Tuesday, 21 May 2013

It is what it is...

The photo is from a film I have probably seen too many times! The reason being is that one of my best friends got married last Saturday. At the end of the order of service they printed this poem by Erich Fried:

It is madness
says reason
It is what it is
says love
It is unhappiness
says caution
It is nothing but pain
says fear
It has no future
says insight
It is what it is
says love
It is ridiculous
says pride
It is foolish
says caution
It is impossible
says experience
It is what it is
says love.”

My gang of friends from university are as mixed a bunch as can be imagined. Some of them happen to be gay. No one would appreciate me getting too political about this, but it seems timely to be celebrating my friend's wedding the week before the marriage equality bill is passing through parliament. I hope the legislation passes and that if in time my gay friends want  to get married they have the right to do so. That way at least there's more champagne for us refuseniks on "Table 9"!
While we are on the subject, great to see Unitarians get a mention in this video by Stephen Fry.


Sunday, 18 November 2012

Simple Gifts and the UCSA

I love living in Bethnal Green. It is a lively part of town with a lot going for it. When I returned to the east end over a year ago I concluded that I had missed the place. However it is obvious even to a partial outsider like me that for some people this is a difficult place to live. Vagrancy for instance is a visible problem- even compared with the rest of London. When I first lived here I rented a private sector flat that was somewhat grim and extortionately priced. Many people face a lifetime of this, especially as the availability of social housing declines. Although plenty of good public greenspace is only a short walk or tube-ride away, life in east London is characterised by crowdedness, poor air quality and traffic noise. East end shops are disproportionately bookmakers, pawnbrokers and fried chicken outlets. As I walked past the Whitechapel Ideas Store the other day, I saw advice sessions being offered as to how the cuts in housing allowance and other benefits would affect people's weekly budgets. All kinds of poverty can be found here- absolute, relative and cultural. In my opinion the only map on which Tower Hamlets would not be a "poverty hotspot" would be the "spiritual-poverty-map-of-London". If you are looking for a truly spiritually dead place try somewhere a little further west!

Before I became a Unitarian I tried a church where something akin to the "prosperity gospel" was preached. This encourages people to view their wealth as a blessing for virtue in this life and that by "giving to God" (i.e. the church) their "blessings" would increase. The vicar once cited the "parable of the talents" (Mathew 25: 14:30, Luke 19: 11:27- hey I looked something up!) to claim that God had pre-ordained the distribution of wealth and that it was wrong to expect equality. He also cited Jesus' saying "the poor will always be with you" (Mathew 26:11) as a proof against the idea that the state can prevent poverty. Nothing I have ever learned- either from looking at the world or learning economics seems to chime with this. Part of the attraction of Unitarianism for me is its role as a radical dissenting tradition which has at times been linked to early Christian Socialism and Co-operation in Britain.

As part of the concern for social justice, there has been a Unitarian presence in Bethnal Green since the 19th Century in some form of another. It is based in a building that was once one a domestic mission centre. The latest incarnation is the "Simple Gifts" cafe which focusses on after school activities for local children. There are also plans for a food-bank to help people who have been hit by the recession and the cuts. I attended a "Social Action Lab" for interested comers on 10th November to hear more about this. As part of the discussion some points were raised about where the concern for social justice is in Unitarianism today. Is it true, as some advocates of the "Big Society" claim, that the welfare state has "crowded out" philanthropic and church based initiatives that might have been more effective? My counter argument would be that before the welfare state, philanthropic and self-help remedies were somewhat piecemeal. However, despite the many positions that we could take on this there are obviously social needs that all people of faith and goodwill could rightly engage with. It is also perhaps the most visible way of showing what Unitarianism is about.

In my experience, Unitarian congregations do not always act like "local churches". There are places much closer to me on a Sunday morning where I could go but I sadly could never really belong and for that reason my faith community is not my connection with the civic life of my neighbourhood. I often feel a frustration that despite doing "a bit" now and again there are barriers to what I do as part of a corporate Unitarian initiative based on a common vision. This is why, although these are early days, the Unitarian Centre for Social Action seems like an exciting development. An interesting question is what the "unique selling-point" of a Unitarian initiative might be. After all, there are after all plenty of secular and religious social justice initiatives out there. For one thing, our movement is able to speak to spiritual needs in an enabling but not proscriptive way. Secondly, a Unitarian intitiative would not turn away would-be volunteers if they refuse to sign a creed-based "statement of faith". Thirdly, I would expect a Unitarian initiative to bring rationality and intellectual curiosity to social problems and be a radical voice for social change as opposed to a philanthropic stop-gap.

