Thursday, 31 March 2011


Lord Glasman of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill is in Leicester for the day. His visit is being coordinated by Dr Miles Weaver of the Faculty of Business and Law at De Montfort University. In terms of the university's programme of events, this follows on from debates held at DMU in February on the topic, "Are universities a public good?" (see entry for 2 Feb 2011 by guest blogger Clare Carr).

I came across Maurice Glasman in a Guardian profile some months back. Not knowing anything at all about the man or his thinking until then, my first reaction was, "Now that's the kind of person who should be in the House of Lords!" Since then, I've followed him with interest in the press, online and in social media and that reaction has only grown stronger. So I was delighted to receive this invitation to meet him at close quarters. Rather than try and introduce Lord Glasman properly to you here and give all the context to the visit, I'd prefer to concentrate on what was said and done today. For background stuff and useful links, I direct you to Dr Miles Weaver's blog (which contains a link to that Guardian article mentioned above).

So, there are around 30 of us at this afternoon session in the Hugh Aston Building. There's been a meeting just for students in the morning, followed by a private lunch. Some people who were at those have stayed for this meeting too, but it would appear that the numbers have swelled for this session.

I should make it clear that, while Lord Glasman is a Labour peer with a high profile role in helping reshape the party's political philosophy, this is not a Labour meeting. There are several Labour activists here, naturally, but there are many people of different political persuasions, as well as some who prefer to keep their affiliation to themselves. Certainly when we're given the opportunity to introduce ourselves, to say why we're here and what we hope to get out of the meeting, many voice the hope of having someone give them an authoritative definition of "Big Society", without showing apparent awareness that our guest might be in opposition to it.

The theme of this session is actually "The Big Society vs The Good Society" though that doesn't assume the two are mutually exclusive. Lord Glasman tells us that his task is to help define the "Good Society". He's not ideologically opposed to the idea of Big Society, but believes it's incapable of delivering on what it might promise if it must operate in an environment where everything is commodified, including (since we're in a university) learning. He's just as critical of Labour's position on community, in that it allowed both public and private sectors to run amok during its period in office, exacerbating a trend to reduce everything to dependency on material means. This has led to the position where, if someone has an idea that they believe could be good for the community, their first instinct is to apply for a grant, rather than try to engage, enlist, enthuse and recruit others. This has undermined an older, more traditional form of ownership and control by active members or subscribers. Our society has become polarised so that virtually all of us are involved in, engaged with, are served (or are serving) one sector or the other - public or private - and they're seen as mutually antagonistic and incompatible. We're now hostage to the idea that each of these holds the other back; that for one to flourish the other must wither and die. The Voluntary and Community Sector is caught between the two, liable to be wounded whichever one falls.

An action is something that generates a reaction. The action is in the reaction. To be effective activists, we should never do anything that doesn't generate reaction. Our culture keeps us busy with activities that don't get reactions.

This leads on to Lord Glasman expressing his ambivalence about the recent march in London. He asserts that it nay have been too early in this period of coalition government to do this, for a number of reasons. As bad as it feels now - and as bad as we feel because of the fear of what's to come - people are not hurting enough to have come up with a constructive alternative to have turned their efforts to coming up with a viable alternative. For so many people to have done all that, only to see a spokesman for the Coalition say the next day on TV that it won't make any difference to the programme of cuts is demoralising.

Society itself can be demoralised. To counter this, we need to engage with each other on three levels:

Lord Glasman emphasises the primacy of relational culture, of one-to-one links. Neglect of this vital aspect to our collective lives (in all sectors) has led to a stifling bureaucracy. Building a genuine network based on trust and mutual support is the most important and - and most powerful - thing we can do.

We must discover ways to be more powerful in the world, not to be victimised - which is being a fantasist (victimised, powerless, disappointed, defeated). Friendship, trust, association are the only means to power for those who don't have access to big money

Every institution has a vocation, which brings with it ethical considerations. A vocation is not the same as a career. It brings with it a sense of ethical regard, internal self-regulation. Citizenship is not just about individuals or individualism; it relies on collaboration between individuals and institutions.

There is no genuine community without leadership. To have change, we must have leaders who can work together, who can speak reliably for their communities, congregations and constituencies and who can bring along with them.

While he understands the attraction and convenience of moving things online, Lord Glasman would ask us to beware that by doing stuff on the web, we lose the sense of place. We have to see what it is that we have that makes Leicester's response to the current economic, political and social situation distinctive and different from the kind of response we might see in / from other geographical settings. People have to get out of our heads and into the physical world (what John Crud’s MP calls "mentalists" - those who believe it's all about thinking rather than doing). What's needed for this work is to get people out of their rooms, out of their houses and get them to meet each other.

My favorite thing that I heard him say all day was a line delivered in a throw away fashion: "When it's all talk and no action, the band splits up."

Come 1520, we head out of the Hugh Aston and gather on the quad along with half a dozen or more friends who are joining us for the walk round various faith centers in this part of the city.

Our first stop is the prayer room of the DMU Islamic Society. There are rather too many of us to fit comfortably in there, so I remain outside.

Second stop on our walkabout is the Jain Centre on

Oxford Street
. We're received at the door by Smita Shah, President of Jain Samaj Europe and Treasurer of Leicester Council of Faiths. Dr Rameshbhai Mehta acts as our main guide round the Centre. I've been here many times (must be a dozen or more now) but the beauty and the spiritual power of this place never palls. For many of those on the visit today, it's their first time here - and their first significant encounter with Jainism and Jains. At the end of our visit, Dr Mehta gives us his formula for Jainism in a nutshell: J is for justice; A is for amity; I is for introspection; N is for nobility.

We move on to the Cathedral, where I manage to buttonhole Lord Glasman for a brief private chat. Just a few minutes, but definitely worthwhile from my point of view. If I'd let the day pass without doing this, I'd have regretted it.

Lord Glasman's final stop is at Guru Nanak Gurdwara in Holy Bones, whence he catches a taxi to the railway station. There are several more stops on the tour as planned, but we're already a long way behind schedule and I have to quit at this point too.


