Tuesday, 31 May 2011


Julie Ann Heath with a copy of her book, The Angel at the Bottom of the Garden, an illustrated fable for adults
To St Martins House, in the precincts of Leicester Cathedral early this evening, where I've been invited to attend a launch for three books written (and two of them illustrated) by my friend and colleague Julie Ann Heath.

Julie Ann is in charge of the Diocese's Retail Chaplaincy (keeping an eye on the spiritual needs of those who work in the city centre), organises Cathedral AM (the bimonthly networking breakfasts in the Cathedral Visitor Centre) and is a member of Leicester Council of Faiths.

She's been of great help to me in my work, especially helping secure our first exhibition in Highcross during National Inter Faith Week 2009. To me, she's really rather inspirational.

She gives a brief talk about how and why she came to write these books, her own sources of inspiration in C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) and George McDonald (1824-1905) and how her books have been received.

Julie Ann's books are published by Potters Maze.


This article appears on the Guardian's Comment is Free (Cif Belief) website today:
Religious groups have too much freedom to discriminate
Now that faith groups are to become public service providers, the exemptions they have in British equality law must be narrowed
By Evan Harris
The Guardian has reported on those questioning the wisdom of contracting religious groups to deliver key public services. The government's "big society" initiative – it still seems too unfocused to call it policy – has, as one of its aims, the transfer of the delivery of some public services to voluntary sector providers on a greater scale than is currently the case.
It was envisaged by both this and the previous government that faith groups would be some of the new providers. It seems unjustified to argue against religious organisations providing public services, as it is discriminatory to single out those with a religious ethos for a prohibition on service provision. However, some religious organisations present extra challenges when being considered for the delivery of public services and it would be naive, foolish or perverse to ignore these.
First, they have a special exemption in equality law to discriminate against their employees narrowly on grounds of gender and sexual orientation (for priesthood and leadership roles) and more widely on the basis of religious belief. These exemptions are provided for in the European directive that underpins our anti-discrimination laws in this area. The problem is that the exemptions given in UK law by the last Labour government in the 2003 regulations and then in the 2010 Equality Act are far wider than provided for in the directive.
One of these exemptions is found in schedule 9, paragraph 3 of the 2010 Equality Act, allowing religious organisations to discriminate on the basis of religion in employment, in certain jobs and contexts. The last government faced infraction proceedings from the European Union for failing, unlike all the Catholic Mediterranean states, to properly limit these exemptions. The coalition needs to think more carefully about whether it wants to continue to fight the last government's battles. The concern is not only that workers are being required to sign up to a religious pledge when their job (say, secretary or caretaker) has no real religious element.
What is even more worrying is that staff of an existing secular provider – who make the beds in a hostel, or assist people with benefit claims – will face a faith test when the service and their employment contracts are transferred to a new provider that has a religious ethos. During the passage of the Equality Act, Liberal Democrats (that's me and Lynne Featherstone, now the equality minister) proposed an amendment that specified that religious tests were not to be permitted when delivering public services. This was vigorously opposed by religious leaders and the government. It was silently opposed by the Tories.
Second, our equality laws quite rightly prohibit the discrimination against users of public services on the ground of sexual orientation but the last government failed to extend this to religion.
When Featherstone and I proposed our amendment to prevent this, the then Labour minister Vera Baird argued that this was needed to allow Jewish care homes to function (as an example). Jewish-run care homes will appeal to the Jewish community, will cater to their needs and will fill their places – but they do not require to declare "no Muslims need apply" in order to do this.
Finally, it's not acceptable for a religious (or political) organisation to actively proselytise having been commissioned to deliver a public service, regardless of whether or not it is publicly funded. If religious organisations want to provide, for example, a hostel for the homeless, they must allow users in without needing to attend prayers, say grace or hear a sermon. Many religious organisations will not seek to discriminate or proselytise in this way but the organised lobby is fiercely protective of the latitude it has currently got.
The Liberal Democrats are not prepared to sit back and do nothing in the face of Labour and Conservative failure to protect public service workers and users from the risk of religious persecution. Grassroots members passed a motion at their last conference reiterating our call for narrower religious exemptions in the equality law and that in the meantime contracts with religious providers of public services need to have clear non-discrimination and non-proselytising clauses.


At Highcross this lunchtime, for a meeting with staff there to discuss the proposed Multi-Faith Prayer Room.

Rosemarie Fitton comes along with me. Rosemarie is on a short placement with Leicester Council of Faiths, as part of her MA course at St Philip's Centre in Interreligious Relations. I've asked Rosemarie to do some desk research on the topic of prayer rooms and quiet spaces in public buildings (which is her specialist academic and professional area after all). She's produced a ring-binder's worth of fantastic material garnered from (mostly online) sources all over the world, showing good and bad practice, public reaction, media coverage etc. She leaves a copy of this with me, so that the Council of Faiths can offer it as a resource to Highcross (and any other premises or organisations who seek our advice on this topic in future). This is a real boon to us and gives us a tremendous practical tool for offering specialist advice in this field. Thanks Rosemarie!

When we arrive, John Florance of BBC Radio Leicester is waiting at the Information Desk. John picked up on this through my earlier blog post. He's interested in recording stages in the development of what might appear to be a small, but significant episode in Leicester's ongoing multicultural story. He interviews Rosemarie and me (separately) for a short piece to be broadcast later in the week. Since it's early days for this project (and since no one from Highcross felt it appropriate to speak to local radio about it at this stage) Rosemarie and I have to be big on general support for Highcross, but sparing on the detail. John said he'd never heard me be so positive - but in a completely nebulous sort of way. That's one of the special skills I've honed while in this post, John!

