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Friday, 20 December 2013

Unitarianism and Sunday Assembly

I have been asked on a few occasions recently what's the difference between attending a Unitarian or a Unitarian Universalist Church and a Sunday Assembly - which was known in its early days as the "Atheist Church". I have written in The Inquirer magazine recently on Sunday Assembly and what I call the rise of popular humanism, such as the work of philosopher Alain de Botton and School for Life and that on spirituality of Jonathan Rowson at the RSA as well as Sunday Assembly.

Sanderson Jones on the Sunday Assembly blog has an answer to the question "What's the difference between the Sunday Assembly and the Unitarians?". This is my perspective. 

The Sunday Assembly blog says that the difference is that Unitarians are seen as welcoming people of all faiths and asserts that Unitarians see all faiths as equal compared to their view that “there is no God so how should we live now” is what is important.  The are prepared to welcome people of all faiths, however, as everyone can benefit from their Assemblies.  He concludes however, 

"Before I started the Sunday Assembly I did research Unitarianism and many atheists found attending UU congregations difficult as they could occasionally break out into crystal spirituality, conversations of personal experience of God, and other things that humanists find very hard to deal with."

This statement does in some way highlight the distinction between the two movements. Unitarianism is an inclusive faith and we are prepared to describe ourselves as religious liberals. We are religious because we "unite to celebrate and affirm values that embrace and reflect a greater reality than the self." We accept that everyone has a right to seek truth and meaning for themselves. We nurture the spiritual dimension of life drawing upon a range of traditions as reflected in our objective. This means that Unitarian communities will have people with a wide variety of beliefs and you will find people with very different views from yourself. This we see as enriching not threatening. Indeed, as a previous blog of mine "Do Humanists Sing? " highlighted  research that found that humanists are not as rational as they would like to think. 

Unitarianism is very different across the world. For example the British General Assembly embraces Unitarianism in all its forms as well as Free Christianity; the remnants of a late nineteenth century movement to unite all Christians in a national free Church. The American UUA is a merger of two liberal denominations; the Unitarians and the Universalists and within which religious humanism gained much strength. 

More recently Sunday Assemblies have been described as a “fun alternative to the meetings held by Humanist[s] and Unitarians”. “Why on earth aren't people clapping and dancing around and jumping up and down at those gatherings?" Sanderson wondered in an interview with ABC News.

I have attended a gathering of the Sunday Assembly at Conway Hall. It reminded me of the informal Opening Celebrations of the British General Assembly. Most Sunday services in a Unitarian Church or Chapel are more subdued affairs, partly because the form of worship is more traditional (although the content is often very different from a mainstream Christian church) and partly it reflects the spiritual needs of the attendees. At other times, such as a second Sunday evening service or mid-week activities, unitarian practice can take many different forms; celebration , dance, meditation, labyrinth walking, Taize chanting etc. Unlike Sunday Assembly we have not prescribed or franchised models; variety is truly the spice of life. 

A Unitarian congregation seeks to meet the spiritual needs of the individual in the context of a loving community. We are there for the sorrows as well as the joys. We have trained leaders - ministerial and lay - to support and guide the community. Nationally and locally we offer a range of personal and communal religious education for adults and children. We similarly work together to promote social justice. We work closely with other progressive faith and non-faith groups and would certainly see Sunday Assembly as allies not competition. 

Monday, 11 November 2013

"Josiah Wedgwood: He was a Unitarian. He was devoted to changing the world"

I went to the new exhibition at the British Library at the weekend on "Georgians Revisited: Life, Style and the making of Modern Britain". It marks the 300th anniversary of the accession of King George I in 1714 and reveals the unprecedented economic, social and cultural changes in Britain under the four Hanoverian King Georges'.

Surprisingly religion gets barely a mention despite its significant during this period. Politics is restricted to a display of key events.

