong supporter of capital punishment. The book is to be recommended as it’s well researched and written though not the place to go to search out Brigg’s Unitarian connections.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Raw Faith - the story of a woman who finds faith in herself

Few of us would open up our lives to the camera. Marilyn Sewell, Minister of First Unitarian Church in Portland, USA did just that. This is the story of a woman who finds faith in herself.

"Synopsis: This surprisingly open and revealing documentary follows two years in the private life of a minister. Marilyn Sewell is successful and beloved in the pulpit, but behind the scenes she is lonely and yearning for change. As she considers leaving the ministry, she realizes she will be leaving her only social network. Yet when she falls in love for the first time, she realizes she does not trust intimacy. A study in contrasts, Marilyn must rely on raw faith as she questions her future, her difficult past, her God and, most importantly, her ability to love."

She also writes about Unitarian-Universalist theology in The

Friday, 20 May 2011

A fascinating Experience at Church

I have said on a few occasions recently that in Britain's individualistic culture a unitarian congregation can be a place where real issues of meaning are considered in community without pre-conceptions and instant solutions. We truly offer an open space.

In this spirit the following blog entry about an experience at Stratford Unitarian Church in East London is powerful and moving.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Congratulations on 50th Anniversary of Canadian Unitarian Council

I have offered the congratulations of the General Assembly to the Executive Director of the Canadian Unitarian Council on their formation 50 years ago which will be celebrated at their Annual Conference and Meeting in Toronto later this week.

The links between British and Canadian Unitarians, of course, go back to the mid-19th Century and the bonds of shared ideals, friendship and mutual support sustain our relationship. The Canadian Unitarian Council remains an affiliated body of the General Assembly and that we join together in the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists.

As bodies of a similar size we have much to learn from each other.

Faith charities delivering public services could increase discrimination

Idaho Day - International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia - was yesterday. One challenge is to ensure that LGBTQI people and others are not discriminated against in the delivery of public services as public sector reform proceeds in a period of austerity.

The "Big Society", a policy much promoted by the Government, and built around social action, public service reform and community empowerment, needs to be inclusive. You cannot have a "Big Society" and then implicitly or explictly exclude and marginalise some groups. Unitarians have long worked to promote social justice and led many initiatives for social improvement. We have never applied religious tests to our work.

We need joined up policies. One risk is that encouraging faith groups to be more active in delivery of public services could in some cases lead to a conflict with equality and diversity policy. This was one point I made in a submission on the "Big Society" to the Public Administration Select Committee review that has been picked up by the online edition of the magazine Third Sector.

Monday, 16 May 2011

How the Buddha Solved His Marketing Problem

Visibility is one of the Executive Committee's strategic priorities. This blog raises some relevant points as it is written for online marketeers:

How the Buddha Solved His Marketing Problem

"If you aspire to make a positive difference in the world, by working through your business, your profession, or your nonprofit organisation, ultimately your success comes down to the difference you make to people around you.

So one of the first steps you should take is to find your village of like-minded people — the people you can help and support, and who will help and support you in their turn."

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Unitarians, revolution and "The Marseillaise"

Looking online to check if the General Assembly in Swansea gathered any media coverage I came across the following reference to the Unitarian "black spot" - that area in Credigion with 13 Unitarian Chapels.

The Association for Welsh Writing in English in collaboration with the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies organized its annual conference in April 2011 on the subject of ‘Wales and Revolution’ and one of the speakers Dr. Marion Löffler (CAWCS, Aberystwyth) talked about ‘The Marseillaise in Wales’. The conference abstract makes fascinating reading:

"The ‘Marseillaise’ is (arguably) the most famous cultural artefact to emerge from the French Revolution of 1789. This key symbol of a decade which laid the cornerstone for modern politics, written as the ‘War Song for the Army of the Rhine’ in 1792, and adopted as the French national anthem in 1795, soon made its way across the Channel into Britain. A partial English translation of four of its seven stanzas had appeared in several radical publications as early as 1793. Three years later, a Welsh adaptation of this English version and of an unknown, possibly French, source, appeared in the radical Welsh periodical Y Geirgrawn, accompanied by a new paratext on its importance and the translator’s radical stance. In the years and decades which followed, this Welsh song was copied into various manuscripts, added to, translated back into English and sung at local gatherings in the Unitarian ‘black spot’. The nineteenth century saw it reprinted in Welsh periodicals, used by the Welsh working class movement and translated into Welsh at least twice more. Both this wider history of the ‘Marseillaise’ in Wales and a closer look at the text of its adaptation, ‘Cân Rhyddid’, illustrate how revolutionary ideas may be transmitted: when the translator combines deep political conviction with a thorough knowledge of his own culture to create a brilliantly evocative new text."