This article appears in today's Leicester Mercury:
Colourful "Holi" Day
Nearly 50 people took part in a history-making 11-mile walk that took in visits and offering of prayers at more than a dozen of Leicester's Hindu Temples – all in one day.
The sponsored walk marked Holi, the Hindu festival of colours, to celebrate the beginning of spring,writes Kamlesh Purohit.
It was organised to raise awareness in Leicester about the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies. The walk ended at Cossington Park, Belgrave. Walkers splashed each other with paints and colours – the traditional way of celebrating Holi.


This article appears in today's Leicester Mercury:
For sale: one historic church - guide price £250,000 to £750,000
It’s a striking example of gothic Victorian architecture , and part of the legacy of a world-famous designer. Yet it is disused, falling into disrepair and up for sale. Adam Wakelin reports
St Saviour's Church used to have its name stuck on the front in plastic letters. Many have now fallen off or been stolen. It is ST VIOU S C CH now. Oddly appropriate, perhaps. A gibberish sign for a boarded-up building that doesn't make much sense around here any more. Not as it is, anyway.
Assistant surveyor Joe Welch, of Andrew Granger & Co, is sliding back the last of the heavy bolts on a side door when the Mercury arrives for a viewing.
Inside, the temperature drops like a brick. It's cold enough to stiffen a line of washing, even on a sunny day like this one. Boards nailed across the windows to deter vandals keep the interior in darkness.
Joe goes to switch on the lights. When they come on, it is easy to see why the building is Grade II* listed. Standard estate agent blurb doesn't begin to do somewhere like this justice.
That's probably why Andrew Granger & Co hasn't bothered with it. The building's sale brochure sets aside superlatives and sticks to thefacts:
A large Victorian gothic church designed by architect Sir George Gilbert Scott; red brick with a stone spire and slate roof, built in 1875-77, the last and largest church of the man who built the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras and the Albert Memorial. To be sold as a job lot with the next door neighbourhood centre, a former school. Guide price: £250,000 to £750,000.
"We want to focus on the fact that here is a fantastic opportunity to acquire a wonderful piece of Leicester's heritage and really bring it back into use," says Joe.
Doing that comes with all manner of complications – and it tells the story of just how difficult it is to stop some of Leicestershire's best buildings falling empty and derelict.
You don't have to be religious to be awed by a building like St Saviour's. Inside and out, the sheer size of the place is enough to draw a gasp.
It really is magnificent, a muscular monument to Christianity that has towered over everything else in this corner of Highfields for more than 130 years.
The building is big in thought and deed. Four rows of long pews stretch into the distance, lolly stick-small in Gilbert Scott's cavernous space. Once, 1,000 worshippers flocked here to be spiritually uplifted and consoled, and they were comfortably accommodated.
Not any more. St Saviour's has been closed for six years. The last time it was anything like full must have been decades ago.
Most of the fixtures and fittings have been stripped out, removed to stop them being burned or smashed by vandals who used to break in before the building was made more secure.
A few things remain. You can see how its congregation fell away in the framed Christening lists that still hang on one wall. In the 1970s there were five or six new names being added every month. By the early 90s, there would be one. Often not even that.
But St Saviour's was on borrowed time even as its mortar began to dry. Leicester's religious impulse was already beginning to wane.
As early as the 1890s, Church of England attendance began a slow but inexorable decline.
The veil-wearers and men with beards walking past the building today tell you what happened next without saying a word.
Religion again thrives around St Saviour's. There is no shortage of believers in Highfields, but this is now an overwhelmingly Muslim area.
In 2005, the church was closed. Three years later, Leicester City Council decided not to renew its lease on the nearby neighbourhood centre. It too was boarded up. Leaving the buildings to rot was never an option. But what do you do with them?
The Diocese of Leicester, along with Andrew Granger & Co, has been working on that for several years.
There are more than 300 CofE churches in Leicestershire. They form some of the county's finest architecture, yet some are ruinously expensive to repair and maintain as congregations dwindle.
The decision to close a church is never taken lightly, says Andrew Roberts, acting secretary for the Diocese of Leicester.
Sometimes, though, there is no other option. Selling a building is better than letting it fall down.
Six city and county churches are on the market or under offer: St Saviour's, St Peter's Church in Belgrave, St Gabriel's Church off Gipsy Lane, St Paul's Church in Kirby Road, St Peter's Church in Saxby and St James' Church, Snibston in Coalville.
Selling those properties is a lot more complicated than you might think.
St Saviour's Church, like many of the others, is a listed building.
Neither English Heritage nor the local planning authority will allow a development that compromises its character or architectural integrity. Even something as basic as removing the pews will have to be justified.
Then there are the Church Commissioners who have to be satisfied.
They handle the sale of the building on behalf of the diocese – and they have to be assured it will be put to good use.
It would not be deemed appropriate, for example, to turn a church into a pub or betting shop, says Mr Roberts.
And there lies the conundrum. In St Saviour's you have beautiful, historic Christian building in an area that's nice enough, but not particularly upwardly mobile or wonderfully served by transport links.
Nothing is an easy fit with Gilbert Scott's grand gothic vision.
The estate agents and the diocese have attracted some criticism for allowing the building to stand empty for so long.
But making a quick sale then seeing it fall through because the buyer got bogged down in planning problems would not have been sensible, says Joe.
To prevent that, they have worked with English Heritage and Leicester City Council to develop a planning brief for the church and neighbourhood centre. This outlines potential future uses of the buildings and provides general guidance on acceptable alterations.
Options for the church include: keeping it as a place of worship; turning it into a community centre, creche or day nursery; creating an art gallery or museum; or using it as an educational or medical centre.
It could also be converted into offices, flats or even a hotel – although any residential conversion will be challenging due to the difficulties of sub-dividing the building without compromising its architectural integrity.
Would an upmarket hotel or swanky apartments work in Highfields?
It's hard to see how.
"It's one of those buildings where we'll have to let the market decide what to do with it," says Joe.
Anyone interested in making a bid has to do so before July 1. The best options will go forward to be developed further.
The asking price of between £250,000 and £750,000 reflects the different uses to which the building could be put.
The Church Commissioners won't let the building be sold for a song, but cash won't be the only consideration. A third of the proceeds will go to the Churches Conservation Trust, which looks after closed churches, and the remainder will go to funding social and community work.
The first preference is often to retain a church for a denomination of Christian worship, says Mr Roberts. If that's not possible, then they would probably like to see at least some of the site put to community use.
Perhaps the old school could accommodate something more commercial, and the church could be opened up to benefit local residents.
"It is finding the right balance to make the site work in a social and commercial sense," he says. "Sometimes you get schemes that are residential conversions and they are sympathetic. No-one likes selling churches, but you can't just let them fall down. It is about finding an appropriate use for them."

