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Thursday, 26 July 2012

Meeting David Cameron and the Duty of the Politician

Chief Officer Derek McAuley talks to Prime Minister David Cameron in Downing Street garden.

Politicians in Britain have rarely been so low in public esteem. A series of scandals have eroded public confidence in Parliament and to many politics seems irrelevant, particularly at this time of austerity. I have had a lot of contact with a number of politicians, as well as civil servants, over the last year during the campaigning for equal marriage. On Tuesday of this week I attended a Reception at No. 10 Downing Street at which David Cameron spoke and I later had the opportunity to briefly talk to him. I also spoke to Equality Minister, Lynne Featherstone and backbench MP, Mark Menzies. A few weeks ago I attended a round table conference convened by Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper and I have an invitation to an event in September from the Deputy Prime Minister. 

It was prompted to think about the "duty of the politician" when I read a recent article on a Unitarian politician, John Sutton Nettlefold. Whilst we must be careful not to dream of a "golden age", we can rightly look back to previous generations to draw some lessons.

Unitarians in Britain have been active in political life far beyond their numbers. John Sutton Nettlefold, a prominent Birmingham Unitarian politician, sheds some light on a Unitarian perspective on the "duty of the politician". Writing in the "Journal of Liberal History" (Issue75, Summer 2012 p 30-37), Michael James, a Lecturer in the School of Management, University of Wales Institute Cardiff,  describes Nettlefold as one of "the leading figures in the town planning movement". A City Councillor in Birmingham from 1898 to 1911 he was chairman of the Council's Housing Committee. He was also chairman of the Association of Municipal Corporations and member of the Garden City Association but he was never a Member of Parliament during his political career. 

Nettlefold was a prominent Birmingham businessman. He was related by marriage and religion to the well known Chamberlain family. According to James, he had strong beliefs in the Victorian values of thrift and self-help. Yet this perspective was moderated by his Unitarian upbringing. James writes:

"Unitarianism is a form of Christianity that schews doctrines, in
particular that of the Trinity, emphasising instead the practical
application of the teachings of Christ in the gospels, both in personal
conduct and public affairs. In attributing Unitarianism as one of the
formative influences on Nettlefold's political ideas, it is important to
emphasise that it is not only a religion but also an ethic. It was in this
latter respect that it shaped his outlook and ideas. Unitarians were, and
are, heavily influenced by the Enlightenment ideas of reason and progress;
the duty of the politician is to improve the condition of those less
fortunate than himself. Nettlefold. together with Joseph and Neville
Chambelain, subscribed to this political creed, with its distinctive trait
of combining belief in self-reliance and self-improvement and
adherence to the civic philosophy known at the time and since as "the civic
gospel", the belief that local government should assume responsibility for
improving the conditions of life of its citizens."

Nettlefold's energies were concentrated on housing and town plannng. He saw town planning as the way for achieving better housing for the working class and dealing with the slums of the Industrial Revolution. This needed statutory powers. James argues that he is the least remembered of the leaders of the early town planning movement. He was a man of action and his efforts ultimately led to important legislation in 1909 and 1919 shaping statutory town planning as "one of the pillars of British twentieth-century social policy - which for better or for worse, would change the face of many of Britain's towns and cities".

The phrase "the duty of the politician is to improve the condition of those less fortunate than himself" seems rather old fashioned these days but at its heart is a truth. And Unitarianism has moved away from many of the ideas of the early twentieth century both in belief and values. But surely it is still important that politicians must look beyond their personal or party interests and test their policy against the impact on the poorer sections of society. 

Monday, 16 July 2012

Unitarian Christian Association supports Maternal Health Project in Sierra Leone

Congratulations to the Unitarian Christian Association (UCA), an affiliated society of the General Assembly, for reaching their target of raising £5000 for the Kailahun maternal health project in Sierra Leone. This £5000 will become £20000 with European Union funding.

Christian Aid launched this project in April 2011 and the UCA agreed to support it with fund-raising in October 2011 with a target of reaching £5000 by January 2014. Infact, they have done so in just one year!

In their latest newsletter Cathy Fozard writes:

"In the latest news from Christian Aid it's clear that exciting progress is being made. The government hospital in Kailahun that we are supporting has a restored water system and a new solar power system. So now there is a constant supply of water and electricity to the hospital which is having a very positive impact on the health care provided there."

As £5000 is the maximum to be raised for this particular project, due to European Union restrictions on matching, the UCA will be continuing to fund-raise for Sierra Leone and have chosen a new Christian Aid project in the east that is combating malaria in Kenema, a city of £170,000 people close to the Liberia border. 

In March 2011 I wrote in "The Herald", the UCA magazine,  about the longstanding links between British Unitarians and Free Christian and Christian Aid; not least our status as a founding sponsor. I suggested that we could do more to make this link real. The UCA have responded to this call for action in a remarkable way. Well done.

Friday, 13 July 2012

All Time Page Views Peak 6000

This blog was created in December 2009 so with all time page views reaching 6000 I thought I would let you know who you are and what you have been most interested in.

Views peaked earlier this year with several popular blogs. The blog now averages 400 a month. Each day it is viewed 10 times even if there is no new blog entry.