Two members of staff lead us to the spot that Highcross intends to use as a Prayer Room. I'm not at liberty to reveal its location at the moment, for reasons I'm sure you'll understand and appreciate. Even in a city as comfortably multicultural as Leicester, this is still a sensitive issue for some. Besides, Highcross want to do this right, and for it to reflect well on them as an institution which cares about its customers and will which will take reasonable steps to meet their needs, they don't want it all to go off half-cocked.

Here are some things I can say about the proposed Prayer Room:
  • The facility is accessible, both in terms of location and of entry and exit.
  • It can accommodate wheelchair users.
  • It will be secure, since it can be locked from the inside when in use and from the outside when not in use and it is in a well-frequented, well-lit area of the centre.
  • Users will have to ask for the key from the Information Desk (they will have to leave contact details, such as mobile number, in case they wander off without returning the key).

The four of us spend half an hour inside the proposed room, during which time we discussed specific issues about how it should be fitted out so that it's in a fit state for this special kind of use.
  • Softer floor covering, perhaps a springier form of tile, easy to keep clean.
  • Provision of one or two prayer mats or rugs (which would have to be kept clean to the appropriate standard).
  • Low padded seating (Rosemarie's research folder has photos of the worst seating that could be provided for a Prayer Room!).
  • Dimmer switch for lighting.
  • Emergency pull-cord to be left in place.
  • Soundproofing in the form of "absorber boards" with nice finish (not only to reduce noise from outside, but also to prevent people outside from hearing praying or chanting from within).
  • Access to running water (and paper towels with appropriate disposal facilities).
  • No photographs or religious illustrations of any kind on display.
  • Perhaps a set of inspiring quotations could be framed and mounted on the walls.
  • Contact information for Leicester Council of Faiths could be provided, rather than individual faiths' places of worship.
  • A set of rules for use of the facility should be displayced on the inside of the door.

Here are some of the general questions we consider today:
  • How many people would be liable to want to use it?
  • Of those who might want to use it, how many would actually do so?
  • Which communities would be represented among likely and actual users?
  • Would it be fair to ask users to leave basic monitoring information when they ask for the key (e.g. first half of post code, faith community membership)?
  • What pressure points would there be on the use of the facility, in terms of time of day and times of the year (e.g. related to particular festivals, commemorations, fasting periods etc)?

As you can imagine, faithful reader, it's not possible to answer many of these questions at this stage. Highcross is viewing this whole thing as a sort of "entry level" project. Its popularity and usefulness will have to be monitored and evaluated over the first year or so, to see if any amendments have to be made. Appropriate and sensitive monitoring and evaluation is an area in which Leicester Council of Faiths can have an ongoing involvement in the project.

While this may appear to be a fairly small-scale development, it is still going to be a significant outlay by Highcross for the benefit of their customers. We at the Council of Faiths appreciate that - and we hope that the eventual users of this facility do too.

Just ... gone!

I moved into the downstairs office at Pilgrim House a year ago, but the windows still showed transfers for the Just Fairtrade shop. They've been in their new premises in St Martin's Square for nigh on two years now, but folk can be slow to catch on. Apparently, people were seeing the transfers on our windows, calling in and finding nothing there, so they went off again in the belief that the Just shop had gone out of business.

Last week, someone from the Just shop phoned and said they'd come and remove the transfers, cutting their last remaining tie with Pilgrim House. We'd been quoted some ridiculous price by professional cleaners to get these transfers off without causing damage to the glass. So I was glad to hear that someone from Just Fairtrade was coming to take care of it.

This morning Roger, a member of their board who volunteers at the Just shop on a Tuesday (hence his nickname among staff there, "Tuesday Roger") arrived around 1000, with hairdryer and scraper. You can't see much of Roger in the picture, but that's him up the ladder, blasting and scraping away at the transfers. I finished the job later, getting the last sign of them off with white spirit. Very nice and clean it all is too now; you'd never guess these things had been there. Thanks for lending your elbow grease Roger.

One of the reasons I was keen for us to get the use of this downstairs office was so that we could use the street-level presence in such a prominent position to promote our existence there - and to showcase our work of course. Hopefully, we can get on that now and get some sort of display in place.

Yet another case of "Watch this space!" (quite literally).


This article is published today on the website of the World Jewish Congress (founded in 1936 to represent Jewish communities around the world):
British rabbi attacked thrice in within weeks [sic]
A rabbi in England has been targeted three times by suspected anti-Semitic vandals.  In separate attacks this month, bricks were thrown twice through the window of the home of Rabbi Shmuli Pink's home, and a brick also smashed the window of his car. Pink is the rabbi of the Leicester Hebrew Congregation, located in the East Midlands region. He and his wife have seven children. 
He has lived in the community, serving its approximately 400 Orthodox Jews, for nearly ten years, the "Jewish Chronicle" reported.
Police are reportedly treating the attacks as "religiously motivated" since the intended victim is a rabbi, the newspaper reported.  "It has been an unpleasant experience but we have got the support of other faith groups and we are working very closely with the police," Pink told the "Leicestershire Mercury" [sic].
Lawrence Jacobs, the synagogue's security officer, told the same newspaper: "When you have three attacks in as many weeks there is a reason for that and it looks like they were religiously motivated. We have no idea at all who has done it. These attacks were frightening for the children in the house at the time. We are very happy with the police response and we hope those responsible will be caught. The police are treating it with a lot of gravity."