Tuesday, 29 March 2011


Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex, is visiting Shree Sanatan Mandir today. He's on a flying visit to a number of venues in the city and county (literally, as he arrived at Beaumont Leys School by helicopter). He's come here this morning to help celebrate the temple's 40th anniversary. The photo above (from the Leicester Mercury) shows HRH the Earl of Wessex with Vibhooti Acharya, Secretary of Shree Sanatan Mandir. Invitations requested us to arrive at the temple by 1030. After a cup of tea we're led into Mahatma Gandhi Hall and we're in our seats about half an hour later. His Royal Highness isn't due there till 1215, so there's plenty of time to chat. When His Royal Highness arrives at the temple he first meets with a children's group, then some of the elder members before having a short reception with representatives of some of the faith and community groups. When he arrives in Mahatma Gandhi Hall and takes his place on stage, His Royal Highness is welcomed with a devotional dance, performed by Nayana Whitaker and Hema R. Acharya (shown in photo below).

There's a brief speech by Ramanbhai Barber, President of Shree Sanatan Mandir, which ends with him garlanding His Royal Highness in the colours of the Indian flag. The climax of the occasion comes when His Royal Highness unveils a plaque marking the temple's 40th anniversary.

When His Royal Highness speaks, he's warm, witty, self-effacing, inclusive and funny. He tells us that in his experience the only thing duller than unveiling a plaque is watching someone unveil a plaque. So he says he's going to liven up proceedings by dividing us into sections and getting us to do some whooping, cheering and clapping to order. We practise a few times before he unveils the plaque on stage to suitably unrestrained audience participation. I'm told later that HRH was a big wow with the children and older people he met here today (and on his other engagements in Leicestershire today). I can certainly see why! What a charmer.

Monday, 28 March 2011


At Christchurch, Clarendon Park, this evening for the latest session in the Mindfulness and Morality course offered by Christians Aware as part of their Faith Awareness programme.

This the last of the sessions to be presented from the standpoint of a particular faith or belief. This time it's a Sikh perspective. Originally, Resham Singh Sandhu was to be our speaker, but Resham has recently been confirmed as Lord High Sherrif of Leicestershire and he's busier than we hoped he'd be. So he's asked another Sikh to take his place this evening: Ajmer Singh Matharu. Then, earlier this evening, our replacement took unwell, so he in turn has asked his son, Jatinder Singh Matharu (photo above) to step in. Jatinder hasn't brought a dilemma for us to discuss; he explains his own dilemma, that he was only asked to do this session a couple of hours ago and only had the content, format and purpose of the course!

After half an hour or so of introductory remarks by Jatinder, we break into small groups to devise some micro-dilemmas, that we can put to our speaker for his quick-fire response. The observations made and questions asked related to the following topics:
  • Are human beings perfectible? Is continuous striving the genuine human condition?
  • Health and safety at work vs religious identity (Jatinder spoke about his father's struggle to retain his turban as a police officer in the 1970s).
  • Prevalence of arranged marriage in the Sikh community.
  • Collective responsibility of Sikh community for children in their midst.
  • Issues regarding wearing the kirpan in public.
  • Equality of men and women.
  • "Original goodness" and the problem of evil (Sikhs don't believe in original sin; they see human beings as being created in the purest condition).
  • Contraception, abortion and family planning.


    And that day is tomorrow: Tuesday 29th. We find Shree Sanatan Mandir busier than usual this morning, preparing for the visit of HRH the Earl of Wessex (Prince Edward). He'll be here to help celebrate the temple's 40th anniversary. The photo above shows Ramanbhai Barber, President of Shree Sanatan Mandir, in front of one of the displays created by children for the royal visit. We appreciate Ramanbhai offering to host the meeting of our Bereavement Services Sub Group at the temple today, with all this going on.


    A nice walk in the spring sunshine this morning to Shree Sanatan Mandir, Weymouth Street (photo above). There's an unusual but pleasing feel to the air today: warmed by sunshine behind, striding into cold air ahead. Maybe I enjoy the stroll a little too much; it should take just under an hour to walk to the temple, but I've only made it halfway down Melbourne Road by the time I realise I'd better get a cab if I'm going to arrive at a decent time! Once I state my destination, the driver (an Indian chap) asks if I'm "Hare Krishna, Hare Rama"; he's probably wondering what business someone like me has at the largest Hindu temple in Leicester.

    I'm on my way to a meeting of the sub group appointed by the Council of Faiths to tackle issues related to the City Council's bereavement services. I join Minou Cortazzi, Suleman Nagdi and Smita Shah here today for the discussion. There are some sensitive issues around this (as you can imagine faithful reader) and some aggrieved voices have been raised among the faith communities in recent months over changes in the service - for both burial and cremation. We agree on what we hope will be a way forward on a number of these issues - leading into a wider ranging exchange of ideas regarding the present status and future role of Leicester Council of Faiths. Some good, strong and positive ideas, which I hope find meaningful expression in this, our silver jubilee year.

    Friday, 25 March 2011

    This week's visitors

    Here's the update on the number of pageviews the blog has received from different parts of the world in the week just ending.
    1. United Kingdom 392
    2. Germany 74
    3. United States 67
    4. Denmark 53
    5. Hungary 46
    6. Poland 27
    7. Russia 26
    8. Ukraine 24
    9. Netherlands 19
    10. Slovenia 18
    11. Brazil 16
    This week's total: 756 (last week's: 671)  These are aggregates of figures from the top ten countries only. Blogger's stats software doesn't show me numbers of pageviews below the tenth-ranking country.

    If you're one of the viritors to the blog from one of these countries, why not leave a comment?. Tell me something about yourself - and what you think of what you've been reading here.


