Friday, 29 April 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 350 
  2. United States 97
  3. Russia 68
  4. Germany 41
  5. Iran 32
  6. Slovenia 30
  7. Ukraine 18
  8. Moldova 14
  9. Canada 10
  10. Israel 9

This week's total: 669 (last week's: 942) 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.

A big fall in the course of a week, that's true - but I've only posted one new entry this week. I've had other demands on my time (Open University essays to mark, childcare over the Easter holidays etc). I've got quite a backlog sitting in the "drafts" file, that should see the number of pageviews fair shoot up in the week ahead!

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.

OUR MESSAGE IS ABOUT TRUE ISLAMIC VALUES

This is Dr Habib Akram's First Person column, published in today's Leicester Mercury:
Our message is about true Islamic values
Dr Habib Akram wants us all to get on board his community's bus peace campaign
Not a day goes by without some bad news relating to my faith. Atrocities and extremist actions "in the name of Islam" fill the national news pages. No good, it seems – if the media were to be believed – ever comes from Muslims. No wonder Islamaphobia is at such a high.
A recent survey has found that a total of 98 per cent of respondents gained information about Islam from the press and broadcast media. Islam was therefore associated with terrorism, extremism and repression of women. Decades ago, it was not Islam that was the menace (it was then an ally) when communism was the great threat and the West feared the "reds under beds". Prior to that, fascism too had wreaked havoc across Europe.
Ideologies – be they faith-based or political – taken to extreme threaten us all and the extremists' interpretation and expression of Islam that panders to the media is in fact anathema to Islam. This is why, in common with many Muslims across all walks of life, my community is driving home a message of peace through a nationwide peace campaign.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, founded over a century ago on the basis of the peaceful practice of Islam, has placed banners proclaiming Loyalty, Freedom, Peace on 240 buses in British cities, including Leicester. From the end of this month and in May, a number of Leicester buses will display the values that Islam inculcates. This is part of an Affirmative Action campaign by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community to send out a clear message to religious extremists as well as Islamaphobes about true Islamic values.
At the very heart of the campaign is the belief that it is not sufficient to simply declare that Islam is a religion of peace – one must live this belief by setting an example. The belief in peace stems from the very inception of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community who have peace missions in towns and cities across the UK, including Leicester. My community is actively engaged in local and national fund-raising, volunteering, peace conferences, charity and interfaith work. The peace campaign comes as a national youth charity drive in the Midlands by Ahmadiyya Muslims aims to raise £225,000 for British charities.
The vast majority of Muslims live ordinary, decent lives and wish to contribute to the wellbeing of the country in which they live – it is where we and our children and their children will live. It is in all our interests – as well as an act of faith – to be good and loyal citizens and we must not allow extremist thinking and behaviour to destroy what we hold dear.
My community has launched a dedicated website for those who want to find out more about the peaceful message of Islam: www.loveforallhatredfornone.org
Dr Habib Akram is President of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association Leicester

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Holy Saturday, according to @His_Grace Archbishop Cranmer

In a blog entry posted a couple of days ago, I described Holy Saturday as "the day largely forgotten, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. That may be so in terms of public celebrations, but it's only the case if you're not thinking deeply enough about the story of Jesus.

The Book of Common Prayer (1662) states that after Jesus "was crucified, dead and buried" he "descended into hell"; Common Worship (2000) that he "descended to the dead". Both these translations of the Apostle's Creed are authorised in the Church of England. The latter translation concurs with that included in the Roman Catholic Catechism.

If you'd like to read more the soteriological significance of this day and reflect on its place in the progress of Holy Week, I can do no better than recommend you pay a visit to the blog of "His Grace", "Archbishop Cranmer". His Grace expends his online energy "examining religio-political agendas with politico-religious objectives". Here's how he's described on his blog:

Archbishop Cranmer takes as his inspiration the words of Sir Humphrey Appleby: "It’s interesting," he observes, "that nowadays politicians want to talk about moral issues, and bishops want to talk politics." It is the fusion of the two in public life, and the necessity for a wider understanding of their complex symbiosis, which leads His Grace to write on these very sensitive issues. Things got just a little bit too hot on 21st March 1556. His Grace hasn't been around much since, but he is as keen as ever to investigate and expose religio-politics or politico-religiosity, so email Cranmer with your insights, and he shall investigate - whatever the cost...


Here's a link to His Grace's blog entry for today, entitled "Holy Saturday: devastation, anguish, hell". Read and think on: http://archbishop-cranmer.blogspot.com/2011/04/holy-saturday-devastation-anguish-hell.html

Follow Archbishop Cranmer on Twitter: @His_Grace

Friday, 22 April 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 471 
  2. United States 189
  3. Russia 64
  4. Germany 59
  5. Denmark 52
  6. Iran 44
  7. Slovenia 24
  8. France 16
  9. Cyprus 12
  10. Canada 11

This week's total: 942 (last week's: 869) 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.

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.

So, if you're a visitor 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. Don't be shy now ...

EARTH DAY


Today (Friday 22 April) is Earth Day, dedicated to raising awareness of – and appreciation for – the natural environment. Earth Day was founded in 1970 and for the first two decades remained focused almost entirely on activities and events in the USA. It went global in 1990 and is now celebrated in more than 175 countries and by a significant number of national governments. In 2009, the United Nations designated 22 April International Mother Earth Day. Over the years, many communities have extended their observance to celebrate Earth Week. Earth Day is now the first day of Earth Month. This is, obviously, the kind of occasion in which faith communities can participate jointly and alongside other agencies which promote the common weal. However, I'm not aware of anything taking place locally (or nationally for that matter). This may be because Earth Day coincides with Good Friday this year. Some religious groups and organisations have put advice, guidance, information and resources online. If you're interested in looking at these, they can be found in the usual ways.