Monday, 30 May 2011

Lord Mayor's service celebrates "all faiths"

From today's Leicester Mercury:
Lord Mayor's service celebrates "all faiths"
City's diverse religions highlighted at annual civic ceremony
By Tom Mack
The new Lord Mayor of Leicester put religion in the spotlight yesterday with a service that embraced all faiths.
During the civic service, held each year at Leicester Cathedral  to welcome the new Lord Mayor into his or her post, Robert Wann read a passage from the Bible, and past Lord Mayor Manjula Sood read a prayer that was relevant to all religions.
In his sermon, Bishop of Leicester the Rt Rev Tim Stevens described Leicester as a city where "temples, mosques and gurdwaras punctuate the skyline, reminding us of the sacred links and shared aspirations of tens of thousands of its citizens".
He concluded by asking for God's blessing for Councillor Wann's work. Speaking after the event, Coun Wann said: "I thought it was an excellent service and the readings were very poignant. I'd been looking forward to it for a long time."
The Sikh High Sheriff of Leicestershire, Resham Singh Sandu, also attended.
He said: "It was a service for all faiths and people are here from all faiths – that's what Leicester is all about."
He added that he was planning to start a new tradition of the High Sheriff also having an annual service at Leicester Cathedral, and hoped to have one in September this year.
Councillor Sood, who is the chairman of the Leicester Council of Faiths, said: "The service was very moving and meaningful for the city. It was nice to have something for all the different faiths.
"The civic service is about everyone being together."
During his year in office, Coun Wann will be assisted by his chaplain, Canon Barry Naylor, who led yesterday's service with the Dean of Leicester Cathedral, Vivienne Faull.
Among the congregation were Ken and Eileen Coulson, from Glenfield.
Mr Coulson, 91, said: "It was great. I've been to a lot of the civic services because I'm in the Royal Marines Association and it's a very nice event."
Mrs Coulson, 88, said: "It was excellent. It was a different service because it was for the whole city, not just the people who were in the cathedral."
The previous Lord Mayor, Colin Hall, did not attend the civic service held for him last year.
He also banned the saying of prayers before full council meetings because he said it was outdated, but Coun Wann has revived the tradition.

Read this article, along with reader comments (and the opportunity to make your own) on the Leicester Mercury website: http://www.thisisleicestershire.co.uk/news/Lord-Mayor-s-service-celebrates-faiths/article-3607069-detail/article.html

Faith book out

That's the rather non-descript headline for a brief article in today's Leicester Mercury about MBCoL's book launch last Friday.
Faith book out
Discovering Through Death – Beliefs and Practices has been compiled by people from the Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Humanist, Jain, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh communities and was written by Suleman Nagdi, chairman of the Muslim Burial Council of Leicestershire.
For more information, visit: www.mbcol.org.uk

Saturday, 28 May 2011


From today's Leicester Mercury:

Leicester's new Lord Mayor puts prayers back on agenda at council's meetings
By David Maclean, Political Correspondent
Prayers before Leicester City Council's monthly meetings are back on the agenda.
New Lord Mayor Rob Wann has revived the tradition of prayer before the city's main full council meeting.
A short prayer has been said at the start of the meetings since 1997, with a year's gap between 2005-06 when Mary Draycott was Lord Mayor.
However, Colin Hall, on taking up the role last May, said the practice was "outdated, unnecessary and intrusive" and would not continue during his year of office.
He selected Allan Hayes, a humanist, to be his chaplain during the civic year.
This week Coun Wann selected a religious chaplain – Canon Barry Naylor – for his term of office, and brought back prayer before meetings.
At Thursday's annual meeting councillors and guests were asked to rise for prayer, led by Canon Naylor, for the first time in 12 months.
Coun Wann said: "Each mayor can decide how to do things during their year of office and Colin Hall had every right to remove prayers during his term of office.
"However, I thought it was important to bring prayers back. It's a moment of reflection before council business.
"It's a recent tradition but one that could be lost if we're not careful. The history of the Lord Mayor's position goes back hundreds of years and I think it's important to respect the history that is tied to the role.
"It's for future Lord Mayors to decide whether they stick with tradition or make changes again."
Canon Naylor said: "Spirituality, in whatever form, plays a part in civic life.
"Even though the prayers will come from a Christian perspective I will be selecting prayers which people from all faiths can relate to.
"I have served as chaplain to Robert for the past year when he was deputy Lord Mayor, and I'm looking forward to the year ahead."
Last year, Mr Hall declined to attend the city cathedral service which traditionally welcomes Lord Mayors into the new role.
Coun Wann deputised last year and said he would be taking part in the service when it is held on Sunday.
He has adopted the Royal Anglian Regiment Benevolent Fund for Leicestershire as his charity during the Mayoral year.
It helps serving and former members of the regiment and their dependents who are in need.
He said: "Soldiers and their families deserve more support than they currently get and I hope my appeal helps provide some of this in Leicester.
"I've made sure that the money is ring-fenced for people in this area, because I've always believed that charity begins at home."
For more information on the appeal, visit: www.leicester.gov.uk/lordmayor