    All day today, Phoenix Square is hosting "Creative Garden" - a celebration of creativity and creatives on the local scene. The place is jam packed with people showing their wares and demonstrating their skills, inside the building (including the education rooms upstairs) and outside.

    I'm here largely in my ongoing mission to find creative people who can lend assistance to appropriate ways to celebrate the silver jubilee of Leicester Council of Faiths. Today that involves speaking with photographers, poets, film makers and a designer of smartphone apps. Above and beyond such intentions for being here, I have to say that it's a very pleasant way to spend a working afternoon.


    Two letters in the Mercury Mailbox today about the religion question in the Census and the very public position taken on this issue by Leicester Secular Society. Fret not, faithful reader, a couple of days and it will all be over.
    More to faith than the census form

    As a Christian I am writing to endorse Dr Chung's plea (Mailbox, March 16) that "for God's sake" we need to say if we are not religious.

    I'm not actually pressing for this for the census but for self honesty and so as not to hide behind a name that means nothing to us. If we really do this "for God's sake" there's hope that God will help us find out what's at stake for us in life – and in death for that matter. It's a far deeper issue than filling in a census form!

    Then I also second what Dr Chung says regarding the need of freedom of belief for everyone. This she directly connects to the big issue of the influence of religious organisations on Government policies. Of course as a Christian I've been very thankful for the historic influence of Christians in the sphere of public life – in our laws founded on the Ten Commandments; in health projects; in the educational sphere; in the abolition of slavery and the like.

    Now, though, I'm not pleased when other organisations press to get laws passed that directly contravene the biblical principles that have been an integral part of British life and, in addition of course, often deny me freedom of speech to voice what these are in particular.

    Could it be that the Secular Society would like more influence in Government and would that be any more acceptable to other groups?

    Maybe it is a minor point when it comes to the keeping of Christian feasts. Many Christians themselves have let them get out of proportion, but Dr Chung cannot claim that they are merely pagan feasts while the dictionary still states that they are celebrations of the birth and death of Jesus Christ.

    Having earlier involved the name of God, I want to also thank God for all my friends and acquaintances – and relations – from other beliefs, secular or religious. As with Dr Chung I feel it right to voice what I believe in, or in my case in whom I believe.

    Believing Jesus Christ is the right way, I cannot help but try to influence others, but thank God as yet they have the freedom to choose for themselves. May our freedom long last, Dr Chung. Allow me to share with you a promise made by Jesus in the Gospel of John, chapter 8, verse 36: "If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed."

    Mrs Marion Sutton, Oadby

    Read this letter on the Mercury website, along with reader comments.

    In the printed edition of the paper, the letter reprinted above is followed by the one reprinted below. I would remind everyone reading this blog that the views expressed in these letters are those of the writer alone. I reproduce this material here insofar as it exemplifies the collective conversation that goes on in Leicester and to bring to the attention of my readers the diversity of views that are noised abroad in our city. Personally, I am all in favour of courtesy and kindly words, rather than the ad hominem approach.
    No respect for belief of others

    How sad that the Mercury reprinted the photo of happy, smiling, Emma Chung, of the Secular Society with her awful banner (some might call it "blasphemous") urging non-believers to tick the "No Religion" box on the 2011 Census form (Mailbox, March 16).

    She says that she is "genuinely surprised" that some people have been offended by it.

    All this indicates is that, despite her protestations, she has no respect for or appreciation of the deeply-held beliefs of committed Christians. Such an insult to some other religions would be met with a very angry response.

    Her smug, self-satisfied claim that the two great Christian festivals (Easter and Christmas) were "purloined" from the pagans is so silly.

    Of course we don't know where the dates of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem or of his death some 33 years later in Jerusalem fit into our modern calendar but the tradition was established centuries ago in the Christian world.

    Since then, those festivals have served to focus the minds of Christians all over the world on the wonder of God's intervention in the lives of mankind.

    In one of his letters to the early Churches the Apostle Paul states that "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the proving of things not seen". Those of us who have accepted God's word and the fact that he sent Christ into the world so that we may be reconciled to Him are happy in the certain knowledge that, come what may, He will work out His purposes and that we are secure for eternity.

    Michael Parker, Great Glen

    Read this letter on the Mercury website, along with reader comments.


    This article appears in today's Leicester Mercury:
    Tragedy of St Saviour's
    The plight of Leicester's redundant churches is an ever-increasing problem.
    What is going to happen to St Peter's Belgrave, St Gabriel's and St Barnabas? Will they stand dejected and rotting like the once magnificent edifices of St Paul's and St Saviour's, or even end up like the burnt-out shell of St Augustine's?
    There is a serious problem here and it needs to be addressed, as is made all too clear in an article by Karen Green in the November edition of the Leicester Citizen, journal of the Leicester Civic Society.
    It is entitled "The Threat to St Saviour's" – now a heartrending sight of neglect and dereliction, but was once the pride of the area. Here is just part of what she has to say:
    "From christenings to funerals, the generations who lived in the densely populated area had their own personal attachment to St Saviour's and many stories to tell. I recently received contact from a lady who informed me about one of the windows located in the Memorial Chapel. Here great grandparents lost their son in France during the Great War; they worshipped at St Saviour's and paid for the window to be installed. Depicted is the image of an angel with vibrant halo and robes, the angel's face is the actual face of the fallen soldier.
    "All very poignant and one example of how St Saviour's provides a tangible link to the social history of our city.
    "Sadly in 2005, St Saviour's closed its doors as a functioning church and has subsequently been declared redundant. In 2010 it presents a sorry sight sitting in unkempt grounds where discarded waste and overgrown flora are the norm.
    "The impression that no one cares has been seen as a green light for drug users, drinkers and vandals, and the result of their unwanted attention is devastating. The window I mentioned is half-gone, having been used as a means of entrance, what is left is peppered with holes. The once beautifully ornate pulpit is obliterated and several small fires have been started which fortunately didn't take firm hold.
    "It is heartbreaking to witness such a precious building awaiting a dreadful fate."
    St Saviour's if of architectural significance — not just because of its size, but the fact that it was the last project of one of the greatest of all Victorian architects, Sir George Gilbert Scott – whose designs include the frontage of the magnificently restored St Pancras Station and the Albert Memorial.
    In her last paragraph Karen Green writes: "There have been too many historic buildings and monuments lost in Leicester in recent years through ignorance, apathy and wanton destruction and enough is enough! We must do all in our power to ensure that buildings such as St Saviour's are brought into use for future generations. It's time to insist that the privileged guardians of Leicester's heritage do all they can to adequately protect what is – when all is said and done – our true and rightful inheritance."
    To join the Leicester Civic Society call 01509 520 904.
    This week it was announced that St Saviour's was to be sold.