With such a tradition of radicalism where does Unitarianism stand today? We had a forthright debate on the plight of destitute asylum seekers at the Annual Meetings in Swansea and overwhelmingly called for the Government to change its policies.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Swansea General Assembly 7. - Amnesty International

Unitarians have long been active in supporting Amnesty International in word and deed. The General Assembly unanimously recognised Amnesty International's 50th Anniversary by approving the resolution put forward by the Unitarian Peace Fellowship:

That this General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches:
[1] congratulates Amnesty International on the occasion of its 50th Anniversary in July 2011. [2] notes Amnesty International’s devoted work for human rights and civil and religious liberty worldwide; its determined advocacy of all victims of injustice and political and religious persecution, in particular women, gay people and vulnerable minorities; and its campaigns against the death penalty and judicial injustices.
[3] requests the Chief Officer to write to Amnesty International expressing our warmest congratulations and encourages our Unitarian congregations to mark this occasion appropriately.

Swansea Annual Meetings 6. - GA seeks to become partner organisation to the Charter for Compassion

The General Assembly affirmed its support for the Charter for Compassion promoted by well known author and religious thinker Karen Armstrong by passing the following resolution proposed by Northampton Unitarians and 64 individual members (59 Ministers and 5 Honorary Members):

That this General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches:

[1] joins with the Unitarian Universalist Association, the International Association for Religious Freedom, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Religions for Peace, the Council for a Parliament of the World Religions, the National Council of Churches USA, the Three Faiths Forum, the Earth Charter and other people of goodwill from various spiritual traditions throughout the world in affirming the Charter for Compassion.
[2] urges our fellow Unitarians and Universalists to reflect on the Charter’s vital humanitarian message, inspired by the Golden Rule, and to act in its spirit.
[3] resolves to become a partner organisation to the Charter for Compassion.

Swansea General Assembly 5. - Destitute Asylum Seekers

Concern for the marginalised has always been a priority for British Unitarians and after a lively yet serious debate the following resolution proposed by Oldham Unitarian Chapel was overwhelmingly carried by the General Assembly:

That this General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches:
[1] applauds this statement concerning asylum seekers by Kate Wareing, Director, UK Poverty, Oxfam on February 4th, 2011:

"Thousands of people are being forced into destitution as a result of government policies. We must end the policies that lead to destitution, and are unacceptable in the sixth richest country in the world".

[2] recognises that such destitution affects tens of thousands of people currently resident in the United Kingdom;

[3] holds that the United Kingdom government should change policies which lead to destitution and should ensure a fair, efficient asylum system which protects the rights and dignity of all who use it.

[4] requests its Chief Officer to write to the Immigration Minister recommending that the United Kingdom government should:

[4a] provide destitute asylum seekers with support to meet essential living needs: either until they are returned to their country of origin or they are given permission to remain within the United Kingdom;

[4b] provide free access to healthcare for all asylum seekers while they are in the United Kingdom;

[4c] grant asylum seekers permission to work if their case has not been resolved within six months or they have been refused, but temporarily cannot be returned through no fault of their own;

[4d] improve decision making and ensure that all those in need of protection receive it.

[5] encourages Unitarian and Free Christian congregations and every individual Unitarian to write to their own MPs in furtherance of these proposals.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Swansea Annual Meetings 4. - Welsh Reflections

We promised a distinctively Welsh flavour to the Annual Meetings of the General Assembly in Swansea and we did not disappoint.

We celebrated in song. The "Gymanfa Ganu", a singing festival and a regular feature of Welsh Unitarian churches, on Sunday afternoon saw what is probably the largest national gathering of Unitarians in Britain this century. I was worried we would look like a small group in the magnificent Brangwyn Hall, but we filled it. To sing well-known Unitarian hymns in English and Welsh was a memorable experience.