Here's the front page story from today's Leicester Mercury - a report of something distinctly unpleasant and unwelcome. This isn't the kind of story we want to hear (or tell) about Leicester, but here it is. I heard about these incidents yesterday, when I attended the MBCoL book launch (which was hailed by all as a triumph in terms of demonstrating how well the diverse communities of Leicester and Leicestershire can get along). From what I heard at that event, I understand that there was some discussion amongst the Jewish communities here about whether it would be better for the story not to be made public - that it might do more harm than good to the cause of peaceful coexistence locally, that it could embolden those of intolerant views. Whatever the virtues of either side of that argument, it's all over the front page of the Mercury today.
Rabbi's home in Leicester attacked by racist thugs
by Dan Martin
A rabbi's home has been targeted in a series of suspected anti-Semitic attacks.
Rocks have been thrown through the windows of Rabbi Shmuli Pink's house in Leicester, where he lives with his wife Rivkie and their seven children.
A brick was also thrown through the window of his car, parked outside his home near the Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Highfield Street, Highfields.
Rabbi Pink, who leads the city's 400-strong Orthodox Jewish community, said: "It has been an unpleasant experience but we have got the support of other faith groups and we are working very closely with the police.
"We are remaining strong."
Police are investigating the attacks which happened on May 7, May 20 and May 21, all late at night or in the early hours.
They say they are treating the incidents as religiously motivated because of Rabbi Pink's "position in the community".
Councillor Manjula Sood, chairman of the Leicester Council of Faiths, said she was extremely disturbed by the attacks.
She said: "This is completely unacceptable. It should not happen anywhere and especially not in our city, where we pride ourselves on the good relations that exist between faiths.
"Attacks on one religion are attacks on all religions and I hope the police are able to catch the people responsible. I have met the family and they are good people who do not deserve what has happened."
On two occasions the family was at home when the vandals struck.
Lawrence Jacobs, the synagogue's security officer, said: "When you have three attacks in as many weeks there is a reason for that and it looks like they were religiously motivated.
"We have no idea at all who has done it. These attacks were frightening for the children in the house at the time.
"We are very happy with the police response and we hope those responsible will be caught. The police are treating it with a lot of gravity."
Councillor Jeffery Kaufman, president of the Leicester Progressive Jewish Congregation, said: "I deplore any kind of attack on someone that happens because of their religion.
"I am proud of this city and its tolerance, so incidents like these are all the more upsetting. It is true that there has been a rise in anti-Semitic attacks in recent years, however."
He said the Community Support Trust, which campaigns against anti-Semitism and offers security advice to Jewish communities, had been informed.
Inspector Shane O'Neill, commander of Spinney Hill Park police station said: "We are treating these incidents as religiously motivated due to the victim's position in the community and believe that the incidents are isolated.
"We are working closely with the family, the community and other agencies to resolve this to everyone's satisfaction. If there is anyone who has any information regarding these crimes, we would urge them to contact police immediately."
Contact the police on 0116 222 2222 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.

In the article reproduced above, Councillor Kaufman is quoted as referring to the "Community Support Trust". I couldn't find a relevant organisation of that name online, but did find the Community Security Trust (CST). I assume that's the one he is referring to (though correct me if I'm wrong, faithful reader). On their website, CST states that it is, "proud of Britain's diverse and vibrant Jewish community, and seeks to protect its many achievements from the external threats of bigotry, antisemitism and terrorism."

Friday, 27 May 2011

This week's visitors: when we broke the 25k barrier

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 406
  2. United States 89
  3. Slovenia 60
  4. Russia 40
  5. Germany 32
  6. Denmark 21
  7. Canada 14
  8. India 10
  9. Ukraine 10
  10. France 8 

This week's total: 690 (last week's: 596) 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.

I'd love it if our reader(s) in Slovenia would drop us a line in the comments box. Tell us who you are, what you do etc. Thank you for your 60 pageviews, Slovenia (Uh oh: it's starting to sound a bit Eurovision now!)

The world map at the top of this post is the graphic that I see on the stats page. The darker the green, the more pageviews from that country. I can see different versions of this map for "now" (whenever that is), today, this week, this month and "all time" (which seems to mean the last 12 months). They're updated each time I look at that them.

This week the number of "all time" page views hit 25,000! I did refresh the page and it actually showed exactly that number (a feat that the Facebook team didn't quite manage when they were waiting for their one millionth sign up, according to The Social Network). I was hoping to hold on to that page and get a photo of it for archive purposes, but I wasn't paying attention sufficiently to do that right. Never mind: 50,000 can't be far away.


To Parklands Leisure Centre, Oadby, this evening, for the launch of Discovering Through Death: Beliefs and Practices - a new book published by the Muslim Burial Council of Leicestershire (MBCoL).

I'm greeted outside by three Muslim friends. I ask where the entrance is and one of them tells me, "Follow the straight path!" I reply, "Could anything be more Islamic?" Laughter all round.

Upon entering, I'm greeted warmly by Suleman Nagdi (Chair of MBCoL). As we shake hands, someone takes our photo (I've seen the result: Suleman looks as debonair as ever, I wear the pained expression of someone who's just banged his knee on the edge of a table.)

There's a pile of copies of the book on a talbe near the door and we're invited to take one - for free. Having spend much of my working life in book publishing, it can still come as a shock to be offered a nicely produced book free of charge: I take four.

When formal proceedings get under way, we hear words of welcome from Faisal Issat (Legal Advisor to MBCoL): Suleman Nagdi; Councillor Linda Hartley, Mayor of Oadby & Wigston; Sir Peter Soulsby, Mayor of Leicester; Councillor Manjula Sood, Chair of Leicester Council of Faiths; and Resham Singh Sandhu, High Sherriff of Leicestershire and Chair of the Interfaith Forum for Leicestershire. Guests of honour this evening include Lady Gretton, Lord Lieutenant of Leicestershire; and His Honour Judge Simon Hammond.

A representative from each of the communities of faith or belief included in the book is called to the stage to say a few words: Minou Cortazzi (Bahá'í); Caroline Brazier (Buddhist); Rev Canon Andrew wingate (Christian); Hamang Bhatt (Hindu); Humanist (Allan Hayes); Rabiah Hannan (Muslim); Tony Nelson (Jewish). That's Tony at the microphone in the photo above. Unfortunately, no one was on hand at this point to represent the Jain or Sikh communities.

Keynote speaker this evening is His Honour Judge Howard Morrison CBE QC. He is a judge at the Internaional Criminal Court in The Hague, where he currently sits on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia considering the case of Radovan Karadžić, accused of war crimes committed against Bosnians Muslims  and Bosnian Croats during the Siege of Sarajevo, as well as ordering the Srebrenica massacre.

Judge Morrison expresses his hope that this new book (fro which he wrote the foreword) will not only be a source of accurate and up to date information, but will also be a catalyst for thought and relationships that will make us think about how we live out the rest of our years.

Following Judge Morrison's brief but thought-provoking address, Suleman Nagdi proposes a vote of thanks. then, as the last formal part of the evening, Faisal Issat made a presentation to Richard Welburn, Head of Bereavement Services at Leicester City Council. Richard is due to retire in October and MBCoL wished to mark this with a gift and some words of tribute.