One man who gets a lot of attention is the potter, Josiah Wedgwood, with his own display cabinet of wares and a short video. We hear his biographer Jenny Uglow describe him as a genius. "He was a Unitarian. He was devoted to changing the world". He did so in so many ways; economically he realised the power of celebrity indeed Royal endorsement. On display was his famous anti-slavery medallion; with a kneeling slave and the plea "I am not a man and a brother". It was smaller than I imagined being barely bigger than a 10 pence piece. It sold in thousands was is one of the first instances where a product was used for political campaigning. She describes his involvement in the Lunar Society; the group of West Midlands radicals including Rev Joseph Priestley and Erasmus Darwin.

How right is Jenny Uglow to claim that as a Unitarian he was devoted to changing the world. His life illustrates the economic, social and indeed political changes in the period.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Religious Freedom and Blasphemy

I am speaking this week at the “Religious Freedom and Responsibility for Planet and People” conference in Horsham convened by the International Association for Religious Freedom, World Congress of Faiths and Horsham Interfaith Forum. It takes place from 20th to 22nd August 2013. 

My topic is "None legally, daring to make them afraid" - Religious Freedom and the Challenge of Blasphemy. You can get a preview of the full conference presentation here.

As a body concerned with religious freedom the IARF has always sought to appropriately balance rights and responsibilities in this important area of human culture. The presentation seeks to draw upon the history of British Unitarianism and the commemoration in 2013 of the 200th anniversary of the achievement of legal religious freedom to lead us into exploring the concept of Blasphemy and the challenges it presents to religions and law-makers.  In seeking to examine the issue of blasphemy I have found the definition used by the Pew Research Centre is value, namely “remarks or actions considered to be contemptuous of God or the divine”. State imposed sanctions for blasphemy remains a major issue in many parts of the world.

The quote I use in the title is from William Smith MP, the main promoter of the Unitarian Relief Act in 1813. The principles underlying this legislation remain as valid today as they did then.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Commemorating 200 years of Unitarian Religious Freedom

British Unitarians this weekend will commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Unitarian toleration Act which became law on 21 July 1813. The Act removed penalties against those who were deniers of the Trinity who had not been given toleration under the Toleration Act of 1689 and the Blasphemy Act of 1698. It's promoter, William Smith MP, rightly said that the Act enabled every Denomination of Christian to preach their respective tenets without let or hindrance, "none, legally daring to make them afraid". Since then Unitarians have continued when they gather to toast "civil and religious liberty the world over".  

The General Assembly has published a worship pack on 1813 prepared by myself which will hopefully be used in services this weekend.

The most significant effect of the Act was that it aided the emergence of Unitarianism from the shadows. The name "Unitarian" could now be used in public without fear. Unitarianism was now a distinct and separate movement within Dissent rather than being purely an intellectual position held by individuals.

Our commitment to religious freedom stems directly from our own experience. Blasphemy legislation remains in place in many parts of the world and is used, and abused, to harass political and religious dissent and sometimes to settle personal disputes. An accusation of blasphemy is particularly pernicious and dangerous. It is difficult to refute and the public can be easily inflamed by emotive rhetoric. Justice is rarely done, even if the accused is cleared by the secular legal authorities.

In reflecting upon the Unitarian experience we should be motivated to support the demands for religious freedom of others. You can do this by joining the International Association for Religious Freedom, a worldwide multi-faith not for profit campaigning organisation.  

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Unitarians Celebrate Royal Assent for Same Sex Marriage Bill

It has been a bit of a roller-coaster for the Same Sex Marriage Bill over recent months but yet today we can truly celebrate now that the legislation has received the Royal Assent. This is an historic day for the full inclusion of LGBT people in society.

Unitarians began this journey in April 2008 when our General Assembly supported the right to hold civil partnership ceremonies in places of worship. At the time it seemed so radical and unachievable. To move so quickly to same sex marriage in church as well as in civil settings is a remarkable step.

We would congratulate members of all political parties in both Houses of Parliament who have steadfastly supported equal marriage. To our opponents we say that your fears will be found groundless.

We are pleased that Parliament accepted our arguments that those faith groups who wished to host same sex marriages should be able to do so. Religious freedom meant the right to say yes as well as no.This was, of course, not in the original consultation paper yet the Government responded to our sincerely held views.