CHRIST IN THE CENTRE ON GOOD FRIDAY



I take Harry and Gracie in to see Christ in the Centre this morning. We don't make it in time to see the whole thing and miss the first half, that was performed in the appropriately named St Peter's Square in Highcross, then moved along High Street to Humberstone Gate. We join the crowd there, at the point in the story where Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The second half of the story is played out on a stage in front of the giant TV screen (which was used to great advantage), between Primark on one side (as seen in the photo above) and Superdrug on the other. I took that picture just at the moment in the story when Pontius Pilate infamously washes his hands of Jesus.


I found the whole thing very moving - and some of it distressing. There were clearly many people watching who weren't well versed in the Easter story and didn't seem prepared for the fairly harrowing depiction of these events in the final hours of Jesus' earthly life.


It was a beautiful warm and sunny morning and the event attracted a huge crowd. This was one of a number of public performances of the Passion Play, in diverse forms and settings, taking place in many parts of Britain today.


Here's a link to the report published the next day in the Leicester Mercury. There's a great slide show of photos taken on the day (along with reader's comments, although they barely touch on this event, but focus on the erroneous notion that St George's Day events are banned in Leicester),

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Silence will fall


On the way back from St Thomas' the Apostle in South Wigston where Harry was singing in the choir at the Maundy Thursday service, we pass through the city centre shortly after 2100 and see rehearsals for Christ in the Centre, which takes place tomorrow (Good Friday).

In keeping with displaying the bricolage, here's a picture of rehearsals for the Crucifixion in Humberstone Gate, in front of the giant TV screen. I'm not trying to fool myself (or you, faithful reader) that it's a good photo. I snapped it as the giant screen was showing a trailer for the new series of Doctor Who, showing the phrase "Silence will fall in 2 days". That would be Holy Saturday, the day largely forgotten, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. This is the kind of thing that simply leaps out to me. The juxtaposition in that moment just seemed meaningful - profound in a banal, everyday sort of way - and in keeping with the question Harry asked me as we left the Maundy Thursday service just half an hour before.

THOUSANDS EXPECTED TO SEE PROCESSION: CHRIST IN THE CENTRE


Today's Leicester Mercury carries an article about the Good Friday public event, "Christ in the Centre". Leicester has become world famous for its celebrations of events related to its faith and cultural communities, such as Diwali and Vaisakhi. I've often heard Leicester people complain that more fuss is made over the celebrations of the city's minority communities, than about anything that would be meaningful to the longer-standing communities. I've often heard them say that there is nothing done here for them. Well, this is one of those events that such people seem to forget, ignore or disregard. "Christ in the Centre" will be performed tomorrow for the ninth year in succession. And it will be followed by a very full and public programme of events celebrating St George's Day. 

I've never had the chance to see "Christ in the Centre" for myself; I hope I can catch some of it this time.

Thousands expected to see procession
By Kelly Pipes 

A dramatic recreation of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection will be performed in front of thousands in Leicester city centre on Good Friday. 

An estimated 10,000 people will gather to see the ninth Christ in the Centre passion play, which includes a procession from the Highcross shopping centre along High Street to Humberstone Gate. 

A cast of 45 amateur performers will open the Easter spectacle at 10am, in St Peter's Square at the Highcross. 

They will act out biblical stories on the theme of hospitality, which they have been rehearsing since the new year. 

Organiser Jonathan Wheeler said: "The square is a fabulous amphitheatre made to have drama performed in it. 

"The Testament stories will be performed against the backdrop of a new environment, quite an inspiring place to do it." 

The 30-minute series of plays feature miracles such as the feeding of the 5,000 and the turning of water into wine at the Wedding of Cana. 

After bringing the Old and New Testaments to life at Highcross, the actors will form a procession behind Jesus, who is played for the first time by actor Walt Kissack. 

The 33-year-old said: "The overriding feeling I have is excitement. 

"It's a performance and a coming together of people who want to share with the wider community a celebration of Easter." 

Organisers say the procession will be a joyful, musical re-enactment of Christ's arrival into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. 

It will be welcomed into Humberstone Gate by Leicester's Christian praise band, Resonance, who will take to the stage below the big screen. 

The music will be replaced by a sombre portrayal of the trial and Crucifixion of Christ, followed by a celebratory representation of the Resurrection at noon, which will then close the play. 

Mr Wheeler said: "The final scenes of the passion play can be a very inspiring, humbling, thought-provoking experience." 

"I come away feeling a wave of emotion. It's a very special event." 

The Bishop of Leicester, the Right Reverend Tim Stevens, will open and close Christ in the Centre 2011 with a blessing. 

The event's organising committee, which also includes religious leaders from the Catholic and Methodist church, has fought to cover its costs this year and has been prompted to start fund-raising for 2012 as soon as this week's play is over. 

A mixture of professional and voluntary stewards have been trained to ensure things run smoothly and to hand out programmes on the day.


To find out more about Christ in the Centre, visit the Diocese of Leicester's website: http://citc.dioceseofleicester.com/

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

PAVILION OF PEACE AT THE ECOHOUSE


Second meeting of the day at St Philip's in Evington; this timethough, it's in the Centre rather than the Church. This evening’s meeting has been convened by Groundwork Leicester and Leicestershire in the context of their programme for revitalising the EcoHouse.