Viewers come from all over the world. 50% are from the UK (3031) with 25% from the United States (1509); the latter reflecting the large number of Unitarian-Universalists. Third on the list surprisingly comes Russia (180), followed by Ireland (140), Canada (118), Germany (110), France (97), Ukraine (56), Australia (39) and Latvia (28). These numbers are small enough to be influenced by a few individuals. I occasionally get viewers from other parts of the world; in the last month for example from India, Indonesia and the Phillippines. So to some extent we are spreading the Unitarian messages far beyond our shores.

The most popular blogs have been those with a wider interest. They clearly come up in search engines and although only published in January of this year keep getting viewers:
The third and Fifth relate to how faith groups relate to LGBT people and the current equal marriage debates - a major fault line within many faith communities.

I will be making sure that the blog meets the needs of both British readers and those further afield and try not to make assumptions are knowledge of UK society and the faith scene here!

Thank you for your interest in the "Chief Officer's Blog".

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Unitarian social action in East London

I visited "Simple Gifts" the new Unitarian Centre for Social Action project in Bethnal Green, East London this afternoon. A crowd of predominantly Bangladeshi mothers and their children were leaving as I arrived, drawn from the surrounding housing estate. The cafe provides after school activities every Tuesday in the former Unitarian Domestic Mission in Mansford Street which is now managed by the Chalice Trust.

The cafe, which has been sponsored by the Unitarian Centre and "Knees Up!" from Quaker Social Action, provides a welcoming space and knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers to help improve this inner city area which sits a stones throw from the wealth of the City of London. I lived in the former Unitarian manse next door to the church for five months in 2010 and enjoyed the diversity of the area but the deprivation that led to the establishment of the Unitarian Domestic Mission in the 19th century remains although clearly in not such a desperate scale due to the modern Welfare State. This does not mean that social action is redundant; to leave support to the State would be a mistake. The cafe is the first initiative; others will be developed in response to community needs.

It was also useful to explore with organisers Rev Rob Gregson and Ann Howells the ideas behind the establishment of a Unitarian Centre for Social Action - it is intended to do much more than address the problems of the area but also to provide opportunities for Unitarians, and presumably others, to develop skills and expertise in social action and to spread the learning. The project has gathered interest from Unitarians across London. The "Good Samaritan" painting on the wall surely still sends out the message that Unitarian social action is to help everyone in need.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Well done to United Reformed Church on Civil Partnerships for Same Sex Couples

Yesterday the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church (URC) voted to allow their churches, if they wish, to host civil partnership ceremonies for same sex couples. 

This is a significant decision by the URC and is another step forward towards full inclusion of LGBT people within the churches. This goes a long way to breaking down barriers between people of faith and the LGBT community. Unitarians will wholeheartedly welcome the decision. 

For one of the mainstream denominations, with close connections with other large nonconformist churches, the Baptists and the Methodists, and well as the Church of England, to take such a courageous decision is encouraging.

We have a common historic heritage with the URC going back to the Great Ejection in 1662, whose 350th anniveresary we are marking this year. It is good to see that the shared values of religious freedom and tolerance led us to similar decisions. 

I have already been in touch with the URC to see if they will join the four groups who have been working closely on this issue - ourselves in the Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, the Quakers, Liberal Judaism and the Movement for Reform Judaism - to address some of the impediments that are currently limiting implementation of this provision of the Equality Act. It is clear that the fees for registration charged by some local authorities are excessive and that the guidance from central Government is not always reflected in local decision-making. With this decision by a much larger denomination we hope that we can strengthen the pressure to ensure these concerns are addressed”.

In 2008 the Unitarian General Assembly urged the Government to allow civil partnerships in religious premises and worked to achieve legislative change that came into force in December 2011. Cross Unitarian Chapel in Manchester was the first religious premises in England and Wales to be registered and the first ceremony was hosted at Ullet Road Unitarian Church in Liverpool in May 2012.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Religion, Same Sex Marriage and Politics

I was pleased to join the Roundtable meeting arranged yesterday at the Houses of Parliament by Yvette Cooper MP, Shadow Home Secretary. You can read her observations on the gathering here. Also present were Greater Manchester MP, Kate Green, Shadow Minister for Equalities and Chris Bryant, Shadow Home Office Minister.

From my perspective the significance of the meeting lies in the coming together for the first time of the groups that have as religious bodies agreed to support equal marriage - The Quakers, Liberal Judaism, Movement for Reform Judaism as well as the Unitarians and Free Christian General Assembly - with senior figures in the Anglican Church. Present were former Bishop Lord Harries; Dr Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans and Giles Fraser, priest-in-charge at St Mary's Newington and former Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral and Guardian Columnist.

There is clearly potential for closer partnership working between faith groups and individuals committed to equal marriage. We need to ensure that the issue is kept on the public agenda now that the Government's consultation period has ended and that the liberal religious perspective on equal marriage, which is widely shared across all churches and faiths, is clearly stated.

We also need to work with a wide range of groups - faith and non-faith - and to widen and strengthen the circle of involvement.