    Thursday, 24 March 2011

    Church guilty of sin of omission

    Surely there are few things that move people to righteous indignation more than religion and punctuation. Put 'em together and whaddaya got? Here's a letter from today's Mercury Mailbox.
    Church guilty of sin of omission

    Your newspaper is to be commended for giving St Martin the apostrophe that is his due in the article "Church helping to bring in visitors" (Mercury, March 19).

    Not so the cathedral authorities whose "corporate decision" it was apparently to approve its removal and name the new building "St Martins".

    What next – St Marys, St Margarets, even, perish the thought, St Pauls Cathedral?

    Bryan Lewis, Ratby


    A typically amusing, thought-provoking and wry piece by Deborah Orr in today's edition of The Guardian, on the "religion" question in the Census. The writer's opinions are her own (obviously); I put them here to add a distinctive flavour to the mix of debate on this issue that has already graced this blog.
    Should we tick "No Religion'" on the census?

    The British Humanist Association would like us to, but its brand of humanism sounds like religion without God 
    It is census day on Sunday and, despite sterling efforts from many interested parties, angry controversy around this quaint operation has not quite been ignited. I particularly enjoyed the attempt to muster az boycott on the grounds that the UK subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, the world's largest arms company, had been contracted (again) to conduct the thing. Because that's what you want, isn't it? To make sure arms companies stay totally focused on their core business, and don't start piddling around in more peaceable activity?

    I filled in my household's form with some alacrity, not least because the part of me that will always be a 10-year-old goody-goody schoolgirl simply loves the opportunity to print in lovely, neat, black capitals. It wasn't until after it had been mailed – why not? Keep postpersons employed – that I caught up with the British Humanist Association's plea: "We urge people who do not want to give continuing or even greater importance to unshared religions in our public life to tick 'No Religion' in the census."

    Actually, I had ticked "No Religion". But I still don't like the tenor of this instruction. I don't want to stand against "believers". I am still, for my secular sins, a wet multiculturalist, minded to put up with the beliefs I can't share, whenever possible, in the interests of strengthening those that I can. I'm combative and dogmatic by nature, but I don't think these are among the finest of human qualities. I used to be a combative and dogmatic atheist. But then I realised that combat and dogma might be the problem.

    Combat especially, of course. It is a popular atheist assertion, the one that says religion causes war. As if humans would never fight over land, or resources, or power, or out of sheer, carnivorous, animal aggression. Humans cause war. So do chimps and bonobos, our close genetic relatives. Perhaps Lockheed Martin is on a religious mission? Yeah, right.

    I was in Motherwell, my home town, outside Glasgow, a few weeks back, on the evening that a recent Rangers v Celtic match descended into on- and off-pitch aggression the like of which had not been seen in 20 years. The Old Firm antipathy is characterised as "religious". But really it's tribal. No one goes home pissed and full of anger because the guys that scored the goals believe in transubstantiation. People go home pissed and full of anger because they left home with the intention of getting that way, and had signed up for it as toddlers. And that's not good.

    The British Humanist Association is right to identify the segregation of state institutions as a powerful factor in augmenting the sort of antipathy that the Old Firm shelters. It cites a poll of 1,896 people, in which 61% identified with a religious denomination while only 29% said they were religious. The argument is that the statement of "empty" religious identity results in data that is used to justify continued religious privilege in state policy on public services. The real question is why people cling to a religious identity when they have no religious faith. It's the desire, surely, to be in one team, and opposed to another – a cultural need, a human need, even, a need that helped to deliver humans to the top of the food chain, for better, for worse, or for a bit of both.

    Despite great effort to find them, human saints are hard to come by. Julian Assange, for example. Good guy? Bad guy? Perfect guy? Flawed guy? How about a mass of contradictions? That's where I really become uncomfortable with humanism. The British Humanist Association says: "Humanists are atheists and agnostics who make sense of the world using reason, experience and shared human values. We take responsibility for our actions and base our ethics on the goals of human welfare, happiness and fulfilment. We seek to make the best of the one life we have by creating meaning and purpose for ourselves, individually and together." Nothing much to complain about there (although a bad person might say words such as "smug" and "piety"). Well, unless you fail to subscribe to the idea that humans are essentially good and wise, rather in the manner that humans tend to characterise the gods they invent and worship.

    Mostly, humanism sounds like religion without God, a kind of collective, earnest, well-meaning narcissism. People are welcome to it, if it floats their boat, though the proselytising does demand response, of course. The call to reason forgets that any atheist worth his salt understands that God does exist, but only in the minds of some of those humans who are not entirely and absolutely governed by reason. Which, I would say, is all of us. Few humans live their entire lives in reasonable refusal of all thoughts and deeds that are bad for them, or for others. People often turn to God as a means of helping them to find the discipline to avoid such behaviour. Humanists appear to believe that the opposite is the case. It's dogma – irreligious mumbo-jumbo really – and should not be confused with secularism.

    For the fact is that there are plenty of reasons to be relaxed about the attractions of plain secularism, as opposed to humanism. A study, from Northwestern University and the University of Arizona, analysed census data from 85 countries, some of it stretching back a century, and presented it this week at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas.

    In nine countries, Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland, the analysis found that there has been a steady rise in the number of people claiming no religious affiliation. Religious belief, in all these countries, is fading slowly away, and organised protest against it does not appear to be the reason for this. Richard Wiener, who led the research, says: "put simply, it shows that social groups have a kind of 'gravity' that drags in more people the bigger they are". The tide of history is running against the religious. Conspiring to help that powerful tide risks provoking the entrenchment called fundamentalism.