In an earlier incarnation as Environ, Groundwork Leicester and Leicestershire played a leading role in establishing Leicester as Britain's first Environment City in 1990. The EcoHouse, in Leicester's Western Park, was Britain's first environmental show home. Both supporters and detractors feel that the Eco House has lost its cutting edge in the past few years. Consequently Groundwork is embarking on a major project to refurbish the EcoHouse and its grounds, a project which it is hoped will keep it in the forefront of its field till the year 2050.

With specific reference to the city's faith communities - and to Leicester Council of Faiths - Groundwork is intending to build a Pavilion of Peace within the grounds of the EcoHouse. The Pavilion of Peace will provide a space for prayer, contemplation, meditation and reflection for people of all faiths or of none. It will be set amongst the greenery and abundance of the gardens. The hope is that the Pavilion will provide a focus for sacred ecology. All sacred texts call on us to honour and conserve natural resources, and to reverence God's creation. We all have a duty of care as guardians, toward honouring, protecting and nurturing the great gift of planet earth to humanity.

While this is clearly a worthwhile project that will surely be of interest to all members of Leicester Council of Faiths, Groundwork hasn't chosen the best day or time for this meeting, with little chance of the kind of support they'd hoped for this evening. It's Holy Week, which means many of the Christians who might have been able to attend are occupied; it's Passover, which means most of the local Jewish community are busy; and it's the First Day of Ridván so Bahá'ís are engaged in celebrating the most sacred festival in their calendar and electing their local Spiritual Assembly.

A number of steps are considered and tentatively agreed with the desire of engaging faith and cultural communities in the city and county so that we can make collective progress not only on the Pavilion of Peace but on the more general refurbishment and relaunch of the EcoHouse and its environs.

Three years ago, in the summer of 2008, I took part in an educational project based at the EcoHouse and using the ancient oak tree in Western Park. This was called "Tree of Life" and involved several local schools in day-long sessions of storytelling, handicrafts, honing their thinking and speaking skills, music and movement - and new ways of seeing, thinking about and expressing their relationship to the natural world. It was one of the highlights of my many activities in this post and stands out as a beautiful, enjoyable and fulfilling experience on a number of levels. The sun shone the whole week long and the warmth and light of that week and the relationships that were strengthened then continue to nurture and illuminate my life and work in special ways today. I speak briefly this evening about Tree of Life but it doesn't seem to ring any bells. I'd like to see us be able to make something of the legacy of that project; that would be a fitting way for Leicester Council of Faiths to pitch its contribution to this new ongoing project.

This Pavilion of Peace has the potential to be one of the most significnt and practical contributions to inter faith relations in Leicester for a long time. The fact that it will be a permanent structure, located in an accessible and attractive site, have an educational purpose and be associateed with one of Leicester's most successful and distinctive brands are all very positive aspects indeed. And it seems to me that this would be something highly suitable for us to get behind, in public, during our 25th anniversary year.

In the photo above: Raheema Caratella (Leicester Interfaith Youth Hub), Rosemarie Fitton (MA student in Interreligious Studies at St Philips, who is shadowing me as part of a 30-hour placement with Leicester Council of Faiths), Penny Poyzer (Groundwork Leicester and Leicestershire). They're sitting in front of a display of the proposed work to be done on the EcoHouse and its grounds. Among the group of eight people here this evening, two work with the Black Environment Network (BEN).

MEETING JON ASHWORTH AND HILARY BENN MP



A meeting at St Philip's Church this morning with Jon Ashworth, who is standing as Labour candidate in the Leicester South by election. He's asked for the chance to listen to members of different faith and cultural communities in the constituency. A dozen or so people are in attendance, with five faith communities represented. We're joined by Hilary Benn MP, shadow Leader of the House and former Secretary of State for International Development and former Secretary of State for the Environment. Jon Ashworth is in the front and centre of the photo above, Hilary Benn MP behind him.


We were hoping that Sir Peter Soulsby, who is standing for the post of Leicester's first elected Mayor (and who was Labour MP for this constituency until he gave it up to launch his Mayoral campaign), would be here too but he is unable to join us this morning.


After a few minutes of mixing and mingling in the church hall, we take our seats in a circle. Each of us is invited to introduce ourselves, the organisations we work for and communities we represent. Chair of Leicester Council of Faiths, Councillor Manjula Sood, speaks first, introducing the Council of Faiths and St Philip's Centre, which is hosting this meeting. She makes particular reference to the challenge of right wing movements, organisations and parties, historical and contemporary (e.g. National Front, British National Party, English Defence League) and how the settled and new communities of Leicester have responded to these.


There are welcome, if unexpected, tributes to Leicester Council of Faiths, from a few people I haven't met before and whom I wouldn't have thought know much about us and our work. I have to say that the Council of Faiths is given credit for an initiative or two on which we didn't necessarily lead - and at least one that we didn't have anything to do with directly. Even so, the Council of Faiths plays as active a role as we can in creating and maintaining an environment in the city that encourages and sustains such activities.


Of course, we can't keep local and national politics out of the discussion and since there are people here who have personal of family roots in other countries (or who represent others who do), matters of international interest are also raised. At the end of the meeting, Mr Benn responds to some of the comments and concerns we've raised, clearly drawing on his experience as former Secretary of State for International Development and former Secretary of State for the Environment.


