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Tuesday, 18 September 2012

John Biddle - Father of English Unitarianism - 350th Commemoration of his death

22 September marks the 350th Anniversary of the death of John Biddle, known as the "Father of English Unitarianism".

Earlier this year I wrote a blog post on John Biddle as part of a short series on several anniversaries related to religious freedom.

With his connection to Gloucester I am pleased that one event I have come across to mark the anniversary is that the Cotswold Group of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches "Worship Leaders Support Group" have organised a contemplative workshop on 27 October with the title "Cherishing our Freedom: A Day of Conversation and Exploration Inspired by the Life of John Biddle."

His links with Gloucester are set out in an essay by the Gloucester and District Archaeological Research Group.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Mothers of liberty: how modern liberalism was made by women

I was interested to read that Dr Helen McCabe, of Oxford University, is speaking to the Liberal Democrat History Group at the Lib Dem conference next week on women associated with the development of Liberal political thought in the 18th and 19th centuries. Look at the four names quoted; Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Martineau, Harriet Taylor Mill and Barbara Bodichon. The first two are familiar in modern Unitarian circles; I wondered if Unitarianism had influenced the other two?

To my surprise (although I probably shouldn’t be) they too had Unitarian connections. These four “Mothers of Liberty” had clearly moved in the Unitarian and Radical circles that pioneered women’s rights and universal suffrage.

Mary Wollstonecraft attended Newington Green Unitarian Chapel during the ministry of Dr Richard Price. You can still go and sit at a Sunday morning service in the original box pew where she reputedly sat. Author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” (1792) she is often described as the “mother of feminism”. Dr Price, a Welsh radical dissenter, was a crucial influence on her thinking between 1784 and 1786. As the recent edition of The Inquirer (15 September 2012) shows he was a republican who supported the American colonists in their War of Independence.

Harriet Martineau, was one of the first women writers and journalists. She was brought up in a Unitarian family in Norwich. Her brother James, from whom she was later famously estranged, emerged as the foremost Unitarian theologian of the 19th Century. She argued that apparent differences in intellect between men and women were the product of educational discrimination.

She was best known as a populariser of political economy, though her career spanned many other aspects of Victorian literary culture. She shot to fame in 1832 as author of Illustrations of Political Economy - twenty-four short stories showing how economic conditions impacted on the lives of ordinary people in a variety of social environments.

She visited America from 1834-6 and identified with the anti-slavery cause, which she promoted in her journalism for the rest of her working life. She also wrote travel books on America and the Middle East, besides political analyses of conditions in India and Ireland, and can be regarded as the first significant British woman sociologist.

Harriet Taylor Mill was a philosopher and women’s rights advocate. Her second husband was John Stuart Mill and it is clear she influenced much of his writing. She produced a number of essays including “The enfranchisement of women” and a few articles for the Unitarian Journal “The Monthly Repository”. She and her first husband John were active in Unitarian circles and were friendly with William Johnson Fox, a Unitarian Minister and early advocate for women’s rights

Barbara Leigh Smith, later Mrs Bodichon, was an educationalist, artist and early feminist. She was the extramarital child of Benjamin Leigh Smith, Liberal MP for Sudbury and then Norwich. David Bebbington believes that his domestic arrangements made active Unitarian allegiance unlikely.  Her grandfather, however, was William Smith MP, the well-known abolitionist and dissenting and Unitarian parliamentary leader. He was deeply devoted to her and his other grandchildren from amongst the Nightingale and Bonham-carter families.

She and a group of friends met in the 1850’s in London to discuss women's rights, and became known as "The Ladies of Langham Place". This became one of the first organised women’s movements in Britain. They pursued many causes vigorously, including their Married Women’s Property Committee. In 1854 she published her Brief Summary of the Laws of England concerning Women, which had a useful effect in helping forward the passage of the Married Women's Property Act 1882. In 1857 she married an eminent French physician, Dr Eugene Bodichon.  She helped establish what evolved into Girton College, Cambridge. She was a Unitarian who wrote of Theodore Parker:” He prayed to the Creator, the infinite Mother of us all (always using Mother instead of Father in this prayer). It was the prayer of all I ever heard in my life which was the truest to my individual soul.”

Four women, influenced by Unitarian thinking, who contributed to social and political progress. They were truly “Mothers of Liberty”.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Religious Freedom Central to Development

I was interested in some comments by Ms Lynne Featherstone following her appointment as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of International Development. She has stated that her promotion of human rights and equal treatment will continue in her new role. Respect for the rights of women, minorities and LGBT people should surely be important matters and needs to frame part of a commitment to universal human rights which clearly contributes to development.

As a faith body Unitarians have always highlighted the significance of religious freedom as part of the overall human rights agenda. From the 19th century we promoted “Civil and Religious Liberty the World Over” in the knowledge that the denial of religious freedom and promotion of religious persecution will certainly undermine human development and progress.

The promotion of religious freedom has been central to the Unitarian journey. We will commemorate in 2013 the repeal of the Trinity Act which relieved those holding Unitarian views in Britain of legal penalties. Unitarians were founders of what is now the International Association of Religious Freedom, the world’s oldest multi-faith global organization with General Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. The IARF has established a Peace Commission to explore practical steps in peace-building, particularly in areas where religion contributes to division. Having faced persecution ourselves Unitarians do not stand by whilst this fundamental human right is devalued.

In defending religious freedom this includes rejecting the persecution of people of no religion as well as those of faith. Paul Marshall, the leading researcher on religious freedom, has written that there is no group in the world that does not suffer to some degree because of its beliefs. This can be at the level of government repression but also inter-communal violence, with attacks on minorities.

I hope that issues surrounding religious freedom can influence decision-making about international development priorities. The Department of International Development has been working with national faith groups to promote development in pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals. I would urge that issues surrounding religious freedom are emphasized in discussions about development and political, social and economic well-being. For example, events in the Middle East and North Africa are raising serious risks of religious strife and growing religious intolerance yet at the same time we also see opportunities for societies to be transformed with power in the hands of the people.

I took the opportunity to raise this issue with Ms Featherstone when I spoke to her earlier this week following up a letter to her as a result of her appointment.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Departure of Lynne Featherstone from Equalities Office raises uncertainty about equal marriage

The departure of Lynne Featherstone from her position as Minister for Equalities will raise uncertainty about equal marriage plans.

Lynne Featherstone has driven forward the Coalition’s policy on equal marriage and is to be congratulated. I wish her well in her new post at the Department of Department of International Development. Homosexual acts are still illegal in 78 countries and the rights of women need to be promoted in all parts of the world.

This is a crucial time for the Coalition’s proposals on equal marriage. The consultation is closed and we await the Government’s response later this year. This change of Equalities Minister will therefore bring uncertainty which will be enhanced by the move of responsibilities for the women and equalities portfolio from the Home Office to the Department of Culture Media and Sport.

Recently there have been indications that the Government may bring forward proposals to allow equal religious marriage for faiths who wish to pursue this as well as equal civil marriage and I hope that this more positive approach is not quietly rolled back.

The Deputy Prime Minister is holding a Reception next week (11 September 2012 at 1 Carlton Gardens) to mark the Government’s “historic consultation on equal civil marriage”. I, and other liberal faith leaders who will be attending, will use this opportunity to continue to press for equal religious marriage.