I think that this event is a landmark in inter faith relations, not just for Leicester, but nationally. Definitely one for the history books. My only reservation is that there's no mention (either from any of the speakers or in the book itself) of the fact that significant portions of the book's content are the work of Leicester Council of Faiths. Sections in the book which serve as an introduction to each of the eight faith communities which are members of the Council of Faiths (single paragraphs in unified style, covering such topics as Definitions; Origins; Beliefs; Scripture; Worship, Prayer and Meditation; Spiritualityl Lifestyle; Community; and Festival) are reproduced, word-for-word, from the set of public information brochures that we published in 2008. The Muslim Burial Council bought the right to use these texts from us for an agreed (small) fee and, while they then had the rights to limited used of the texts, we did ask for a credit as the originator of the material. I'm not going to be the dog in the manger at this special and very positive occasion, but I was saddened that we didn't get any mention for this contribution to the book. Even if it were done from the platform, it would have been nice to have heard it said in such distinguished company. Still, I won;t let anything take the shine off such a good occasion.

Has atheism become a religion?

Very interesting article in the Huffington Post, reproduced below. I like the different stance it takes on the topic, which reveals some of the nuances between how atheism is regarded here and across the Pond. It's thoughtful and thought provoking and adds a subtly distinctive flavour to the debate.
Has Atheism beome a religion?
By David Lose
Before you dismiss the question out of hand, consider these four inter-related bits of evidence:
1) As recently reported in the New York Times, military personnel who identify themselves as "Atheists" have requested chaplains to tend to their spiritual needs. As the Times article notes, "Defense Department statistics show that about 9,400 of the nation's 1.4 million active-duty military personnel identify themselves as atheists or agnostics, making them a larger subpopulation than Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists in the military." Having their own chaplains, the article explains, would give Atheists a sense of legitimacy and help validate their own system of values and beliefs.
2) The U.S Government reports that in 2008 those identifying themselves specifically as "Atheist" composed the 18th largest group of 43 possible categories of "self-described religious identification." The number of persons so identifying themselves almost doubled from seven years earlier. Admittedly, "Atheist" is one of the options listed under "no religion specified," but given that other options for respondents included checking "Agnostic" or "No Religion" or not answering the question at all, it appears that identifying oneself specifically as an Atheist, as opposed to simply "not religious," is growing in appeal. This points to the utility of a distinction made by Jonathan Lanman between "non-theists," those with no particular religious belief, and "strong atheists," those who view religion not only as irrelevant but as misguided and dangerous.
3) Similarly, it's worth noting the degree to which Atheists routinely, strategically, and often vociferously position what is often described as their "secular-humanist" views against religious traditions. Read or listen to any of the celebrity Atheists of the past decade like Richard Dawkins, Chrisotpher Hitchins and Sam Harris and you realize that they fashion many of their arguments not against some alternative economic, political, or philosophical position but against organized religion. Religious faith is clearly their primary opponent in the contest for the intellectual allegiance of the population, which makes it hard not to conclude that they offer their views and beliefs as a viable alternative to traditional religious systems.
4) Finally - and you probably knew this was coming - consider all the comments made by self-identified Atheists on articles published in the Religion section of the Huffington Post. Seriously. Either Atheists have way more time on their hands than the rest of the population or they've got something to prove. This assertive, us-against-them tone (in this case, against established religion) is characteristic of new religions. (Think of the Christian gospels', especially Matthew and John, stance toward first-century Judaism, for example.) As Rabbi David Wolpe observed a few months ago, there is an astonishing garrulousness to the comments made by Atheists to posts about religion that suggest not simply a lack of interest in, or even disdain for, religion but a competitive anger directed against persons of traditional religious faith. (Obviously plenty of religious folk radiate the same garrulousness, but this post is about Atheists.)
Taken together, these four elements suggest that Atheists regularly demonstrate attributes -- desire for spiritual sustenance, the importance of self-identification, offering their worldview as an alternative to other religious systems, and an assertive if not competitive style of engagement with other religious points of view -- usually exhibited by religious folk of all persuasions.
While Atheism as a movement doesn't have the formal structure, celebrations, or creedal dogmas of organized religions, we might at least identify Atheism as it exists today as an increasingly vibrant faith tradition. Still, when speaking of Atheists, why use the f-word (for "faith," silly) rather than speak of a worldview or personal philosophy? Three reasons suggest themselves.
1) It conveys that both a conventional religious worldview and atheistic worldview require a measure of faith. I don't mean this simply about the rather limited question of whether God exists, but rather about whether the material, physical dimension of life immediately apparent to our senses is all there is. The question can't be reduced, as Atheists regularly have, to observing that there are many beliefs - in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus as well as God - that can't be proved and must be taken on faith, but rather to ask whether there is a dimension of existence that supersedes or eludes our physical senses. Ultimately, any speech about God implies such a dimension that conversation about the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus do not.
2) Religious faith - and I'd argue atheistic faith - doesn't begin and end with the question of God or a spiritual dimension to life. One needs also to construct an interpretation of life (describing its purpose, goal, worth) and set of values by which to live that life. Ethics and values are not self-evident from religious creeds -- witness, for instance, the distinct values of the varieties of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam that run the gamut from liberal to fundamentalist. Similarly, there is no self-evident value system shared by Atheists and projecting such a system requires imagination, critical reflection and, yes, faith.
Third, characterizing both organized religion and emergent Atheism as distinct faith traditions invites a measure of mutual regard and even respect that is sorely lacking in present discourse. Professing belief in God, as well as rejecting such belief, each requires equal measures of imagination and nerve. As it turns out, doubt is not the opposite of faith; certainty is. For this reason, we can hold out the hope that religious and non-religious believers alike may recognize in each other similar acts of courage and together reject the cowardice of fundamentalism, whether religious or secular. Being able to disagree respectfully is a small but significant step that believers and non-believers could take as they, together, contemplate admiring, understanding, and preserving this wondrous world we share.