I should stress that this was not a political meeting and that the attendance of any of our members or employees should not be interpreted to mean that Leicester Council of Faiths supports any particular political party or any individual electoral candidate. If any of the other by election candidates organise a meeting at which they'd like to meet members of our faith communities, no doubt we will arrange similar attendance, interest and support.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

BELIEF: OMID DJALILI ON BBC RADIO 3



There aren't enough hours in the day to keep up with good media coverage of topics and themes that deserve a place in this blog - and that would better equip me to do the job I get paid for! Never mind that I have to sift through a lot of stuff that turns out to be useless, irrelevant nonsense masquerading as genuine news reporting or informed comment. But I should know that I can trust Radio 3 and Joan Bakewell to deliver the goods. Belief - the 15-minute programme she presents on BBC Radio 3 - is into its seventh series in three years and has featured such notable figures as Bonnie Greer, Satish Kumar, Lord Patten, David Starkey and Ann Widdecombe. The Radio Review in the G2 section of today's Guardian about yesterday's edition of Belief catches my eye (which is painful, just a few weeks after a cataract operation):


What a fine fellow Omid Djalili sounded on Belief (Radio 3). Articulate and engaging as he spoke about being a member of the Bahá'í faith, he also seemed delighted to encounter host Joan Bakewell. "I just wanted to meet you," he told her. "I think you're wonderful." Explaining a central tenet of his faith, he used her as an example: "The Joan Bakewell we see here is going to continue in some form, just in a different essence." This is excellent news.


His life story was fascinating. While growing up in London, his parents opened their house to many Iranian visitors, which meant Djalili kipping on the sofa. "I never had a bedroom until I was 14," he explained. There was a funny frankness about his memories of this time, living in a house full of fleeting strangers, "some of them charming, some of them absolutely awful".


On the issue of comedy, and his standup routine, which Bakewell noted can be "riskily offensive", Djalili explained that it's deeply connected to his belief. "It's all about making people conscious, starting with myself," he told her. Life, and religion, is one long process of improving yourself, he insisted, and improving your core self. Bakewell asked him to describe his core. "I'm a fat, needy man, pleading for attention," he quipped. (Elisabeth Mahoney)


I stayed at Omid's parents' apartment a couple of times when working at the London International Book Fair in Olympia, back in the late 1980s. Though that was long Omid himself had moved out, so I can't say which of the two categories of visitor he'd hve put me in (and maybe those who weren't Iranian were placed in a different sort of classification system).

Monday, 18 April 2011

COLOURFUL AND PROUD DAY FOR THOUSANDS

From today’s Leicester Mercury:

Colourful and proud day for thousands

By Laura Elvin

An ancient festival brought a huge splash of colour and a taste of Indian culture to the streets of Leicester yesterday.

The sun shone down on thousands of worshippers who took part in a parade to mark Vaisakhi, one of the most important holidays in the Sikh calendar.

The procession started at the Guru Nanak Gurdwara, in Holy Bones, at 11.30am.

Brightly-coloured floats filled with singers and drummers were followed by a procession of worshippers who handed out sweets and treats to crowds who gathered to watch.

Like many onlookers, Manvir Kaur joined the procession as it passed.

The 20-year-old, from Evington, said: "It's so nice to be out there, so many of us all together. It's a day where we can get dressed up, wear our turbans and scarves, and be proud to be a Sikh in Leicester."

A group of friends from City of Leicester College walked in the parade together.

Tharenuir Sawan, 18, from Scraptoft, said: "This day is everything for us. It represents our very existence – physically, mentally and spiritually.

"Just getting out and being part of our community is the best bit, and having the chance to mix and meet new people. It's a very important day for us."

Classmate Parminder Sahib, 18, from Evington said: "It's just nice to be spending time together. Everyone is not at work, not at school, and has the time to enjoy the sun and the celebration."

Vaisakhi fell on Thursday, April 14, this year, but the procession was held over until yesterday so as many people as possible could take part.

Aneeta and Ragbit Hulait, from the Narborough Road area of Leicester, joined in the parade with daughters Amareese and Kira.

Amareese, eight, said: "We like getting chocolate and treats – that's the best bit!"

Sister Kira, six, said: "For me, my favourite part of the day is eating the Indian food on the way round. It's yummy!"

For Sikhs, Vaisakhi commemorates the founding in 1699 of the Sikh community known as the Khalsa.

It is also observed by Hindus, who celebrate it as a harvest festival.

Resham Singh Sandu, Leicestershire's first Sikh high sheriff and chairman of the county's Interfaith Forum, said: "All the different cultures and faiths in Leicester and Leicestershire came together. It's such a great showcase for the city."

Sunday, 17 April 2011

What effect has the internet had on religion?


Here's a terrific article from The New Review with today's edition of The Observer.  It's in the "Discover Technology" section, part of a series entitled "Untangling the Web", written by Aleks Krotoski. Aleks Kroski presented an excellent four-part TV series on BBC2 entitled "The Virtual Revolution". She also hosts Tech Weekly, the Guardian's technology podcast.

