Sir Peter Soulsby (Mayor of Leicester) with Gursharan Kaur Thandi (Sikh representative on Leicester Council of Faiths Board of Directors)
At Bishop's Lodge, Springfield Road, this evening for the annual Faith Leaders Forum garden party, hosted by the Bishop of Leicester. I arrive just as Smita Shah, President of Jain Samaj Europe and Treasurer of Leicester Council of Faiths is parking, so we enter together and are greeted by Mike Smith, Chaplain to Bishop Tim. Mike's been corresponding with me over the past week or so, coordinating efforts so that as many members of Leicester Council of Faiths as possible come to this evening's meeting.
Attendance at Faith Leaders Forum is normally by invitation from the Bishop's office. That doesn't normally include me. Nothing odd there, since I'm no one's idea of a "Faith Leader" (especially my own). I've attended only one of these meetings before this evening and that was back in January this year, when Noel Singh (of Leicestershire County Council) and I were invited to debrief attendees on National Inter Faith Week 2010 and to encourage them to start planning the same event later this year.
In fact, so confident was I that I wouldn't be attending this meeting that about a month ago I picked today as a good one to take off. I was going to go down to London, visit the Miro exhibition at Tate Modern and make a day of it. I rarely do such things but thought I could give myself a little treat for once. After paying for tickets for the exhibition (and train tickets too) this meeting was announced about a week later - and invitations were extended to all members of Leicester Council of Faiths and to me. Well, I couldn't say really no - could I, faithful reader?
What makes this meeting of special importance is that the guest of honour is Sir Peter Soulsby, first elected Mayor of Leicester. Not counting our host and special guest, there are 24 people in attendance, 13 of them members of Leicester Council of Faiths (plus me - I never count myself, since I'm not a member but an employee). Seven out of our eight member faith communities are represented here this evening.
We enjoy a nice curry and the chance to chat round three big round tables arranged inside a gazebo pitched in the garden at the back of the lodge (food by Taste Inc.) I sit with Alex Keller, who has long represented the Leicester Progressive Jewish Congregation on the Council of Faiths - and with whom I realised recently that I share a long-standing passion). It seems, though, that I may have nicked the Mayor's seat!
Around 1830, Bishop Tim calls us to order and introduces Sir Peter, who is taking the opportunity this evening to set out his vision for the city and to speak about partnership with the faith communities in helping make that vision reality.
In Sir Peter's interesting and pithy opening remarks, I note the following: how he values the diversity of the city; how is not complacent about the benefits of diversity that Leicester enjoys; how we may be said to have been uniquely protected from some of the winds that blow in other parts of the country thanks to friendships and relationships built up over many years; how he recognises the importance of working in partnership - and that one of the most significant kinds of partnership at work in Leicester is that between the local authorities and the city's faith communities.
Sir Peter takes questions and responds to comments on a range of topics from the assembled guests (and you'll note, I hope, that they cover more than what might be considered typical faith-related matters):
- on the so-called "Big Society" (setting aside political misgivings) - how to promote the kind of active citizenship that members of faith communities have practised so long and how to offer that as a model for action that the rest of the city can understand and accommodate.
- on his response to Leicester being highlighted as one of 25 priority areas in the Prevent Strategy - in which one community feels unfairly singled out while the rest feel unfairly left out.
- how he might address collective and historic inferiority complex in Leicester. Not just creating a vision for the future, but getting people to recognise, acknowledge and value what we have in Leicester here and now.
Other topics touched on this evening include the arts; social care for elderly and vulnerable people; inequality of wealth, of access to services, of life opportunities and even of life expectancy (which can vary by as much as 10 years between different parts of the city); youth unemployment; street crime; slow growth of business community; improvement in state education in Leicester.
Everyone appears to feel the benefit of this meeting and the hope is expressed on both sides that it's only the first of many such instances of dialogue between the Mayor and representatives of the faith communities.
