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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