What effect has the internet had on religion?
Online, God has been released from traditional doctrine to become everything to everybody
By Aleks Krotoski
I  remember several years ago, when the virtual world Second Life was the thing on the web, wandering in the embodiment of my avatar through a most extraordinary representation of a cathedral. The frescoes, stained glass and flying buttresses were replicated to a degree that would make even the most cynical architect weep. Also enjoying the experience were 30 other virtual people from around the world, dressed in all manner of outerwear, from 1950s party dresses to slinky black outfits with impossible heels to squirrel costumes. They, as it turned out, were gathered in this cyber-place to celebrate a religious service.
I watched from the safe distance of a back-of-the-nave pew, listening to the officiant lead his digital flock through a very traditional Catholic ceremony. I left after transubstantiation, just as they were processing in a typically sombre way to receive the Eucharist.
The concept of religious ritual is so deeply embedded in our social fabric that it is natural for it to have made the leap to virtuality. And it hasn't just reared its head in worlds such as Second Life. Social networks, including Facebook, have active and close-knit communities of religious followers of all creeds, gathering in what science writer Margaret Wertheim described in her 1999 book, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, as "a new kind of realm for the mind". Perhaps, depending on your attitude to religion, it's more apt to describe these digital collectives in science fiction author William Gibson's words: a "consensual hallucination".
Online, contrary to Nietzsche's allegation, God is most certainly not dead. The web is littered with sacred spaces and, if anything, He (or She or It) has been released from traditional doctrine to become everything to everybody.
"On the web, you're more easily able to find your tribe," explains Professor Heidi Campbell, a researcher at Texas A&M University, whose most recent book, When Religion Meets New Media, looks at how Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Jewish communities engage with the web. "The distinctions and differences are amplified online."
The importance of the web in everyday life – from banking to shopping to socialising – means that religious organisations must migrate their churches and temples to virtual real estate in order to stay relevant and to be where the people are. Religious leaders have websites, blogs and Twitter feeds, there are email prayer lines and online confessionals, social networks for yogis and apps that call the faithful to prayer. "Being web-savvy should be a required skill for religious leaders in general," says Sister Catherine Wybourne, prioress of the Holy Trinity Monastery in Oxfordshire, and @Digitalnun on Twitter.
But, argues Dr Paul Teusner from RMIT University, Melbourne, the technology itself is not value-free. "It is presented to religious societies wrapped with cultural values that compliment, challenge or repel religious attitudes," he says. This has unsurprisingly affected how organised religion engages with the new "mission field", as the Vatican has described it. Evangelicals, who have historically been keen to get out their message via whatever communication conduit available, were the first organised religious groups to embrace the web, and non-traditional or sidelined religious movements made early moves online to get their version of "the word" out. In contrast, Islam and Catholicism, which both place an emphasis on shared place in their rituals and view the technology as a mode of logic that could take them in its value direction, have been the most hesitant. "The web may have encouraged a lowest-common-denominator eclecticism and turned us into consumers of religion," argues Wybourne.
There's another potentially destabilising force at work: what has traditionally been behind closed doors in ecclesiastical councils is now online, challenging the control that leaders once had over doctrine and their flocks. Just as the Reformation was ushered in by the printing press in the 16th century, allowing people to access the texts for themselves and distribute their interpretations widely, the web has helped proliferate different interpretations and articulations of religions and we have witnessed the emergence of new communities and faiths. Individuals now have a much more autonomous role in deciding whom to approach as a source. "Those people may have official, traditional credentials or they may be Rabbi Google," says Prof Campbell.
"Religious leaders will have to get used to the idea of being more accountable and transparent in their dealings and of having to engage, on equal terms, with those who stand outside the traditional hierarchies," says Wybourne.
Yet the web has not de facto increased inter-faith communication. Campbell has observed that the internet is not being used for inter-religious dialogue or diversity. "If you want to do that, you need intensively to create that community." The impulse to specialise because of the volume of information online means that people seeking answers are drawn to flocks of birds that match their feathers. "Unless you're looking for diversity, you're not going to find it online," says Campbell.

Read this article, along with reader comments (and the opportunity to make your own) on the website of The Guardian & The Observer. Interestingly, almost all the comments there are anti-religion, lauding the internet for how it has helped oppose, expose and depose religion in general and certain religious institutions in particular. No one seems to have much to say about the many affordances of the internet and the potential boon it offers believers and practitioners: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/apr/17/untangling-web-aleks-krotoski-religion

You can read and follow Heidi Campbell's fascinating and stimulating blog here: http://religionmeetsnewmedia.blogspot.com/

Visit the website of The Virtual Revolution: http://www.bbc.co.uk/virtualrevolution/

Photo: Corbis Flirt/Alamy

PERSECUTED FOR HIS CROSS


Front page story from today's Mail on Sunday (covering quite some space inside too), reproduced here in full (minus a few photographs that can be seen if you visit the Mail's website and see the whole article there):

Persecuted for his cross: Electrician told he faces the sack for Christian symbol on his van dashboard

by Jonathan Petre

An electrician faces the sack for displaying a small palm cross on the dashboard of his company van.

Former soldier Colin Atkinson has been summoned to a disciplinary hearing by the giant housing association where he has been employed for 15 years because he refuses to remove the symbol.

Mr Atkinson, a regular worshipper at church, said: “The treatment of Christians in this country is becoming diabolical...but I will stand up for my faith.”

Throughout his time at work, he has had an 8in-long cross made from woven palm leaves attached to the dashboard shelf below his windscreen without receiving a single complaint.

But his bosses at publicly funded Wakefield and District Housing (WDH) in West Yorkshire – the fifth-biggest housing organisation in England – have demanded he remove the cross on the grounds it may offend people or suggest the organisation is Christian. Mr Atkinson’s union representative said he faces a full disciplinary hearing next month for gross misconduct, which could result in dismissal.