    Here are the article and photo sent today to the Leicester Mercury. There's time for these to appear in either the Friday or Saturday edition and still be relevant.
    Council of Faiths supports Census 
    With the Census almost upon us, representatives of the eight religions on Leicester Council of Faiths have come together to urge members of the different communities in the city to fill in the forms.
    Census Day, when households across the country are asked to provide a snapshot of their circumstances, is this Sunday (27 March). Householders can return their forms by post or online.

    Councillor Manjula Sood, Chair of the Council of Faiths, said: “Leicester is a diverse city which people of many different faiths – or none – are proud to call home.

    “We’ve come together today to encourage people to support the Census and remember to fill in their forms, because the results of the Census are used to determine how much funding the city gets for local services in the future.

    “It’s important we all join together to give a true picture of our city’s diversity on the census forms – in this way, we will ensure that the services we get in the future are tailored to the needs of the people who live here.”

    Leicester Council of Faiths especially wants to encourage people to complete the voluntary question (number 20) that asks about religion. There are boxes to tick for Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh. There’s also space to write in any other religion not listed (that’s how you’d show you’re Bahá'í or Jain for example). And of course there’s also a box for “No religion”.  The Census can give an accurate and up-to-date picture of how we live in our city and country today, providing statistics used to make decisions about our collective future. Census Day is one of those special occasions when we get the opportunity to affect those decisions, even in areas that might normally seem beyond the average person’s influence, like the place of religion in our national life.

    Wednesday, 23 March 2011


    This evening it's the long awaited (by me, anyway) panel presentation for Amplified Leicester at Phoenix Square film and Digital Media Centre: “Amplified Communities of Faith or Belief”. The whole presentation was recorded; you can watch it on vimeo.

    Groups working in the Protected Characteristic of Religion or Belief (as described in the Equality Act 2010) are some of the biggest users users of social media. But for what purposes? Each of the panellists shows how their organisations use social media to different ends - some surprising and unexpected - related to extending spheres of influence; promoting effective social action; engaging children and young people; fostering rational discussion and debate.

    In the photo above, Sue Thomas, Professor of New Media in the Institute of Creative Technologies at De Montfort University, introduces the panel (left to right, Matt Hughes, Richard Hopper, Sughra Ahmed, me).
    Matt Hughes Matthew works at the Samworth Enterprise Academy, a Church of England school in Leicester which has focuses on the Christian ethos in education. He manages IT provision there, which involves response to social media. He also runs a training, design and development social enterprise called Engage Multimedia who work with various charities and community groups in the local area.
    Richard Hopper Richard is a science researcher at De Montfort University. He is also Secretary of the Leicester Secular Society, the oldest active one in the world – and still based in the first meeting place in the world purpose built for secular discussion. Richard recently set up a Facebook group to promote the society. The group now has over 50 members.
    Sughra Ahmed Sughra is a Research Fellow in the Islamic Foundation’s Policy Research Centre. She is a Trustee of the Interfaith Network UK and Director of Leicester Council of Faiths. She recently published Seen and Not Heard: Voices of Young British Muslims. She organised flashmob iftar during Ramadan and “Picnic in the Park” thereafter, feeding homeless people and refugees, coordinated through Facebook.

    I’ve done a good job selecting interesting panellists – too good a job! Each of them gives a presentation lasting ten minutes then takes a few questions. A few too many questions maybe. The cumulative effect is that, having left myself to last, I have hardly a couple of minutes to sum up and to say something interesting about use of social media by the Council of Faiths. I hope I manage to do that; for once, less really is more!

    How new media unites communities

    There's a wee piece in the Leicester Mercury today promoting our Amplified meeing this evening. It's not quite right in a number of ways, but every little helps!
    How new media unites communities

    The increasing use of social media by faith and belief groups will be discussed at a free event organised by De Montfort University (DMU) in Leicester tonight.

    One of a series of monthly talks by Amplified Leicester, the discussion will be held at Phoenix Square Film  and Digital Media Centre, on Midland Street, Leicester from 7pm until 8pm.

    Amplified Leicester is a project run by DMU exploring how new media can help diverse communities in Leicester work together.

    The discussion will be chaired by George Ballentyne.

    Sue Thomas, DMU's professor of new media, said: "Each of our panelists will show how their organisations use social media to different ends – some surprising and unexpected – to extend spheres of influence, promote effective social action, engage audiences, and foster rational debate."

    The talk is free of charge but you should pre-register at:

    Tuesday, 22 March 2011


    I thought you might be wondering, faithful reader, just who attended the meeting earlier today in the Tea Room at Town Hall on behalf of our eight member faith communities. They were (back row, l-r) Tony Nelson, Jewish representative; Suleman Nagdi, Muslim representative; Ajmer Singh Basra, Sikh representative; (front row, l-r) Rev Pete Hobson, Christian representative; Barbara Winner, Bahá'í representative; Councillor Manjula Sood, Hindu representative; Sumaya Budkovsa, Buddhist representative; Dr Ramesh Mehta, Jain representative.

    The picture above is the more conventional of two that the City Council has provided. I'm using this here because it allows easier identification of the attendees, but it may not be the one that ends up being sent to the Licester Mercury. That one is a little more arty - as you may have guessed from seeing the blog entry posted here earlier today.


    Time for a bit of well-deserved promotion for a group that has helped out at a number of events organised by the Regional Equality and Diversity Partnership (REDP) including today's training session with the British Institute of Human Rights.

    Signing Network is an interpreting co-operative which works closely with Leicester Deaf Action Group. It supports LDAG by donating its profits to it and assisting in setting up a letter translation service and an advocacy service, for which it provides pro bono interpreters.

    In the photo above: Karen Sly and Averil Dobson of Signing Network, to left and right (respectively) of Owais Murad from Leicester Deaf Action Group.


    The Regional Equality and Diversity Partnership (REDP) has arranged a training session today with the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) at Leicestershire Centre for Integrated Living (LCIL). The training is delivered by Sonia Omar. Sonia has been here on a couple of occasions before; she tells me that the last time was two years ago. Doesn't seem like that, but it appears to be before the birth of the blog, so she may well be right there.

    Sonia's style of leading and facilitating these sessions is relaxed but rigorous, authoritative without being authoritarian, intensive without being intense - as you may be able to see from the photo above (Sonia is on the left, with Averil Dobson, from Signing Network).