Same sex marriage has been controversial, however, with our friends in the Quakers, Liberal and Reform Judaism and in other faith groups; we have prevented this from becoming a "culture war" between faith and secular society. There is clear support for same sex marriage across people of many faiths and none.

Unitarians will be working with the Government to ensure that the regulations that will govern provision of same sex marriage are workable and that the lessons surrounding the somewhat flawed introduction of civil partnerships in religious premises will be learned. So let's celebrate today; with the hard work ahead.


Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Religious Freedom "Article 18: an orphaned right"

Great to attend the launch of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Freedom today at the House of Lords and to receive their first report "Article 18: an orphaned right".

The report highlights the increasing frequency of attacks and discrimination against minorities because of their religion or belief..

It was a surprisingly large audience for an 8.30am start and very diverse. Lots of opportunities to talk. Among issues raised in personal discussions were the plight of Christian and other minorities in Iran - including the prospects raised by the recent Presidential Election - and the "extremist" elements of South Asian Buddhism (as highlighted in the cover story of this week's "Time" magazine).

It was pleasing to hear that the group is committed to supporting all minorities, and not simply advocate on behalf of Christian groups, and is also concerned about people holding non-faith views who also face attacks and discrimination. Good to talk to Andrew Copson from the British Humanist Association and Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society.

I am arranging to meet the Secretariat of the Group early in July to see how we can work together and hopefully involve the International Association of Religious Freedom.

I also took the opportunity to pop out onto the terrace and enjoy the view of the Thames!
Derek on the Terrace

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Further step forward for Same Sex Marriage

Unitarians will welcome the support given by an overwhelming majority to the Same Sex Marriage Bill in the House of Lords.allowing it to proceed to the next stage of the legislative process 

We have long argued for the equal validity of same sex relationships and looked forward to a time when we might recognise legally and celebrate them in our churches and chapels. It is a great joy that we are now a step closer to achieving this. I am confident that the legislation will be passed by Parliament over the next few months.

There are of course still battles ahead and there is no room for complacency. The attitudes of some of those opposing the Bill are to be regretted and there remains much work to do to ensure that the rights of gay and lesbian couples are protected.   

We are pleased that the support for this legislation of a number of liberal religious bodies has ensured that this has not become a polarised debate between the secular and the religious worlds. We look forward to engaging in ongoing discussions with other faith groups on our interpretation of marriage in the spirit of ongoing learning”

5 June 1013

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Hope Not Hate against Extremism

I am pleased to join Eddie Izzard, and other celebrities, Labour Leader Ed Milliband and other politicians, trade unionists and faith leaders to sign a letter condemning right wing extremism published in today's Daily Mirror. Over 35,000 people have now signed. It is rightly headed "We are the many". Hope not hate will triumph in the battle against extremists who are attempting to use the death of Lee Rigby for their own ends.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Marriage is a Religious Act

Last night's vote in the House of Commons to approve the Same Sex Marriage Bill by 366 to 161, a majority of 205 votes, represented another significant step forward to marriage equality. The Bill now goes to the House of Lords where further opposition is expected. Supporters of the change must not "rest on their laurels".

I was pleased to join Rabbi Mark Goldsmith, Movement for Reform Judaism and Paul Parker of the Quakers in Britain, in sending this short letter to The Guardian which was published last evening:

"At the time of the Commons debate on equal marriage and as the bill passes to the House of Lords, we, as faith groups, wish to reiterate our commitment to same-sex marriage. For us, the Movement for Reform Judaism, Quakers in Britain and the Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, marriage is not a mere civil contract, but a religious act. While we don't seek to impose this on anyone, for us this is a matter of religious freedom. We ask that any legislation will ensure we are free to conduct same-sex marriage in our places of worship."

With all the controversy within and between political parties I hope that this conviction is not lost in the debates. Marriage is a religious act and we wish to offer the same opportunities for same sex couples as well as heterosexual couples to celebrate their relationship before and with their religious community and to have it legally recognised. We have been criticised for being small in number; but our history should teach us that size should not determine issues of justice. 