The association strongly promotes “inclusive” policies and allows employees to wear religious symbols at work.

It has provided stalls at gay pride events, held “diversity days” for travellers, and hosted a gender reassignment event entitled A World That Includes Transpeople.

Mr Atkinson, who has an unblemished work record, said he had not been shown similar respect.

“The past few months have been unbelievable, a nightmare,” he said.

“I have worked in the coal mines and served in the Army in Northern Ireland and I have never suffered such stress. The treatment of Christians in this country is becoming diabolical. It is political correctness taken to the extreme.”

But he added: “I have never been so full of resolve. I am determined to stand up for my rights. If they sack me, so be it. But I am standing up for my faith.”

Mr Atkinson’s battle follows a series of similar cases involving Christians who claim their freedoms have been curbed following the introduction of controversial equality laws.

Campaigners accused the housing association of “remarkable intolerance” at a time when millions of Christians will be celebrating Palm Sunday today, a week before Easter Sunday. Palms are traditionally distributed during services to mark Christ’s triumphal entrance into Jerusalem.

Despite the company’s treatment of Mr Atkinson, the boss of the depot where he works in Castleford has been allowed to adorn his office with a poster of the Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara.

Denis Doody, who is WDH’s environmental manager, also has a whiteboard on which are written several quotations by the Marxist guerrilla leader, who was a key figure in the Cuban revolution in the Fifties.

Colleagues said staff and even members of the public who were visiting the depot would be able to see the poster and whiteboard through his office window.

Mr Atkinson began work as an electrician in the mines before serving as an Army radio technician for seven years. His military career included a stint at the notorious, riot-torn Long Kesh internment camp in Northern Ireland in 1974.

He was employed as a £25,000-a-year electrician by Wakefield Council in 1996, but its housing department was transferred into the association’s ownership six years ago.

His ordeal began last year when managers at WDH, which has 31,000 properties, told Mr Atkinson to remove the cross from the van after years of ignoring it.

He demanded to know why. He said his cross was as discreet and inoffensive as other forms of religious expression and accused his bosses of badgering him.

The company said, however, that he had refused a “reasonable” request to remove the symbol from an official vehicle that could be seen by members of the public.

The 64-year-old grandfather became a committed Christian more than 20 years ago and was a regular Church of England worshipper for many years.

He and his second wife Geraldine, 61, who have five children from previous marriages and three grandchildren, now attend the Pentecostal Destiny Church in Wakefield.

The softly spoken electrician said he never pushed his beliefs on other people but would gently explain his faith to anyone who enquired.

Mr Atkinson said: “Over the years, members of the public would occasionally spot the cross and ask me about it. I suppose this might happen a couple of times a year, though I don’t think I have had anyone enquiring about it in the past couple of years.

“If people raised it, I would ask them if they could spare two minutes and tell them. I never had an adverse reaction or complaint.”

He said he had kept palm crosses ever since he was given one at a Palm Sunday service more than 20 years ago, and replaced them when they fell apart.

“I’m just an ordinary bloke. I get on with people and have many friends of other faiths, including a Sikh and a Hindu who both came and spoke up for me at one of the meetings I’ve had with managers about this.

“Christians are called to be public in our faith, and the cross is my way of being obedient to that call. It brings me peace and strength. It is a central part of who I am and I can’t hide it away.”

In 2009, Mr Atkinson switched to a three-day-a-week training post overseeing apprentices so he could spend more time caring for his sick wife.

He said that although his new role meant he spent more time in the office, he was approached by a line manager who asked him to remove the cross from his van.

Over the following weeks, Mr Atkinson was subjected to further requests from several different managers, but he demanded to speak to more senior bosses.

He said: “They would take me to one side and say I had to get rid of it. For weeks I didn’t know where all this was coming from.

“Then a colleague who had overheard a conversation tipped me off that there had been an anonymous letter complaining about misuse of the van and mentioning the cross. It was a malicious letter full of scurrilous lies and the company never pursued the claims. But it used the letter to raise the issue of the cross.

“I felt I was being badgered, so I complained that I was being harassed because of my faith.”

In a series of meetings last year, Mr Atkinson and his Unite union representative, Terry Cunliffe, argued that there was nothing in the rules explicitly prohibiting the cross, which had been accepted for years.

Transcripts of meetings show they strongly disputed the company’s claim that the cross could offend someone, or that anyone who saw it in the van – one of the company’s 280 vehicles – would conclude that the association was Christian.

Mr Cunliffe said at one meeting: “What if there were political or religious documents on the dashboard? Would it look like they were WDH’s? A cross on the side of a building would reflect on WDH. A cross displayed in the front of a vehicle would be, in my opinion, a reflection of the person driving.”

But the company’s equality and diversity manager, Jayne O’Connell, who was recruited from HBoS bank in 2009, replied: “WDH has a stance of neutrality. We now have different faiths, new emerging cultures. We have to be respectful of all views and beliefs.”

HBoS became part of Lloyds Banking Group after it almost collapsed in late 2008.

At another meeting, Ms O’Connell said Mr Atkinson could express his faith but “it is quite clear it cannot be associated with WDH and displaying the cross gives the impression that WDH is a Christian organisation".

She said staff could demonstrate their personal beliefs “discreetly”, even adding that the company could provide extra material in its official corporate colours “for employees who wish to wear a different style of uniform".

Pressed by Mr Cunliffe on whether a Muslim woman who wore a burka at work would be considered discreet, she said: “If they could do their job effectively, then yes.”