So I will be encouraging others to take an interest in the Unitarian Centre for Social Action and look forward to seeing where the follow-up to the Social Action Lab leads. Of course, as George Carlin would say- "money.. they always need money" :). In addition, I am sure interest and enthusiasm from members of the Urban Unitarian meetup group would be welcomed.

Here is a link to the website:


Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Iceland First Seen

Following my trip to Iceland, here is an extract from poem by William Morris. Morris loved Iceland and found the old Viking sagas "a good corrective to the maundering side of medievallism"!

"Ah! what came we forth to see
that our hearts are so hot with desire!
Is it enough for our rest,
The site of this desolate strand,
And the mountain-waste voiceless as death
but for winds that may sleep not nor tire?
Why do we long to wend forth
through the length and breadth of a land,
Dreadful with grinding of ice,
and a record of scarce hidden fire,
But that there 'mid the grey grassy dales,
sore scared by the ruining streams,
Lives the tale of the Northlands of old,
And the undying glory of dreams?"


Saturday, 7 July 2012

Standing On The Side Of Love

The Urban Unitarians have been "on the march" again, this time in support of LGBT rights as part of London Pride 2012. Whilst I grew up in a fairly liberal Christian denomination I became increasingly conscious of LGBT issues in religious communities as a sixth-former.At this time section 28 of the Local Government Act was being repealed and I was concerned that some Christian groups were opposed to this. Fairly high on my list of reasons why I never became a member of a church was that I wanted no part of anything that would wilfully exclude anyone on the basis of their gender or sexuality. Many of the conservative Christians I met at University would claim "we are not homophobic, God loves the sinner and hates the sin". To me however, it seemed as though a value judgement was still being made.
Today, I am proud to be a Unitarian because I am part of a movement that offers civil partnership ceremonies on religious premises. Although there is proposed legislation for equality in civil marriage, full equality will come when religious marriages between same sex couples are available on religious premises. I sincerely hope, Unitarians (perhaps along with liberal Jews, Quakers and inclusive mainline Christians) will be the first to offer this.
Today was  the first time I have been on a Gay Pride march. I did not know what to expect but I had been told that the Unitarians at a similar event in Manchester were well received by the gay community, used to being remonstrated with by homophobic religious picketers. I could well understand if some LGBT people feel an aversion to any religious organisations being at their events, particularly if we were seen to be drumming up support for our own agenda rather than standing in solidarity with them. Fortunately, I perceived none of this today other than a few of the flyers I was offering being politely handed back. It strikes me that it would be great if a strong Unitarian presence at such events could grow and be sustained. For both LGBT people and their heterosexual allies, taking an unambiguous stand against the ancient prejudices of some religious communities can come at the cost of unanswered questions of identity and unfulfilled spiritual needs. Our movement should be there to walk with them.

Sunday, 19 February 2012


Some dialogue from a late night TV drama starring Robert Webb playing the character Jezz, who is trying unsuccessfully to impress a confused Christian called Nancy of his interest in God.

Jezz: "The only reason I don't go to church is that for me everything's a church. This room is my church, the hall is my church... Costcutter is a bloody cathedral". 
Nancy: "Oh that's really nice Jeremy, but its just not true is it". 

While I was at the FUSE festival in Worthing a recurring theme was how our movement might be to offer people who consider themselves "spiritual but not religious" something of what they are looking for. Misguided though Jezz's view is, I would concede he is on to something. Recognising the virtue of being a freethinker,one might question the need for the outward forms of religious practice and look for God in nauture. Like Shug Avery and Alice Walker's the "Color Purple" "worship" might take the form of appreciating God in nature as opposed to the practice of churchgoing. In "The Kingdom Of God Is Within You", Tolstoy is critical of the Orthodox Church of his times, not only for its sanctioning of a brutal state's power, but for observing outward forms of religious practice in a way that he saw as contrary to Jesus' teaching: "A man of the present day need only buy a Gospel for three copecks and read through the plain words admitting of no misinterpretation, that Christ said to the Samaritan woman that the Father seeketh not worshipers at Jerusalem, nor in the mountain, but worshippers in spirit and in truth".  However, whilst there was certainly a time of my life when I might have come up with Jezz Osbourne's slightly more lame rejection of religious practice, I quickly found "going it alone"  in my heretical expression of spirituality did not get me very far. As Rev Dr Patrick O'Neill said at FUSE, there may well be some people who are self-contained enough to live a spiritual life alone, but I am certainly not one of them. Hence my weekend in Worthing gave me an opportunity to think about why despite being instinctively sceptical of institutions I almost paradoxically feel a need to be part of something that calls itself "church". There is something primal about the need for religious community that is articulated quite well in this posting by Rev Meredith Garmon entitled "Church! Huh! What is it good for":