Read the article, along with reader comments (and the opportunity to leave your own) on the excellent Huffpost Religion website (and don't rush off after reading just this one): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-lose/atheism-religion_b_867217.html


In a very interesting development for inter faith relations on a national level in the UK, a Council of Dharmic Faiths has been formed. In the presence of leading figures from the Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh communities, the Council of Dharmic Faiths was launched at the House of Commons on 16 May. Dharma is a word common to all the religions involved and has the meaning of righteous conduct or teaching. The Council of Dharmic Faiths has been established with the aim of encouraging friendship, goodwill, respect, equality and increased understanding within these communities, and between members of these communities and others in the UK. The Parsi (Zoroastrian) community has associate membership of the Council of Dharmic Faiths.

The launch event at the House of Commons marked the culmination of a process that has in its earlier stages seen the national circulation of a discussion paper in 2007 on the "Advancement of Dharma" for all major faith leaders in the UK, followed by the discussion of the desirability of a "Four Faiths Forum" for those religions which historically originated in India. Then there was a historic gathering of leaders of national faith organisations of the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain and Zoroastrian communities in Finchley at the end of March this year, where arrangements were finalised for the formation of the Council of Dharmic Faiths.

There are estimated to be more than one and a half million followers of Dharmic religions in the UK. The Council of Dharmic Faiths has been established with the intention of promoting education and training,offering advocacy, improving the quality of health and social welfare, encouraging appropriate recreational activities and preserving the cultural heritage and promoting the interests of these faith communities in the UK.

The elected Chair of the Council of Dharmic Faiths is Dr Natubhai Shah, who is certainly well known in Leicester. Dr Shah was a prime movers in the establishment of the Jain Centre here and was prominent in public inter faith work in the city when I arrived here in the late 1980s.

If anyone were to think of this as an odd or innovative development, I would say think of the Family of Abraham grouping, that we've been used to in the inter faith world for donkey's years. I'm impressed by this new Council's public denial of being a caucus of religions who share special interests or who feel the need to define themselves in contrast or opposition to any other grouping of faith communities or any one faith in particular.

The Council of Dharmic Faiths has its own Facebook page.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

What would Jesus cut?

Following on new earlier in the week that David Cameron had apparently credited Jesus as the originator of "Big Society" (see blog post Monday 23 May), here's a thoughtful piece from the Comment is Free (cif Belief) website of The Guardian, thinking through that notion in a wee bit more depth.
What would Jesus cut?
David Cameron claims Jesus invented the 'big society' – but the Christian message has a strong emphasis on social justice
By Savitri Hensman
Coalition politicians have recently surpassed themselves in stirring up controversy. The prime minister's recent claim that his "big society" drive follows Jesus' example has sparked strong reactions.
Many are suspicious of David Cameron's attempts to roll back the state and encourage people to take more responsibility. While few object to the idea of promoting friendly neighbourhoods and caring families and boosting volunteering, many of the projects that support these things have been slashed. Meanwhile public services are facing massive cuts, particularly affecting the most vulnerable, and the gap between rich and poor is widening.
So when it became known that Cameron told a gatehring of Christiazn guests at a reception in 10 Downing Street that Christ was "starting the big society 2,000 years ago" and that "I'm not saying we've invented some great new idea here", many were less than impressed.
Jesus did indeed encourage generosity and care for others. But he was firmly rooted in the Jewish prophetic tradition, with its strong emphasis on social justice. Occasional gifts and helpful acts could not compensate for exploitative and oppressive structures.
The Book of Isaiah warned:
"Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right"

While the Jesus of Luke's Gospel declared:
"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh... But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep."

I doubt that this would have gone down well in 10 Downing Street, or that a cabinet of millionaires would have appreciated being told that: "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God".
Jesus reportedly told his listeners that "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also". Now, as then, it is all too easy for the most prosperous to be cut off from the realities confronting those who are less privileged. But is not benefit fraud immoral, and laziness to be deplored? Is it not good for the poor themselves, as well as society, to crack down on these?
The Gospel advice to "Give to the one who begs from you" and "Judge not, that you be not judged", may seem like an invitation to be taken advantage of. But the risks of turning away those who really are in need are serious. And while some take more than they are entitled to, others make do with far less help than they should actually receive, or struggle into work when they are badly ill or in pain, not only because of the pay but also because they want to stay busy and feel useful.
Besides, focusing too much on low-level abuses of the system can mean that large-scale rip-offs and corporate misdeeds slip by unnoticed. And challenging those on the margins to contribute more to the community is most likely to be effective when coming from those engaged at a grassroots level rather than the powerful, whose own actions are often at odds with their words.
Behind the rhetoric of the "big society", libraries, day centres and youth groups are facing closure, and the crackdown on benefit claimants is so harsh that even the dying are being condemned as scroungers. Trying to make out that the coalition government is following in Jesus' footsteps is less than convincing.
There is however one area in which Jesus might well have approved of cuts – in spending on warfare. But successive UK governments have been determined to display their military might, whatever the cost to soldiers and civilians.
"I think Churches, and religious organisations, have a huge amount to bring to the big society," said Cameron. Amid the hype, Christians, other people of faith, agnostics and atheists could perhaps bring a dose of reality.