The social evening the previous evening was a joy. The award-winning youth choir from Credigion entertained us in the finest choral traditons of Wales. Our new Welsh Department Secretary, Carwyn Tywyn played folk on the three string harp. To hear the Welsh national anthem three times in one day was not overkill!

And what a pleasure to welcome the Bangor Unitarians to membership of the General Assembly. They are the first new group to join the General Assembly since 2003. They have made such progress in a short time and have potential to grow further.

Swansea in 2011 will remain in our thoughts with Welsh Unitarianism on the march.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Swansea Annual Meetings 3 - Strategic Priorities

The Executive Committee presented its work on the strategic priorities developed over recent months in response to the Difficult Choices consultation with the denomination in 2010.

Our aim is to benefit our communities by:

•Encouraging and supporting leadership at local level
•Developing Ministry within the denomination
•Raising the visibility of the Unitarian movement
•Improving the services to the movement by staff and volunteers

Strategic Groups are to be be established to take forward the first three strategic priorities; local leadership, Ministry and Visibility. The EC held two question times to give an opportunity for comment and reported back to the plenary session of the Annual Meetings on the final day.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Swansea Annual Meetings 2 - Top Ten Tips

Ten top tips for surviving the Annual Meetings I am speaking at the Newcomers Welcome. These are my top ten tips for enjoying the meeting - perhaps just surviving!
1. Read your Annual meetings Handbook and timetable and do not lose it
2. “Pick and mix” is the best approach to deciding what to go too – why not try something that you would not normally have the chance to experience. Just go for it and enjoy.
3. Don’t try to fill every moment of the day and night – why not go and sit in the quiet room
4. Get some sleep
5. Don’t stuff yourself with food every meal just because you or your congregation have paid for it
6. Get to know Andrew Mason from Essex Hall – he is the font of all wisdom on the annual meetings.
7. Don’t be afraid to go up to someone for a chat – just say “where are you from” as we are all from somewhere - and off you go. Friends for life! We are all friendly even the EC (That’s the Executive Committee who are responsible for the GA)
8. Buy GA Zette – it tells you about the things you did not manage to get to
9. If you want to buy some books that you cannot get anywhere else in Britain get in early as the bookshop normally sells out.
10. And finally make sure you check out on time

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Swansea Annual Meetings 1 - Welsh Flavour

The General Assembly Annual Meetings begin this Friday at the University of Swansea. It is our first time in Wales since 1994. There is a distinct Welsh flavour, including a Gymanfa Ganu (Welsh Singing Festival) in the magnificient Brangwyn Hall in Swansea.

I am also looking forward to the social evening for the Unitarians gathered on the University campus, which will include music from a choir of young people from Ceredigion under their musical director Islwyn Evans. Carwyn Tywyn, our newly appointed secretary of the Welsh Department, will play the triple harp. Known as the "Street Harpist" he has busked across Wales.

Another highlight of the meetings will be the Anniversary Service, to be held on Palm Sunday, 17 April, also at Brangwyn Hall. With an attendance of over 400 this is normally the largest gathering for worship that most British Unitarians will experience.

This is the first of a series of Annual Meetings posts.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Darwin's Unitarian Connections

I have had the privilege to be one of the first to read Cliff Reed's new book "Till The Peoples All Are One - Darwin's Unitarian Connections" published by Lindsey Press and to be launched at the Unitarian Annual Meetings in Swansea.

The cover immediately attracts attention with the iconic photograph taken a year before Darwin died by the studio of Elliott and Fry. It speaks to me of the wisdom of old age.

Unitarians have often made claims about individuals with whom they associated somehow believing this will bring us modern day credibility. Ironically, Cliff points out that Unitarians have been reluctant to claim Darwin as one of their own. He certainly makes the case that infact they should not be too quick to deny him. Their influence of him at various points in his life is clear. The section on Francis Ellingwood Abbot and the Free Religious Association is revealing of both the evolution of Darwin's thinking and also that of Unitarianism.

There is a much more rounded picture of Emma Wedgwood Darwin, his wife, and of the nuances of Unitarian belief and practice in the 19th Century than has often been presented.