A further interesting question is whether the existing model of Sunday services and the institutions of the Unitarian movement are an appropriate model of "church" for everyone who might need it. Unitarianism is no exception to the trend of numerical decline found in other Christian denominations with disproportionately low numbers of young adults and families with children. The weekend in Worthing left me with renewed high hopes of what Unitarians can offer if we make a collective effort to be able to serve the needs of people who need it. Unsurprisingly, the movement that gave the world Priestley, Wollstonecraft, Wicksteed and Capek might have a few tricks left up its sleeve! 

Sunday, 15 January 2012

God Is Not A Christian: A Review

"God Is Not A Christian" is a collection of Archbishop Desmond Tutu's public statements. Throughout he makes the case for interfaith co-operation, the full inclusion of Gays and Lesbians and the social gospel of his liberation theology. As a leading opponent of apartheid and a critical friend of later south African leaders he aligns himself with the tradition of the Old Testament Prophets in speaking "truth unto power". When I was a sixth former an evangelist (to my knowledge trained and endorsed by the Church of England) told me that as far as he knew, MK Ghandi must be "in Hell" because despite his "good deeds" he had not accepted the saving power of Jesus' atoning sacrifice. This was one of many factors that explain why my relationship even with the far more liberal Methodist tradition of my youth was troubled and why I am a Unitarian today. Tutu appears to contradict this "orthodox" view of redemption defined by "right belief" in saying, "we do scant justice and honour to our God if we want, for instance to deny that Mahatma Gandhi was a truly great soul, a holy man who walked closely with God. Our God would be too small if he was not also the God of Ghandi". He also acknowledges "many Christians would be amazed to learn of the sublime levels of spirituality that are attained in other religions , as in the best examples of Sufism and in mysticism, or the profound knowledge of meditation and stillness found in Buddhism. It is to do God scant honour to dismiss these and other religious insights and delusions, which they patently are not". There is very little to differentiate what Tutu is advocating from the universalism of mystics such as Julian of Norwich. Reading this book as a Unitarian I acknowledged that it is possible to take a particular view of who Jesus is with it not carrying the implication that people who take a different view are necessarily wrong. Hence I think what differentiates Unitarianism today from what is offered by a liberal Anglican "Inclusive Church" is less about belief as liturgy and practice. There is a qualitative difference between "Interfaith" pluralism and the "Multifaith" approach that is found in the more eclectic Unitarian congregations.
In general I recommend "God Is Not A Christian"  as an thought provoking, inspiring and accessible read. Under apartheid Tutu said, "in South Africa many books are prohibited. We say to the Government of South Africa 'you are too late, because the book you should have banned long ago is the Bible, for that is the most revolutionary book in a situation of oppression'".


Monday, 19 December 2011

Occupy- Mass Sing Up!

Well I am now a member of the Occupy Choir! I will be singing on the steps of St Paul's on 21st December between 6.30pm and 7.30pm as part of a mass "sing-up". The rehearsal took place in an abandoned building owned by UBS which is known as the bank of ideas. It was quite an odd rehersal space. It was like visiting the set of a film in a dystopian future in which society is disintegrating. I can see why some of the protesters style themselves as the character from "V for Vendetta". Most of the songs we hope to sing are taken from oppressed people around the world including the African American spirituals "Children Don't Get Weary" and "Find The Cost Of Freedom". There are also the songs that were popular from the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s such as "Azikatale namojaya boshwa ze ze mitze linke loule ko" which means "we do not care if we go to prison, it is for freedom we are fighting now". Fortunately I do not have to think to hard about whether I can sing that with conviction living in a liberal democracy, but it is appropriate to evoke the spirit of people who are struggling across the world struggling against economic oppression. Some of the more secular leftists I sing with are a little jittery that we appear to be singing even "mildly Christian" songs but the choir facilitator told us the story of how she went on a trip to Bosnia to get a cross-community choir to sing a song uniting Christians, Muslims and Jews who had previously been in conflict. She described the act as "subverting religion to use as a force for good". I quite agree! :)

Well, when I am out singing on Wednesday evening I expect it will be cold so renewed respect for the people camping out every night in London and the other occupy locations. You think you know these old Christmas songs, but as time goes on I find that this one by Jona Lewie is not so much about warfare as the human state!