Asked whether she would think a burka in WDH corporate colours was discreet, Ms O’Connell replied: “Yes, it would be.”

Mr Atkinson, who has been advised by human rights lawyer Paul Diamond, said he had been “flabbergasted” when his grievances were rejected and he was told he could be disciplined.

In December, the company, which had earlier admitted that its policy on vehicles was unclear, issued an “updated” policy saying that all personal symbols should be removed from vans.

Mr Atkinson said: “I can’t come to any other conclusion than that they moved the goalposts so they could single me out. I felt I was on trial for my faith.”

Since the policy was updated, he has been summoned to a series of preliminary disciplinary investigations, the latest of which was last week. At the end of that meeting he was told that managers would hold a full disciplinary hearing in May.

Mr Cunliffe said: “Colin has been told to attend a full disciplinary hearing next month. Under company rules, refusing a 'reasonable' management request is gross misconduct, which can result in summary dismissal.”

Speaking at his neat terrace house in Wakefield – where there is little evidence of his strong faith except for a Christian fish symbol alongside an array of family photographs – Mr Atkinson said he had suffered sleepless nights and had occasionally been reduced to tears.

He said his wife, who suffers from a muscular disease that has often confined her to a wheelchair, had also suffered from stress.

He added: “I found the meetings intimidating and a bit confrontational. I felt on the defensive. I came out thinking, “‘Why should I be on the defensive?’’

“I have, however, received overwhelming support from friends and rank-and-file colleagues, which has given me strength.

“I can only think the company is motivated by fear of offending ethnic minorities.”

Andrea Williams, of the Christian Legal Centre, which is backing Mr Atkinson, said: “Colin Atkinson is a decent and hard-working man, yet after many years of service he has been told he cannot continue to have a small palm cross in his van.

“This smacks of something deeply illiberal and remarkably intolerant. Is this the kind of society the British public want to live in?

“The cross is a profound symbol of God’s love for all of us. We should not be embarrassed about it.”

Mr Cunliffe said his union abhorred any form of discrimination, but the association was “taking its politically correct policies far too far".

He said: “The company is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It is totally disproportionate that someone should face dismissal for displaying a discreet religious symbol.

“It will rebound on the company because the treatment of Colin will deeply upset people of other faiths who have no problem with his cross.”

Wakefield District Housing said: “We do not allow employees to display any personal representations in our vehicles, although they are free to do so upon their person.

“It would be inappropriate to comment further about this individual case.”

The association had a turnover of £106 million in the financial year to the end of March 2010. The chief executive is Kevin Dodd, who earns £157,000 a year.

A 2009 report revealed that the association staged a number of diversity days for employees and tenants. Sessions have been led by groups including Women In Construction, Mental Health Matters and The Leeds Gypsy and Travellers Group. The imam from Wakefield Central Mosque has also been involved.

The company also produces an intranet calendar for employees that shows religious festivals and celebrations.

It said it aims to “influence the embedding of diversity and inclusion best practice with all policies, processes and procedures to ensure WDH maximises the potential of all our employees and customers”.

In a survey for the company’s 2010 annual report, more than half of its tenants – 51 per cent – said they were Christian, while just half a per cent described themselves as Muslim.

Of the rest, 17 per cent said they were of no faith, 30 per cent failed or refused to supply an answer, and the remainder were “spiritualist” or “other”.

CATHOILIC CHURCH: BIG SOCIETY IS FAILING


Today's Sunday Telegraph contains the latest in a growing number of statements by prominent religious figures in this country expressing apprehension about the so-called "Big Society".

Catholic church: Big Society is failing

Britain's most senior Catholic leader has warned David Cameron not to use the Big Society as "a cloak for masking cuts".

By Jonathan Wynne-Jones

The Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, criticised the Prime Minister's flagship policy as lacking "teeth". The archbishop has been one of the most prominent supporters of the Big Society, but he told The Sunday Telegraph that he feared communities hit by the economic downturn would suffer if they did not get support.

The head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales said Catholics were afraid the Coalition was "washing its hands" of its responsibilities to communities and expecting volunteers to fill the gap.

"It is all very well to deliver speeches about the need for greater voluntary activity, but there needs to be some practical solutions," he said.

"At the moment the Big Society is lacking a cutting edge. It has no teeth."

Archbishop Nichols said Mr Cameron's project was at a critical stage, and predicted that the next few months could determine its success in alleviating the potentially damaging effects of government spending cuts.

He has previously spoken enthusiastically of the potential for the Big Society to transform society, with its emphasis on "localism" – handing greater responsibility to communities to govern themselves. Among new powers planned in the Localism Bill introduced last December, communities are to be given influence over council tax increases and the option of taking over state-run services.

However, the archbishop warned: "Devolving greater power to local authorities should not be used as a cloak for masking central cuts.

"It is not sufficient for the Government, in its localism programme, simply to step back from social need and say this is a local issue." His comments are likely to be seized on by Labour as evidence of growing concern over the impact the Government's spending cuts will have on communities.

Leading charity figures, including Sir Stephen Bubb, the head of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, have suggested that the scale of cuts could undermine the vision of the Big Society.

"We're now at a very critical point, with the philosophy of the Big Society getting clearer, but on the other hand the effects of the cuts are becoming real and there's real pressure about what will happen on the ground," said Archbishop Nichols.

"As we said in our discussion document, a government cannot simply cut expenditure, wash its hands of expenditure and expect that the slack will be taken up by greater voluntary activity."