The book is available from Essex Hall and online retailers.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Science will never entirely vanquish religion

The relationship of science and religion was the theme of an article by William Rees-Mogg in The Times (1 April 2011). As it is only available on subscription I will summarise. It is really about whether the scientific method can accommodate religious belief and religious experience. He contrasts the work of Richard Dawkins "who argues that evolution made God an irrevant and unnecessary hypothesis" and that of Sir Alistair Hardy, founder of the Religious Experience Research Unit (RERU), who sought to record the evidence for the existence of spiritual experience . He highlights a new book "God's Biologist: the Life of Alistair Hardy" by David Hay as essential reading for anyone interested in this debate. Rees-Mogg accepts that spiritual experiences exist and that the real question surrounds their meaning: "People who have had them tend to believe in their truth, but for those who have had no such experience, belief is much more difficult. Nevertheless, Hardy's work has provided a substantial volume of evidence, which needs to be considered with an open mind". Sir Alistair Hardy was a member of the Manchester College Oxford Chapel Society, Oxford's Unitarian congregation.

Saturday, 2 April 2011


At last there is light at the end the tunnel with progress with civil partnerships in religious premises. The timetable should see the first applications for registration by the end of 2011. The Government's Equalities Office have published a consultation paper for the implementation of civil partnership registration in religious premises accompanied by a written Ministerial Statement. This is an important milestone on the journey to equality. The "devil is in the detail" and the consultation paper raises lots of questions. Our task must be to ensure that the implementaton process is simple and at reasonable cost for congregations. The deadline for response is 23 June 2011. There is already active opposition to this measure and we should not assume this will go away. Unitarians have welcomed heterosexual couples from a range of backgrounds who come to us seeking a marriage ceremony that reflects their own personal beliefs rather than having to go along with restrictive ancient rites . Same sex couples wishing to celebrate a civil partnership will have the same flexibility. The debate about the wider issue of marriage equality has only just begun. This change only applies to England and Wales and not Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Building communities

"Where will the Big Society happen?" was the question at the RSA last evening. Loyd Grossman argued that historic but "redundant" parish churches returned to community use were the perfect place for the Big Society to meet. He argued that social networking will happen in real places where there is real inter-action with people not just one's pre-selected friends. This view was challenged. Are former christian churches an independent space or do they come with negative connotations for people of other faiths and none? More so with functioning church buildings. Unitarians pride themselves in being open to community use of their premises but I wonder if our buildings are always seen as neutral and welcoming. I was in Bury St Edmunds last week to celebrate the 300th Anniversary of the Unitarian Meeting House and since its refurbishment it certainly is a busy place, used by the community as a resource, and open to all. Respondent Architect Chris Nash argued that community facilities such as railway stations and the workplace were better at making the connections we value. Christian Busch, of Sandbox, promoted virtual spaces as complementary to physical space. People between the ages of 20 and 45/50 are more interested in themes and shared interests not place and neighbourhoods. This was the power of social media. Jonathan Douglas thought that libraries were more useful spaces to build the Big Society. All agreed that the quality of life in this country was not good enough. Certainly faith groups hav something to contribute; sceptical or not about what the term Big Society means.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Elizabeth Taylor - the Unitarian connection

For the Unitarian Church of Montreal, the death of movie star Elizabeth Taylor brought back memories of when she and Richard Burton were married on 16 March 1964 in a civil ceremony at the Ritz-Carlton hotel. The ceremony was conducted by the Rev Leonard Mason, the Minister of Montreal's Unitarian Church of the Messiah.

Leonard Mason was born in Ainsworth, Lancashire, and served Unitarian congregations in England before becoming Minister of the Unitarian Church in Montreal. He was one of the most outstanding preachers and public speakers of his generation. As a result of all the unwanted publicity he received for performing this celebrity marriage he initiated the introduction of civil marriage in Quebec.

It is funny what we are remembered for. He was promised no publicity and here again his name is in the news.

Friday, 11 March 2011

2011 Census - Response to comment

Regarding the numbers they were hard to find but eventually goggle came up with:
England & Wales on Multi-Faith Centre website:


From Scottish Pagan site

I have seen an e-mail to this effect from the ONS about inclusion of Unitarians in "Christian" numbers, however, in my research I never found the total "Christian" number to include any of the "Any other religion" eg Multi-faith centre data. As long as the number of Unitarians can be extracted this is important data.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

2011 Census - What is your religion?

The first census forms were posted out on 7 March 2011 and will begin to drop through people’s doors over the next few days. Census day is 27 March 2011.