    Attending today, we have people from the following groups:

    I'm glad that Minou Cortazzi, who is a member of the Board of Directors at Leicester Council of Faiths, is with us today.

    About 1100 I have to nip out for a short while, just to ensure that the photo shoot of faith community representatives (to support the Census) is going smoothly in the Town Hall, but I get back in good time.

    After lunch, we do small group work on some specific treaties and other UN tools:

    We're considering each of these on the basis of our own experience gained from working in these fields. We highlight where government has done well in relation to these conventions, covenants or principles or where they haven't been doing so well and may be liable to challenge.

    In my specific area of interest, I must look up the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. This would be particularly relevant just now as it would inform discussions with the University of Derby on the project currently looking at Leicester.

    We realise that there's a clear need not only to educate the Voluntary and Community Sector about human rights, but also to foreground them in our relations with local and national authorities, service providers etc - especially in relation to mounting challenges to the effects of cuts

    Census photo call for faith community reps

    In the Tea Room at the Town Hall this morning, for a photo shoot with a representative from each of the member communities on Leicester our Council of Faiths. Lis Gibbs and Paul Clark, Communications Officers at the City Council asked if we could gather such a group together for a photo and article, showing support for the Census and encouraging members of the different communities in the city to complete it accurately and fully - including the voluntary question on religion.

    I'll post the proper photo that the City Council will be using on its own website (as well as sending to the Leicester Mercury) and the article that will accompany it as soon as they're ready. In the meantime, here's a nice piece of bricolage for you.

    Monday, 21 March 2011


    At Christchurch, Clarendon Park Road it's the tenth session in the Mindfulness and Morality course offered by Christians Aware as part of their Faith Awareness programme.

    We're ready for the Jewish presentation this evening, but our scheduled facilitator has let us know that he is unwell and unable to attend. He hasn't been able to provide any materials for us to use.

    We start off in three small groups, reading and discussing the Council of Faiths leaflets on the Jewish community. From what we know about Jewish belief and practice, what do we find of interest in terms of ethics and morality?

    While we do this, Beate Dehnen comes to the rescue, carrying out some speedy research on just such issues (using books, I should stress, not online - and books in German, at that - which she translates so effortlessly that we'd never have known they weren't in English!). Beate is on the left in the photo above, with Kevin Commons (one of the course facilitators, from the Zen Serene Meditation Group) to her right.

    Kevin has with him a few back-up moral dilemmas, prepared for this sort of eventuality; however, the material that Beate shares with us is more than sufficient to see us through to the end of the session.

    We discuss how our historical and contemporary understanding, experience and aspirations related to justice, fairness and human rights are related to Judaism - to the people and/or State of Israel. Some people in the room this evening have visited Auschwitz; inevitably, that comes into the discussion too.

    Something of a DIY session this evening, then, but enjoyable and instructive nevertheless.

    As a small group of us are leaving Christchurch shortly after 2100, we're buttonholed (in the most courteous manner) by a woman called Becca, who asks us what we're doing. She says that she passes the church (of which she's a parishioner) the same time every Monday evening and sees people from our group coming out, chatting and laughing. We tell her about the course, I give her my card and direct her to the blog. That's a nice way to end the evening.

    Naw-Rúz @ the Crumblin' Cookie

    Bahá'ís from city and county met up at the Crumblin' Cookie in Leicester High Street this lunchtime, to celebrate their New Year (Naw-Rúz) together. Pictured above is one of the Crumblin' Cookie's "Special Milkshake". Nothing "Bahá'í" about it, nor is there anything traditionally "Naw-Rúz" about it. I've just fancied one for ages and thought it a good day to treat myself to one!

    Visit the Crumblin' Cookie's Facebook page:

    Sunday, 20 March 2011


    Sunset this evening is the end of the fasting period for Bahá'ís, who are obliged to abstain from food and drink between sunrise and sunset 2-20 March, inclusive. This fast is an annual occasion, leading up to Bahá'í New Year. For Bahá'ís in or from Iran, where the Bahá'í Faith originated in the middle of the nineteenth century, this is combined with the traditional celebration of Naw-Rúz ("New Day"), observed at the time of the Spring Equinox.

    Leicester Bahá'ís are gathered together this evening to mark the end of the Fast and start of the New Year - the year 168 BE ("Bahá'í Era"). Below is one of the prayers of Bahá'u'lláh (1817-92) for this special occasion. This would typically be read at this time, either in community gatherings, in families are by individual Bahá'ís on their own, in quiet meditation.
    Praised be Thou, O my God, that Thou hast ordained Naw-Rúz as a festival unto those who have observed the fast for love of Thee and abstained from all that is abhorrent unto Thee. Grant, O my Lord, that the fire of Thy love and the heat produced by the fast enjoined by Thee may inflame them in Thy Cause, and make them to be occupied with Thy praise and with remembrance of Thee.
    Since Thou hast adorned them, O my Lord, with the ornament of the fast prescribed by Thee, do Thou adorn them also with the ornament of Thine acceptance, through Thy grace and bountiful favor. For the doings of men are all dependent upon Thy good-pleasure, and are conditioned by Thy behest. Shouldst Thou regard him who hath broken the fast as one who hath observed it, such a man would be reckoned among them who from eternity had been keeping the fast. And shouldst Thou decree that he who hath observed the fast hath broken it, that person would be numbered with such as have caused the Robe of Thy Revelation to be stained with dust, and been far removed from the crystal waters of this living Fountain.
    Thou art He through Whom the ensign “Praiseworthy art Thou in Thy works” hath been lifted up, and the standard “Obeyed art Thou in Thy behest” hath been unfurled. Make known this Thy station, O my God, unto Thy servants, that they may be made aware that the excellence of all things is dependent upon Thy bidding and Thy word, and the virtue of every act is conditioned by Thy leave and the good-pleasure of Thy will, and may recognize that the reins of men’s doings are within the grasp of Thine acceptance and Thy commandment. Make this known unto them, that nothing whatsoever may shut them out from Thy Beauty, in these days whereon the Christ exclaimeth: “All dominion is Thine, O Thou the Begetter of the Spirit (Jesus)”; and Thy Friend (Muḥammad) crieth out: “Glory be to Thee, O Thou the Best-Beloved, for that Thou hast uncovered Thy Beauty, and written down for Thy chosen ones what will cause them to attain unto the seat of the revelation of Thy Most Great Name, through which all the peoples have lamented except such as have detached themselves from all else except Thee, and set themselves towards Him Who is the Revealer of Thyself and the Manifestation of Thine attributes.”
    He Who is Thy Branch and all Thy company, O my Lord, have broken this day their fast, after having observed it within the precincts of Thy court, and in their eagerness to please Thee. Do Thou ordain for him, and for them, and for all such as have entered Thy presence in those days all the good Thou didst destine in Thy Book. Supply them, then, with that which will profit them, in both this life and in the life beyond.
    Thou, in truth, art the All-Knowing, the All-Wise.