Read this article, along with reader comments (and the opportunity to make your own) on The Guardian's cif Belief website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/may/26/cameron-big-society-jesus?INTCMP=SRCH


This article appears in this week's Jewish Chronicle:
Hate attacks on home of Rabbi
By Cathy Forman
The Leicester Hebrew Congregation rabbi’s house and car have been targeted by anti-Semitic vandals in three nocturnal attacks over the past three weeks.
Bricks twice shattered windows of Rabbi Shmuli Pink’s property, half-a-mile from the city centre synagogue. On another occasion, a brick was thrown through his car window.
Rabbi Pink said that although no one was injured, “this was not a pleasant experience. However, we are remaining strong.”
The minister, who lives with his wife Rifki and their seven children, praised the efforts of the local police. “We are very happy with what the police are doing. They are responding excellently.
He has served the Midlands community for nearly 10 years.
Synagogue security officer Laurence Jacobs said the local community of around 400 enjoyed good relations with other faiths in the city.
“We have the support of other faith communities, who are appalled at what has happened.” Local Police Inspector Shane O’Neill said: “We are treating these incidents as religiously motivated due to the victim’s position in the community and believe the incidents are isolated.
“We are working closely with the victim, the community and other agencies to resolve these to everyone’s satisfaction”


Here's Allan Hayes's First Person column from today's Leicester Mercury:
Believers and atheists are having dialogue
In his column last week, Bishop Tim wrote: "I long for the time when people of faith and committed atheists do not feel the need to insult each other or to accuse each other of holding a particular position because of some inadequacy." That time is now, and it has been here for many years: atheist and religious people have been having amicable and constructive discussions in Leicester and nationally for a long time. I am surprised that he seems unaware of this.
I would welcome a public discussion with him. Nothing shows better the need for such discussion than his later remark:
"It was Shakespeare who wrote in Macbeth of life as 'a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing'. That, I suppose, sums up the atheist position."
"Told by an idiot": Is this not a little insulting?
A wonderful opportunity is to hand: the bishop would be very welcome to attend, and even run a workshop at, the coming national Sea of Faith Conference to be held at Leicester University (July 22 to 24, www.sofn.org.uk). He would meet some very agreeable and non-insulting atheists (I happen myself to be a trustee and local convener for the network); some of them would be Christians.
But what does being an atheist tell us about a person? Does it imply that he or she is not a good person? Of course not – I am sure that the Bishop will agree with this.
As for meaning – Bishop Tim is concerned about this – well, I think that we make meaning for ourselves and for one another. At 78 years of age with children and grandchildren and a wonderful world, my life is full of meaning and I still have much to do and be remembered for.
And, making more use of Shakespeare, this time from Hamlet: I am free of "the dread of something after death, the undiscover'd country from whose bourn no traveller returns".
The Sea of Faith Network, now a national organisation with international connections, is in fact a local product – another example, along with the Secular Society, of Leicester radicalism. It was conceived in a pub in Barrow-on-Soar in 1987 by a group of (mainly) Anglican clergy. Most of its annual conferences have been at Leicester University. Controversial from the start, with its assertion that "religion is a human creation" it has stood for a more open attitude towards the exploration of theological issues.
I prefer to describe myself as a humanist, committed to the welfare of humanity and the view that we are solely responsible for our own well-being and future: I am a trustee of the national body, the British Humanist Association.

£7 million church building wins architectural award

Here's nice piece from today's Leicester Mercury. Congratulations to St Martins Houeer - and all who sail in her!

£7million church building wins architectural award
A church-run set of offices and community centre has won another award for its design.
St Martin's House, next to Leicester Cathedral, received the chairman's award at the East Midlands Local Authority Building Control Awards.
The building, which opened at the beginning of the year and was the former home of Leicester Grammar School, was one of 63 buildings nominated for the award.
Dave Smith, chairman of the East Midlands Region Local Authority Building Control, said he chose St Martins House above all the other projects because of the attention to detail in renovating and regenerating the building, which was given Grade II Listed status shortly before the work began.
He said: "I have seen too many older buildings fall into disrepair and to see this project not only renovate a fabulous building but to retain so many of the original features while exceeding current standards is heartwarming." Pete Hobson, director of St Martin's House, who was the project manager during the construction, said: "We knew when we started this project that it had to be completed to a very high standard and add to the life of the community.
"This award is a testament to the hard work put in by all our partners to achieve our goals for this important step towards the long-term goal of establishing Cathedral Square as a destination for all."
The £7 million redevelopment of the former Leicester Grammar School into St Martin's House has already been commended by both the Civic Society, in their annual architecture awards, and the Leicestershire and Rutland Society of Architects, in their design awards.
The awards praised everyone involved in the project: St Martin's Cathedral Properties Ltd, consultants Pick Everard, JH Hallam Contract Ltd and Leicester City Council.

Nice to see the article features a possessive apostrophe on St Martin's!

Read this article, along with reader comments (and the opportunity to leave your own) on the Leicester Mercury website: http://www.thisisleicestershire.co.uk/news/163-7million-church-building-wins-architectural-award/article-3598198-detail/article.html

Tuesday, 24 May 2011


At Leicester Adult Education College today, for “Connected Communities: Healthcare, Markets and Service Delivery”. The workshop is being held in the college's Hansom Hall. This part of the college was recently renamed in honour of Joseph Aloysius Hansom (1803–82), the prolific architect who designed buildings that were to become the city's New Walk Museum & Art Gallery and part of Leicester Adult Education College. He's best known for inventing the Hansom Cab, a ubiquitous feature of 19th Century streets in several countries, which made its first journey on Hinckley's Coventry Road in 1835.

The Coalition Government envisages the future NHS as “the largest social enterprise sector in the world”. Part of this vision involves drawing the non-profit or ‘third sector’ into the welfare mix as a provider of care alongside statutory services. This workshop will clarify the nature and role of current and new relationships that will be needed for the “Big Society” to succeed.

This study is concerned with how diverse groups, communities and organisations hope to work and collaborate in order to play a productive and effective role in the fast-changing healthcare and social policy landscape. The aim of today's workshop is to provide a conducive environment and a safe forum for discussion of issues of common concern and so that further research can be conducted. 