The most sensitive issue raised this evening relates to the increasing number of anti-Semitic incidents raising tensions among and between certain communities. This part of the evening in particular would give the lie to any notion that what's going on here is a self-congratulatory, self-indulgent communal pat on the back. Some real contentious and difficult matters are tackled head-on. We can't just rest on our laurels, assuming that everything in Leicester is hunky-dory. The reality is that, for many people (and some communities) it's patently anything but. The quality of faith leadership creates secure space in which to discuss such issues and to prove that it's not possible to isolate and pick off one community or to set one community against another.
After the meeting, Sughra Ahmed, Suleman Nagdi, Tony Nelson and I stay behind for a quarter of an hour, discussing aspects of our planning and preparation for celebrating the 25th anniversary of Leicester Council of Faiths. Even in this short time of putting our heads together, several good ideas emerge.
In advance of the meeting, I was asked by Mike Smith (Policy Adviser and Chaplain to the Bishop of Leicester) who coordinates these meetings, whether there I would recommend anything that could be included in the conversation between the Mayor and the faith community groups this evening.
While I'm sure that Sir Peter will be receiving recommendations about everything under the sun, I was glad to be able to offer my personal thoughts, arising from my experience in this post. I asked that they should not be taken as representing official comments from Leicester Council of Faiths (although I hope that officers and other members would not object to too many of them). In brief, then:
I think it's important to appreciate the different roles and functions of Leicester Council of Faiths, Faith Leaders Forum and St Philip's Centre for Study and Engagement in a Multi-Faith Society. These are mostly complementary, although occasionally they can bump into each other (which occurs mostly through lack of communication and coordination). Sometimes the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing. The relative ages of the three agencies is an important factor. I don't think it's unfair to say that the existence of the Council of Faiths helped create the environment and circumstances where the other two could be established more easily. It could be said that both Faith Leaders Forum and St Philip's Centre are capitalising on long-standing work and relationships that have been channelled for a longer period of time through the Council of Faiths.
The relative disparity in resourcing these three agencies is an important issue and can't be ignored in the current climate. The Council of Faiths is entirely dependent on external funding, from the City Council and from a (very) small number of sources to whom we sell our services of consultancy, guidance and training. Although everyone could do with better funding, Leicester Council of Faiths exists on a shoestring compared to the resources that allow Faith Leaders Forum and St Philip's to function. I'd like to say that means we punch considerably above our weight - but, as you can imagine, faithful reader, that can be draining - if not downright exhausting at times (for me, in particular).
Although the Council of Faiths, Faith Leaders Forum and St Philip's Centre often involve the same faces, they fulfil different roles and functions at each one. And although many of the people who are Directors or members of Leicester Council of Faiths can be described as "Faith Leaders", our institution concerns itself with different levels of the faith communities, all the way down to the grass roots. We are often seen, and asked to play the role of gatekeeper - allowing entry into the communities by other appropriate agencies, such as the NHS. Because of the way my post has evolved in particular, it means that the Council of Faiths is much more directly involved with other "Protected Characteristics" as defined in the Equality Act 2010 and the groups and prominent individuals in the community working in relation to them.
One point which is often lost on these working at the centre of things in the Diocese, as "professional" people of faith: only the Council of Faiths offers a way of inter-faith working in Leicester that is not church-led or Christian-centred. Many of those who willingly give their time and effort to community cohesion work have to be persuaded that inter-faith dialogue and activity in our city is genuinely egalitarian and not a kind of colonialism in reverse on home soil. This perception and anxiety gives a certain flavour to inter-faith work that make it hard to swallow for some. The presence and activities of the Council of Faiths (in which no one faith community is seen or allowed to dominate) helps ameliorate that perception.
If I were asked to provide a soundbite, it would be this: "If Leicester Council of Faiths didn't exist, you'd have to invent it!" And if you did, it probably wouldn't look all that different from what we've got today.