    That line at the start of the prayer, "Thou hast ordained Naw-Rúz as a festival unto those who have observed the fast for love of Thee and abstained from all that is abhorrent unto Thee" always gives me pause for reflection. Having been diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes in 1996 and being dependent on insulin since then, I'm unable to fast. I did it religiously (if you'll pardon the pun) from 1979 until 1996 and felt the benefit. I miss fasting. Thankfully, there's much in the Bahá'í writings about the symbolic, metaphorical nature of fasting and - thankfully - I appreciate symbolism and metaphor.


    Interesting piece from  today's Observer. A surprising topic, perhaps, but it didn't take long to see that I should post it here. This one really comes out of left field - but I really like it when that happens. See how many equality and diversity issues are involved in this one, faithful reader.
    "I want to be Miss Universe. For that I get death threats"

    Shanna Bukhari was subjected to a tide of online hate after entering the British heats of the beauty contest. Now she fears her life could be in danger

    By Mark Townsend

    When Shanna Bukhari decided she wanted to be the first Muslim to represent Britain in a global beauty pageant, she suspected the road ahead might not be smooth, but nothing could have prepared her for the abuse she received.

    "I have felt in fear for my life," said the 24-year-old Miss Universe contestant. The attacks escalated last week when Bukhari received her first death threat.

    The censure has come from various quarters, ranging from Muslims who claim that she is denigrating the name of Islam, to white supremacists who say that an Asian cannot represent the UK, and to women who condemn beauty pageants as an affront to feminism.

    Bukhari, born in Blackburn, grew up in Lancashire and is no stranger to intolerance. When she was nine, she ended up in hospital after a man screaming racist abuse had thrown a brick at her, causing so much damage to her stomach that she suffered a blood clot and had to undergo surgery.

    But even she has been surprised by the furore that her participation in the British heats of Miss Universe has prompted. Rather than confirming her hopes that society had progressed since her childhood, the controversy has made her question the state of multiculturalism in modern Britain. "It has highlighted the divisions that exist, a lack of social integration, a lack of adhesion between white and coloured people, and this needs to be addressed," she said. "I thought my participation might be something that people did not agree with, but I never thought I'd get abused."

    The attacks on the Manchester-based English literature graduate began after a local newspaper ran an article 10 days ago revealing her ambition to become the first Muslim to represent Great Britain at the beauty contest. Since then, she has received around 300 messages a day on her Facebook page, a handful of which are abusive. Most of the negative comments have come from a minority of Muslim men. "I get people saying, 'you're not a Muslim' and 'you're using religion to get attention'. I said they were the ones bringing religion into it. I'm not representing Islam; I just want to represent my country, and of that I am very proud. They are trying to control me, using religion as a tool to attack."

    Bukhari accuses her abusers of having the same sort of mindset as those who support "honour" killings and beat women. Many of the comments are, she says, from individuals who want sharia law instead of a liberal democracy. "We simply live in a multicultural society where there are significant numbers of Muslims. Islam is about peace; abusing me is itself wrong in Islam."

    Away from the religious-themed criticism, Bukhari detects a broader anti-female resentment from men who combine sleaze with slurs. "Maybe it's because I'm a woman saying to other women 'stand up for yourself, don't let anyone dictate what you can do or can't'. Some men don't like that," she said.

    But not all the abuse is from men: Bukhari has also attracted opprobrium from feminists. "I've had a few girls saying 'shame on you' or 'rot in hell'. But I'd like to know what their real issues are, so we could have a constructive debate."

    The abuse that truly shocked Bukhari arrived last Tuesday in the form of an online racist rant. Within hours she had shut down her Facebook fan page, but a friend was then sent a number of internet links to images of people murdered for standing up for their principles. "She rang up and said, 'Shanna, you need to be very careful because he's trying to make me aware that things will happen'. Not a direct death threat perhaps, but he was trying to say that something is going to happen to me."

    Bukhari takes the threat of physical violence seriously. She makes sure she is never alone, both in her Manchester flat and on the city streets, and has contacted a private security firm for protection when attending charity events to raise money for the Joshua Foundation, a charity for terminally ill children. She fears that Britain's Miss Universe finals in Birmingham in May will also be a target: "It worries me that haters will turn up. I know what they are capable of."

    One Facebook message calls her a "dirty Muslim" and asks why she is representing Britain "when you don't even fucking belong here". Bukhari said: "I actually replied to him in a very calm manner because I'm not one to retaliate, my family taught me to rationalise rather than react. Then I thought 'why can't I represent Britain?' I was born here and am proud to be British. My parents are from Pakistan but I am not going to represent Pakistan as this is my country."

    Bukhari says the abuse has been disillusioning partly because she enjoyed a liberal upbringing; her parents sent her to a Catholic school in Blackburn where she was the only Muslim but was "completely accepted". It was only when she moved to Manchester in 2001, she said, that she became aware of segregation as an issue. She does not agree with David Cameron's speech last month in which he asserted that state multiculturalism in Britain had failed. She believes that more must be done to break down mistrust.

    Bukhari cites the thousands who have offered their backing. Support has come from Spain, the Middle East, Pakistan, India and China. Most women supporters say she represents not just a role model for Muslim women, but all those who refuse to be cowed by bullies.

    During last month's semi-final for Britain's Miss Universe candidate Bukhari received the most public votes. Britain has never won the title. It is increasingly possible that its first victor might also be its first Muslim representative.