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Support a "Jubilee for Justice"

A new "Jubilee for Justice" campaign has been launched by over 400 faith leaders. I was pleased to sign the letter (below) and to attend the launch at the Houses of Parliament on 5 February 2013.

In 1998 the Unitarian General Assembly gave it support to a Resolution supporting the Jubilee Debt Campaign’s urging governments in the developed world to cancel, by the year 2000, debts owed to them by the poorest nations. The call for Jubilee has led to cancellation of $120 billion of debt (£80 billion) bringing education and healthcare to many millions of people. Unitarians played a small part in the campaign involving many faith and non-faith groups.

Despite these achievements more needs to be done. This new campaign builds upon that of the 1990s. It aims to achieve the cancellation of the unjust debts of the most indebted nations, promote just and progressive taxation rather than excessive borrowing and stop harmful lending which forces countries into debt

The full text of the letter is as follows:

“Following the year of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, we recall the ancient custom of the Jubilee Year, in which debts would be cancelled.

The Hebrew scriptures speak of a Jubilee Year in which unpayable debts should be cancelled. The Gospel writer, Luke, records that Jesus began his public ministry with a call to restore the just economy of Jubilee where all have enough. Jesus also tells those who have assets, to lend without expecting a return. The Holy Qur’an condemns usury and requires zakah (almsgiving) as an essential duty to prevent wealth being accumulated only among the rich.

The Dharmic faiths from the Indian sub-continent also teach the same principle. In the Anguttara Nikaya, Buddhists read, ‘One holds wealth not for oneself but for all beings.’ Sikhs believe in earning ethically, being benevolent and they pray for the common good of all. Mahatma Gandhi, from his Hindu roots, famously said, ’Earth provides enough to satisfy everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed.’

In recent times, the idea of Jubilee has been applied to the need to cancel the unfair debts of many ‘Third World’ countries. This does not represent charity towards the impoverished but a call for justice: to reform the basis of the global economy and renew relationships between high and low income countries. This call for Jubilee since the 1990’s has led to the cancellation of $120 billion of debt (£80 billion), bringing education and healthcare to many millions of people.

Despite these achievements, over the last thirty years there has been a series of debt crises culminating in the present one in Europe. A self-serving financial system has brought the global economy to its knees and we are now seeing the poorest people in our own society and around the world paying the price for this excess.

That is why we ask people everywhere to join in calling for a renewed Jubilee. Finance must be put back in its place as a means to human well being. We need far reaching changes in the global economy to build a society based on justice, mutual support and community. We need economic and political as well as spiritual renewal in our society. We applaud the efforts of citizens across Europe and the world to engage in democratic audits of their national debts as a first step towards reclaiming public control of national finances. We call on people in the UK to unite in support of this vision of Jubilee, and to make this cause a lasting legacy of 2012.

A Jubilee for Justice today would mean:
Cancelling the unjust debts of the most indebted nations
Promoting just and progressive taxation rather than excessive borrowing
Stopping harmful lending which forces countries into debt"

Further information

Monday, 4 February 2013

The Brahmo Samaj and British Unitarians

Bust of Tagore in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, London

The Brahmo Samaj have an honoured place in the history of British Unitarians. I was therefore intrigued to read about them in "The Guardian" in an article by Shreya Sen-Handley "On Republic day, consider that India's real split is between two Hinduisms". Her mother was a Brahmo and she highlighted the long line of educated women in her family, explaining:

"The Brahmos were 19th-century reforming crusaders, Hindus who sought inspiration from global liberal philosophies as well as the best traditions of Christianity and Islam to weed out the corruption that had crept into Hinduism. They were monotheistic and women were at the core of their crusade. Brahmo women were ordained as priests and became literary lights in Bengal. Together with their men, they agitated successfully for an end to the funeral practice of "sati" (the burning of the widow on her husband's funeral pyre). Like all reforming movements, there was a zeal about the movement that could, if resurrected in India now, combat the rise of the uglier face of Hinduism".