One of the questions is again; “What is your religion”? You can use it to record your religion, or to specify that you have no religion.

This is a voluntary question as Parliament was concerned that a mandatory religion question would be seen as an infringement of respondents’ civil liberties.

We would respectfully urge all Unitarians and Free Christians to use “Any other religion” and enter “Unitarian” in the space provided. This is the abbreviation for “Unitarian-Free Christian” provided on the list from the Census authorities. So whether you are a Unitarian or a Free Christian, or indeed both, in this context “Unitarian” means all of us.

In the 2001 Census 3604 Unitarians were recorded in England and 383 in Wales. There were another 30 Unitarian-Universalists in England and none in Wales. There were 167 Unitarians in Scotland and 3 Unitarian-other. The total was 4187.

This is your opportunity to ensure that as an accurate as possible count is taken of the number of Unitarians (in the interests of truth and to contribute to knowledge) and also to declare your allegiance.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Take Action on Dodgy Deals

Did you know that taxpayers’ money can end up underwriting dodgy deals which can lead to human rights abuses, corruption, climate change and conflict?

Every year the Government backs millions of pounds worth of exports to developing countries, via a little known department; the Export Credits Guarantee Department (ECGD). ECGD has supported some of the most controversial British exports of recent years, including Hawk jets to Indonesia, which were used against the people of East Timor, and the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline in the Caucasus.

What is as shocking is that when these go wrong they become Third World debts.

I was pleased this week to give my support at the launch of the campaign to reform the ECGD at the Houses of Parliament being spearheaded by the Jubilee Debt Campaign.

The General Assembly has been a supporter of the Jubilee Debt Campaign since1998 in its aim to persuade the governments of the developed world to cancel debts owed to them by the poorest nations of the world.

What can you do?
- get involved in a local campaign group
- write to your MP
- take action

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Anti Gay Violence in Uganda

The shocking murder of Gay activist David Kato has reinforced the need for action to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Uganda. There has been a growing campaign of violence and prejudice. Ugandan citizens, including members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Uganda, fear being killed.

In an e-mail to General Assembly Executive Committee member, Rev David Usher, the Rev Mark Kiyimba of Unitarian Universalist Association of Uganda said yesterday:“Greetings and thanks for the message! Sometime I even lose the little strength and energy I may have for other poor and marginalized people like LGBT when such killing of Kato happens, and most surprisingly the police have just released a report and indicating that Kato's murder has nothing to do with Hate Crime!You should understand following the failure by the Government to pass the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, the campaigners Pastor Martin Sempa and Others started a news paper publication called the Rolling Stone! This News Paper was calling for the Hanging of Gay people in Uganda especially those who they had outed and Kato was among them, He took the newspaper to court and he had just gained an injunction that stops [them] from publishing more pictures of gay people. Just weeks away and he is murdered!”
Mark and his colleagues need our support at this dangerous and critical time. We cannot allow them to struggle alone. Whilst there is action we can take politically, your money can make a difference.

Our friends in the United States. the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), in partnership with the UU United Nations Office (UU-UNO), have launched the UUA/UU-UNO LGBT Uganda Fund, to help LGBT human rights activists—including members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Uganda—protect people whose safety is threatened and fight for social justice and LGBT rights.

I would urge you to give your support to this Fund.
For further information on the Unitarian Universalist Association of Uganda

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Child Poverty - a Moral Challenge

Child poverty is a moral as well as an economic challenge said Barnardo’s Chief Executive Martin Narey in a speech to the RSA last night which I attended. It marked his resignation after five years in the job.

Speaking to a packed audience in the opulence of RSA House, designed by Robert Adam in the 1770's, the contrast with his description of childhood and child poverty was stark. He drew on his experience leading the Prison Service and in the National Offender Management Service to show the connection between child poverty and prison. Britain incarcerates nearly 3000 children and young people a year and he said we were failing nearly all of them and their future victims.

Three million children live in poverty. He considered worklessness a cancer to childrens’ future. For the poor in work he called for a better deal. He had come across so many parents worn down by debt; and not to the high street banks that his audience used. They faced huge rates of interest on small sums.