The discussion document was published at a meeting held by the Catholic Church to discuss the Big Society and attended by politicians, including Baroness Warsi, the co-chairman of the Tory party.

Concerns were raised by Fr James Hanvey, one of the archbishop's advisers, that the Government was pushing through policies similar to those of the Thatcher and Major governments, which were seen by some to be divisive.

"The political question that hangs over the Big Society is its provenance," said Fr Hanvey. "Has the Conservative part of the Coalition simply seized the economic crisis as an opportunity to push through the unfinished neoliberal agenda of the last Conservative administration? We should not forget the enormous social division that was entailed in this. It signalled the end of a humanist and humane consensus in British society."

Archbishop Nichols said there was a worrying tendency for the poorer sections of society to be worst affected by cuts and accused the banks of failing to contribute their share to helping the victims of the economic crisis.

"The poorest are taking the biggest hit while at the same time you see huge bank bonuses and profits and this is not right," he said.

Francis Maude, minister for the Cabinet Office, said: "We are absolutely up front about the need for cuts. We cannot go on with debts costing £120 million in daily interest alone. However, as we change the business of government we are changing it to support a bigger, stronger society."

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Fasting and feasting

Each day the Leicester Mercury publishes a pair of brief quotations from sacred or inspirational texts as its Thoughts for the Day. These appear below its Opinion column. The first of these is always from the Bible (either Old or New Testament), the second from another source, frequently one associated with a member community of Leicester Council of Faiths. Today’s quotation is from a Bahá’í text, an extract from the writings of Bahá'u'lláh: “Verily, I say, fasting is the supreme remedy and the most great healing for the disease of self and passion.”

Now, I don’t know if anyone actually reads these. I do regularly – more often from a sense of obligation than anything else. While they’re usually innocuous, Today’s has left me with an uneasy feeling. Which of our religious communities are fasting now? The Bahá’ís certainly aren’t (the annual 19-day long Baha’i fast ended at sunset on 20 March).

Just a few pages further on in today’s paper, there’s an article about Vaisakhi, illustrated with a picture of two Sikh gentlemen preparing some of the free food that will be on offer to those participating in the parade through Leicester city centre. There’s also a positive piece about an international food and drink fair coming to the city – and, for that matter, there’s one of the regular continental markets going on in the city centre this week.

So where’s the value in a quotation from any religious source about fasting today? It could easily be read to make the Bahá’ís appear mean-spirited killjoys, ascetic even – and they’re neither of those. I’m sure that the appearance of this quotation today is a coincidence. A similar quotation from the Bahá’í writings appeared during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which I remarked upon as a positive coincidence – a piece of serendipity even, with a quotation from one of our faith communities (and the smallest of them, at that) backing up the practice at that time of another (the largest). This one has the opposite effect; although I may be the only person noticing it or commenting on it.

Still, it does show the lack of thought or planning behind the selection and publication  of these texts – and for many Leicester people, they may be virtually the sole exposure to these different faiths. It would be better if it were done with just a little more thought – and an eye on the calendar.

Thousands due to join in parade


Nice piece in today's Leicester Mercury about the Vaisakhi parade that will take place in the city tomorrow. Over the past few years this has become a landmark in Leicester's calendar and it continues to go from strength to strength. This is a very positive article, with some helpful context and historical background: 

Thousands due to join in parade 
By Peter Squires & David Owen 

Up to 20,000 people are expected to take part in a parade through Leicester tomorrow to mark the Indian festival of Vaisakhi.

The colourful procession will wind its way through the centre of the city. 

It will be accompanied by devotional music, with spectators invited to join in with the festivities and share in traditional Indian delicacies. 

The Vaisakhi is an ancient harvest festival in the Punjab region and commemorates the founding of the Sikh nation in 1699. It also marks the Hindu solar new year and is observed by people of different faiths across the sub-continent. 

Visitors from across the country will swell the crowds, with up to 20,000 people expected on the day. 

Resham Singh Sandu, Leicestershire's first Sikh high sheriff and chairman of the county's Interfaith Forum, said: "Vaisakhi is a very special festival in the Sikh calendar – a time of fulfilment and giving thanks, and looking forward to the year ahead. 

"The procession will be a very lively and happy occasion, full of colour, music and dancing. 

"It's a chance for all the different cultures and faiths in Leicester and Leicestershire to come together. It's also a great showcase for the city." 

The three-hour parade will begin at about 11am at the Guru Nanak Gurdwara Sikh temple, in Holy Bones, off Vaughan Way. It will go through the city finishing at the Guru Bahadur Gurdwara temple, in East Park Road. 

Vaisakhi fell on Thursday, April 14, this year, but the procession has been held over until Sunday so as many people as possible can take part. 

Several hundred people gathered at the Holy Bones temple on Thursday – marking the end of six days of non-stop recitals from the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book. 

Temple vice-chairman Sulakhal Singh Dard said: "From early in the morning, the hall was full of people celebrating and bringing respect to the temple. At one point in the day, we must have had more than 500 people." 

The parade will travel along Great Central Street, Vaughan Way, St Nicholas Circle, Peacock Lane, St Martins, Greyfriars, Berridge Street, Pocklingtons Walk and Welford Place, along King Street, Regent Road, Granville Road, Evington Road, into East Park Road.


Read the article on the Mercury website, along with reader comments: http://www.thisisleicestershire.co.uk/news/Thousands-join-parade/article-3454982-detail/article.html