The Unitarian movement had a very close association with the founder of the Brahmo Samaj, Raja Rammohun Roy. He left for England in 1830 and was received at the annual meeting of the English Unitarians. It was on a visit to Bristol to meet with Miss Mary Carpenter, the social reformer and friend of India, that he died in 1833. His grave is in Arnos Vale cemetery and he has been honoured by a statute in the centre of the City. Each year the Brahmos and Bristol Unitarians gather for a memorial service at his mausoleum.

It was a great pleasure to attend a service at Golders Green Unitarian Church with participation of the Brahmos which again is an annual event. Rabindranath Tagore is, of course, the great modern Brahmo figure,  honoured with the Nobel Prize for literature. His bust stands immediately outside Dr Williams's Library in Gordon Square (above).

Friday, 18 January 2013

Swami Vivekanada and the World Parliament of Religions

Reading this article on the BBC news about "Swami Vivekananda, the yoga missionary" I was intrigued by the reference to his participation in the World Parliament of Religions:

"He first shot to stardom at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. He called for tolerance and the end of religious fanaticism - by a strange coincidence the date was 11 September (or 9/11), 1893.

After his first words, "Sisters and brothers of America", there was a standing ovation - women fell over each other to get a closer look at this handsome Hindu monk with ochre robes and turban who spoke flawless English in a deep authoritative voice".

Unitarians and Universalists were heavily involved in arranging the first World Parliament of Religions. Rev Jenkin Lloyd Jones, born in the Welsh Unitarian stronghold of Llandysul in Ceredigion, was a Unitarian Minister in Chicago and acted as executive secretary and event organiser.

Vivekanada made the following plea:

"Much has been said of the common ground of religious unity. I am not going just now to venture my own theory. But if anyone here hopes that this unity will come from the triumph of any one of these religions and the destruction of the others, to him I say, "Brother, yours is an impossible hope". Do I wish that the Christian would become Hundu. God forbid. Do I wish that the Hindu or Buddhist would become Christians? God forbid".

The seed is put in the ground, and earth and air and water are placed around it. Does the seed become the earth, or the air, or the water? No. It becomes a plant; it develops after the law of its own growth, assimilates the air, the earth and the water, converts them into plant substances and grows a plant.

Similar is the case with religion. The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist is to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the others and yet preserve its individuality and grow according to its own law of growth.

If the Parliament of Religions has shown anything to the world it is this: It has proved to the world that holiness, purity, and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world, and that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character.
In the face of this evidence if anyone dreams of the exclusive survival of his own and the destruction of the otehrs, I pity him from the bottom of my heart, and point out to him that upon the banner of every religion would soon be written, in spite of their resistence: "Help, and Not Fight," "Assimilation and Not Destruction", "Harmony, Peace, and Not Dissension".(1)

That Unitarians and Universalists were instrumental in arranging the Parliament with such ideals of religious pluralism is striking. As Richard Hughes Seager has written " The Parliament was a harbinger of, a prelude to, perhaps the first exercise in what we now call globalization and multiculturalism".(2)

1. Impromptu Comnets by Vivekanada in "The Dawn of Religious Pluralism", Open Court, 1993. (ed) Richard Hughes Seager p336-337
2. above p 10

Guest Blog on ResPublica Think Tank Website on Marriage

Being approached to submit a guest blog on someone else's site is something new for me. I  was therefore pleased to write a viewpoint for the ResPublica think tank website on marriage. I gave it the title "One Unitarian View of Marriage". I stress the word "One"; Unitarians will hold a myriad of views of marriage.

ResPublica have launched a strategic consultation on marriage:
  • the meaning and purpose of marriage
  • the relationship between the state, culture and religious institutions
  • the role of marriage in the family and the wider community
I have also submitted written evidence to the consultation. Unitarians have been at the forefront of the debate on equal marriage; however, it is good to see the discussion widened to issues regarding societal structures.

ResPublica was founded by the theologian and political commentator Philip Blond in 2009 and is widely known for the concept of the "Big Society" and been influential with the Coalition Government. ResPublica was a runner-up in the Prospect Magazine 2012 UK Think Tank of the Year Awards.