Questions of “decency” and “is it right that” peppered his talk. For example, he asked was it right that child benefit was means tested yet benefits to the over-60’s (like him) such as winter fuel allowance and free TV licences were not? We certainly have to ask "is it right" about such decisions.

Monday, 17 January 2011

The "Big Society"

At a recent meeting of the ACEVO Faith Special Interest Group, which I chaired, Andrew Stunell MP, Minister at the Department of Communities and Local Government, spoke about faith-based organisations, the “Big Society” and cuts.

The new Coalition Government has made the promotion of the “Big Society” one of its key planks of policy. To most people the phrase was, and remains, unclear although the idea is now taking structural form in terms of practical proposals. Faith groups are seen by Government as important players in the “Big Society”. I therefore think that Unitarians should have something to contribute to its development.

What does the “Big Society” mean? It is an intriguing phrase. The “Big Society” idea seems to be that local communities should develop their own solutions to local problems rather than rely upon Westminster. This, of course, implies that local communities have the capacity to self organise. Mr Stunell recognised that some will certainly be able to do so as they already have a vigorous local civil society; community groups, environmental groups, sports clubs etc. Other areas, particularly in the inner cities and outer council estates, have few organisations and a smaller group of activists. They may struggle to complete for scarce Government and other resources and there is a danger that the poor will get poorer.

The churches are often the only institution remaining in some of these areas with a range of social and support services. They also have large under-used buildings in good central locations. These could be developed as promoted by One Church 100 Uses. The Government recognises this contribution and has been promoting involvement with an open door policy to church leaders.

The impact of the substantial cuts in Government spending has seen the “Big Society” presented as some form of fig leaf. Andrew Stunell was challenged by those working in frontline faith based organisations. They presented evidence that reductions in spending, especially by local government, will impact adversely on the most marginalised sections of our community; the poor, travellers and asylum-seekers. If statutory services are further squeezed it should not be taken for granted that the Churches and other voluntary agencies can pick up the pieces. It is also important to stress that volunteers are not “free"; to be truly effective they need professional support.

Unitarians should respond positively to the “Big Society” although we may feel uncomfortable with the tag. Instinctively. I feel we don’t like “Big” anything; “Big Government”, “Big Church” etc.

In practical terms therefore I would suggest that all Unitarians should reflect on their own community involvement both individually and collectively. Let us build upon our traditions of social involvement. Churches and Chapels should look to see how far they are embedded in their local community and ask themselves do they know what problems are faced by local people and if they can help. Many do already, as I see when I read Newsletters and talk to people. Even if numbers are small and aged we can always do something. There is ample scope to work with other agencies and other faith groups to build the “Big Society” as we want it.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Celebrate Rabindranath Tagore Anniversary

2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Rabindranath Tagore. He was born on 7 May 1861, the youngest son of Maharshi Debendra Nath Tagore and grandson of Prince Dwarkanaith Tagore. A noted poet, novelist, musician and painter he was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1913). He wrote what are the national anthems of India and Bangladesh.

For Unitarians Tagore should be a significant figure. The Tagore family were closely connected with the Brahmo Samaj; the monotheistic movement for social and religious reform which had links with Unitarianism going back to the Ram Mohan Roy, who founded the movement in Calcutta in 1828.

Tagore delivered the Hibbert Lectures on "The Religion of Man" at Manchester College, Oxford in 1930. William Radice explored this visit in an article in the most recent "Faith and Freedom" (vol 63, part 2, Autumn and Winter 2010).

In 1961 the London Brahmo Samaj celebrated the Tagore Centenary with a service at Gandhi Memorial Hall in Fitzroy Square. We have the impressive programme at Essex Hall. Rev Dudley Richards, then General Assembly Assistant Secretary, led an opening prayer. Indeed, the GA even advertised in the programme.

A Tagore poem is included in "Hymns for Living" (no 299) - "Now I Recall my Childhood". "The Real Presence" by Tagore is part of a service by Will Hayes, the well-known Unitarian Minister, in "Every Nation Kneeling" (1954).

UNESCO are playing a major role in the celebrations. A statement says that by observing his 150th birth anniversary globally, it hopes to "build up a conception of the universal reconciled with the particular, now that peace is being jeopardized nationally, regionally and internationally by identity-related and spiritual tension".