The workshop is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), in partnership with other leading UK research councils. It is part of a scoping study and review on the theme, Connected Communities”.

The researchers aim to present the views of participants at workshops and other events in an impartial manner to that future research agendas can be established on sound evidence and practice. The research findings will be written up as academic journal papers, a report to the AHRC and will be presented at seminars and conferences.

We’ve been told beforehand that the research project has the following aims:
  • To identify what connections and partnerships work in the sector at present and are likely to work in the future.
  • To discover what kinds of new connectivities will be developed in the new markets for healthcare delivery.
  • To examine what new sacrifices and new benefits the new environment will bring for patients and local communities. 

And that our participation will bring the following benefits to our communities of interest:
  • Presentation of leading-edge research into what connections and partnerships matter for effective service delivery.
  • Practical group exercises to identify key partnerships that currently work.
  • Concrete ideas on next-generation connections and partnerships.

I get to display the Council of Faiths pop-up banner at the back of the hall. I was hoping that more of the community-based organisations represented today would want to display themselves in this way, but we’re the only one. We'd like to think that the Council of Faiths would be high up on the team sheet when this kind of event is being organised or this kind of project is being planned. We hope it could be said that the faith communities of Leicester are able to demonstrate a special kind of connectedness that can inform – and be informed by – such an event and project. On the other hand, when we put our minds to it we can also show a kind of disconnectedness – from each other and from society at large – that would probably beat virtually all others hands down!

Attendees are distributed around five tables, six people of mixed background, experience and interest round each one. I’m seated with Chino Cabon from The Race Equality Centre (TREC), Dee Martin from Leicestershire Centre for Integrated Living (LCIL) both of whom I work with on a regular basis in the Regional Equlity and Diversity Partnership (REDP) and Parmjit Basra from Leicester Adult Skills and Learning Service (LASALS) with whom I've worked most notably on Leicester Speaks. Some of us wonder if we’ve been corralled, so that we’re not able to mix our opinions in with others whom we don’t work with on a regular basis – a cynical notion that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, I hope! The facilitator on our table is Prof. Carlo Ruzza, Co-investigator, AHRC Funding Award on "Connected Communities" at the University of Leicester’s Department of Sociology.

The session is opened by Dr Ming Lim, Lead Investigator, AHRC Funding Award on "Connected Communities" at the University of Leicester’s School of Management. She directs us to two icebreaker questions for each table. Firstly: “If you were to describe the NHS as an animal, which animal would you choose and why?” Here are some of the answers that we came up with around our table:
  • Gazelle: beautiful to behold, elegant and at home in its natural environment, blissfully unaware that just out of shot, a hungry lion is racing toward it, greedy death in its jaws.
  • Ostrich: with its head in the sand, hiding from reality.
  • Duck billed platypus: a bit of this and a bit of that, stitched together in an improbable unlikely and unconvincing manner.
  • Giraffe: head in the clouds, with only a tenuous relationship with reality.
  • Human being: claiming allegiance to one set of principles, but acting in a contrary way.

And secondly: “If the NHS’s service delivery was a form of transport, which one would it be and why?” Here are some of the answers that were offered around the tables:
  • Edinburgh's ill-fated tram system: they’ve spent most of their budget laying the foundations of a new system and now find that it’s been ruined by having normal traffic drive over the rails. Now they don't think there's enough money left in the coffers either to finish it or to scrap it – which would cost more than the former! (oops – is my Glaswegain schadenfreude showing through?)
  • Bus: involves queuing, sometimes not being able to get a seat and it not going all the way to where you want to go (amongst other drawbacks).
  • Oil tanker: hard to manoeuvre, hard to change course, disastrous consequences if it sinks or runs aground.
  • Bus in rural Africa: no timetable, no fixed route, too many people in too small a vehicle – but still it does the job.
  • UFO: some people report having had a close encounter with it, others are sceptical about its very existence (a stage whisper mentioned something about both involving people being subjected to undue amounts of “probing” but it went by unremarked upon).
  • Bennie railplane: a revolutionary system that was supposed to be the future of public transport, abandoned by the diversion of resources into war and eventually scrapped.
  • Earliest motor car: capable of going much faster than it did, held back by the requirement that it be preceded by a man waving a red flag.

After the icebreakers, we’re invited to take part in group discussions to help further this study. Each table is asked to consider three questions:

Question 1 In 2010, the government released a White paper on proposed reform to the NHS. One of its key proposals is that, for patients thee should be “no decision about me without me.” What is the significance of this focus on patient and user engagement for your organisation? 

Question 2 How do you think you can improve relations with your users and the community you serve in this time of change in the NHS?

Question 3 How have financial pressures over the last couple of years affected your organisation and your level of service delivery? 

I’m just putting the questions themselves in this blog entry, rather than picking and choosing from the wide range of responses. Perhaps you may be able to think of what some of the responses might have been, faithful reader – and to come up with a few of your own.

During the lunch break, members of the research team take the notes from the five tables off into another room, identify some headline themes, topics and comments from them and compile them into some slides that Dr Lim presents to us all after lunch. There’s speed and efficiency for you! So the afternoon session comprises Dr Lim debriefing us all from slides, followed by a “roving mic”session, in which attendees respond to the content of these slides and whether they represent fairly the things we discussed earlier in the day.

After the formal end of the workshop, several attendees stay behind to be interviewed for the study individually or in small groups (anonymously).

This would appear to be an interesting, timely useful project. I hope that Leicester Council of Faiths has the opportunity to be involved in the long term and to contribute positively to its progress and outcomes. There are ways in which it would appear to be complementary to our Faith Communities Health Champions initiative. We'd hope that our involvement in each of these projects would offer some crossover experience and learning, by which could inform the other.

In the photo above: Prof. Carlo Ruzza (left) and Dr Ming Lim (right).