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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.