The pamphlet "Love, Marriage and the Family - Changing Roles in society today", referred to in the blog, was published by the Department of Social Responsibility of the General Assembly following a conference at Manchester College, Oxford in 1973.

The three lectures published were:

  • "The Family in a Changing Society" by Dr. Katharina Dalton
  • "Sex and Human Relationships" by Rev G.L. Pruce
  • "Marriage and Divorce" by Rev J. Unsworth
Whilst, of course, very much of their era they were radical for the time for a religious body and still of some interest.

If anyone would like a copy please get in touch

Friday, 11 January 2013

Faith and Finance

I was intrigued last evening to attend a panel discussion with the title "What Can Faith and Finance Learn from Each Other" arranged by the Faiths Forum for London, Council of Christians and Jews and PwC, in whose stunning premises we met on the London's Riverside.

There was an impressive panel assembled;

  • Alpesh Patel, Principal, Praefinium partners, author and broadcaster
  • Revd Charles Hodson, Church of England and freelance business TV anchor
  • Lord Fink, CEO, ISAM and former CEO of Man Group
  • Tarek el-Diwany, partner of Zest Advisory, author on Islamic finance
The panel addressed not only what finance could learn from faith but also the converse, drawing upon their experience of the world of business.

I was struck by the statement made by PwC's premises; a new gleaming glass tower with a wonderful atrium. This was the wealth generated by the private sector in the midst of growing inequality in London. It was pleasing that the London Living Wage was highlighted when Kit Malthouse, Deputy Mayor for Business and Finance, replied to the panel. Corporate social responsibility is in vogue but must mean much more than being willing to host community and faith groups, valuable as this is. 

Points which struck me:
  • the importance of trust in the City and in life; sadly missing in the "Banking Crisis" 
  • be good at your job and do your duty and the fruits will follow
  • be brave in the face of others in standing up for what is right
  • significance of positive and negative role models to personal development 
  • it is not creating wealth and maximising profits that matter according to Abrahamic faiths but what you do with it, which however, contrasted with view of the Dharmic faiths that we need to free from wealth and desire
In terms of what faith can learn from finance just think about capitalism's single minded focus on profit and then what faith groups are about? It was also emphasised that modern finance capitalism in Britain took two hundred years to develop; it was not done overnight, yet overturned perhaps thousands of years of religious teaching, for example against interest and usury. Faith's response needed to be similarly long-term and professional.

It was interesting that members of PcW's five faith networks attended and that the role of faith was recognised so explicitly in the workplace. Yet as one attendee emphasised the former role of workplace industrial chaplain has disappeared within the Churches.

To find out more read the twitter stream on the event hashtag #faithfinance


Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Thomas Aikenhead Unitarian Martyr 1697

As we enter 2013 Unitarians will be marking the passage of the an Act of Parliament "to relieve persons who impugn the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity from certain penalties", known as the "Trinity Act", "Mr Smith's Act" (after its sponsor William Smith MP). It is hard to comprehend that as recently as 1813 to profess belief in Unitarianism was illegal in Great Britain.

January is a month to remember of sacrifice of Thomas Aikenhead, a young Edinburgh medical student, who allegedly railed against the Holy Trinity and was judicially hanged on 8 January 1679. His was the last execution for blasphemy in Britain. He was charged that for more than twelve months he had blasphemed against God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Scriptures, and all revealed religion. He was found guilty and two appeals were rejected by the Privy Council. The Church of Scotland General Assembly refused to intercede for him and called for his execution. This was carried out just outside Edinburgh.

In relation to Scotland,  the 1813 Statute repealed the two pieces of legislation, the first passed under Charles II and the second under William III, that ordained the punishment of Death for blasphemy under which he was convicted.

In 2012 we marked the deaths of Bartholomew Legate and Edward Wightman in 1662; the last to suffer death by burning for heresy in England. Thomas Aikenhead's death was controversial even at the time when ideas of religious freedom were spreading.

When we comment upon issues of religious freedom in other parts of the world we would do well to remember our own journey as a country and the effects of legal penalties suffered by Unitarians well into the 19th century.

For further information see the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography.