Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Moral relativism - a timely critique

In a recent BBC Thought for the Day broadcast, Dr Alan Billings reflected upon the theme of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' new book 'To heal a fractured world' in which he states his belief that Britain is ceasing to be a cohesive society because it no longer has a shared moral code at its foundation. As so many people no longer believe in the possibility of achieving moral consensus, all that remains is personal opinion. In characteristically pithy fashion, Sachs declares that morality has been reduced to taste.

Billings finds plenty of evidence from his experience of adolescents that for many of them this may seem to be the case, although he overlooks the importance to many young 'relativists' of sticking to the 'rules of the game' where sport is concerned. He argues that things change once the age of parenthood is reached. Values start to matter more when you have responsibility for rearing a child, and need to think about bringing it up in the right way. In practice, at every level, morality concerns that which enables us to flourish, as opposed to that which harms us. Society coheres and thrives around values that enable people to flourish. This is true regardless of anyone's faith or culture.

Dr Billings's Thought for the Day can be read here

Chief Rabbi promotes value of churchgoing

From a radio interview given shortly after 9/11

Until 1996 in Britain, shops were shut on Sunday. And a great many Brits .... went to church. Now when Sunday was deregulated, a great many Brits go out but where do they go?
They go to the local supermarket or shopping centre.
What is the difference between a supermarket and a church?
Well I hope there is a difference, but the difference is this -
In a supermarket you are there for what you can buy, what you can afford, what you earn.
In a church you are valued, absolutely regardless of what you can afford or what your status is in society.
You are there as a community of people embracing all types and all social classes.
Secondly, you have no real contact with anyone else in the supermarket; you just pass by in the aisles.
There may be the same number of people in the supermarket as were once in the church but there's nothing that binds them to one another.
Whereas in the church you're consciously part of a community of shared values.
So I'm afraid what we have put in the place of religion, namely the market, is catastrophically unable to create what religious and other communities once did create.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Spiritual side of Wales’ capital - Western Mail article

Read here in full the item on the icWales' Western Mail website

Spiritual side of Wales’ capital by Martin Shipton, Western Mail, Oct 27th, 2007

A MAJOR research project is being undertaken to demonstrate Cardiff’s status as a “spiritual capital”.
Priests, academics and religious activists have joined together to fight back against the image of the city as simply somewhere to shop and get drunk.
The project involves compiling a directory of all the religious organisations in Cardiff, including details of the good works they do.
Conceived by Rev Keith Kimber, Vicar of St John the Baptist church in Cardiff city centre, Spiritual Capital will produce a directory, a report and a conference.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Figures and food for thought about Cardiff

The data here is taken from the recently published Cardiff Local Development Plan, which outlines the way the city can evolve in the next decade or so in the light of current trends.

2.17 Cardiff is the most populated local authority in Wales, with 317,500 people living in the county in 200613 - over 10% of the total population of Wales. Some 1.4 million people live within 45 minutes drive time of the city.

The very concentration of people in the south-east of Wales, within and not too far from the city makes for powerful economic growth potential. Cardiff planners are already talking about the 'city-region'. How do neighbouring local government areas perceive this? Are we on the way towards becoming a Metropolitan area, like Manchester or Birmingham, managed as one big super-authority, like London? The larger the population area, the greater its diversity, but is local government genuinely able to manage diversity as well as it (legally speaking) should?

2.18 Since 1981 the population of Cardiff has been steadily increasing at about 0.4% per annum. Birth and death rates have remained relatively stable over this period but migration has fluctuated considerably, with an overall trend of net in-migration of 300 persons per annum. More recently, between 2001 and 2006, Cardiff's population has increased by 1,500 per annum with net in-migration of around 600 persons per annum.

Net in-migration is certainly contributing towards greater diversity, with the arrival of Eastern European workers in their thousands over the past three years.

2.19 Compared with Wales and the UK, Cardiff has a higher percentage of population in age groups 15-39 years but a lower percentage in age groups from 40 upwards. The impact of the student population is particularly significant. According to the 2001 Census, the growing student population comprised around 11% of the city's total population.
2.20 Ethnic minorities comprise 8.4% of Cardiff's population, broadly similar to the average for England and Wales.

Cardiff is an averagely 'young city'. A high proportion of its migrant workers are young, and come from places where religion is practised and is still a feature of public life. Whilst the same may also be true of many foreign students in Higher Education here, by way of contrast, the majority of students of British origin (possibly four out of five of them), will have been raised in a secularised social environment, and have little knowledge or experience of what it is to be part of a faith community or follow traditional religious practices. What will be the impact of the 'religious' minority upon the secular majority - and vice versa?

2.21 128,400 households resided in Cardiff in 2003 – representing 22% of all households in South East Wales. Average household size continues to fall in line with the national trend; in Cardiff it fell from 2.54 in 1991 to 2.37 in 2004.
2.22 The number of households in South East Wales is projected to increase by 108,900 (18.6%) between 2003 and 2021, reflecting the net effect of births, deaths, migration and the continuing trend towards smaller households.

The fall in average household occupancy is due to the growing number of people living alone, older people as well as young single professionals. With increased prosperity, demand for homes in Cardiff continues to rise, and the demand for consumer goods to equip them. This contributes to the above average 'carbon footprint' of the city, three times bigger than it should be for the population size. Whatever measures succeed in building carbon neutral dwellings for the years to come, only a radical change in lifestyles with increased sharing of energy consuming resources will produce the kind of reduction of carbon footprint to a just and sustainable level.

Who will challenge future citizens to share resources and live responsibly in relationship to the environment, when the social emphasis dwells so much on satisfying individual needs in ways that are hard to justify morally?

Faith communities of all kinds seek to generate and build on a sense of community and values that concern sharing and mutual support. Recognition of this social contribution is, or should be an important consideration in any sustainable long term development plan.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Archbishop of Canterbury | Sermons and Speeches

Archbishop of Canterbury Sermons and Speeches

Faith Communities in a Civil Society – Christian Perspectives
King's College, Cambridge

On September 11th, 1906, Mohandas Gandhi addressed a meeting of some 3,000 people in the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg to protest against the introduction of registration and fingerprinting for all Indians in South Africa – part of the first wave in the terrible history of legal racism in South Africa which ended at last in the final decade of the last century. It was a Muslim in the audience, Haji Habib, who first proposed that the decision for non-violent resistance to the legislation should be taken ‘in the name of God’. Gandhi stressed the great solemnity of such a form of words, but the meeting rose to affirm this as their will. The satyagraha movement was born, the movement of ‘soul force’ whose central principle was that our behaviour must witness to truth whatever the cost – and that this witness to truth can never, of its very nature, involve violence or a response to oppression that simply mirrors what has been done by the oppressor. In Gandhi’s vision, Christ’s prohibition against retaliation came together with his own Hindu heritage to inspire a lifetime of absolutely consistent labour on behalf of this ‘soul power’; and on that day in Johannesburg, as at many other points in his life, Gandhi was wholeheartedly supported by his Muslim allies.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Tibetan Lama speaks in Cardiff church

Always the marked man - no concealing his vocation

Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche, the Abbot of Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Scotland spoke this evening in Cardiff's city Parish Church of St John the Baptist to a quiet and thoughtful audience of over fifty people about the essence of Buddhist spiritual life.

Yesterday he spoke to three hundred young people in a session at Atlantic College. He told us how eager they were to ask questions, so many searching for a way to live and seeking how to find inner peace. His mainly adult audience tonight had fewer questions to ask. Most were practising Buddhists although half a dozen church members were also present. By comparison to his hungry young audience, this was like preaching to the choir, as they saying goes.

It was the first time in living memory that an invitation had been extended to a non-Christian spiritual teacher to speak in church. A witness to openness to other faiths and also of solidary between people of faith, all confronting the problem of the damage being done by unfettered materialism to people in today's world.

The number of adherents to the practice of Buddhism in different forms is increasing in Britain, particularly amongst those who have tried other kinds of religion and found them wanting. It's not that the external rituals are such a great attraction. It's rather that the determined focus on the inner life, opening the heart and mind to joy, seeking peace and harmony, with the simple practice of meditation and mindful compassionate living at the core of one's existence, speaks directly to the emptiness and hunger of our age.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Take off ‘dog collar’ to avoid attack, vicars advised

icWales - Take off ‘dog collar’ to avoid attack, vicars advised

Take off ‘dog collar’ to avoid attack, vicars advised
Oct 8 2007
by David James, South Wales Echo

THE murder of a South Wales vicar has helped spark a warning to priests not to wear “dog collars” outside of work.
A national group for clergymen has advised that priests should make themselves less obvious targets by removing “dog collars” where possible.
The warning follows several attacks on religious figures, including the stabbing of Father Paul Bennett, 59, in the grounds of his vicarage at St Fagans Church, Trecynon, near Aberdare, in March.
Father Paul is one of five British vicars who have been murdered in the past decade.

Society should be looking at itself very seriously if clergy cannot go about their daily lives. This is a slippery slope. So if you cover yourself up, you will be OK. Tell that to the monks in Burma whose bravery we admire and without such spirituality Burma's intolerable regime who not have received so much attention in the World.

The Bible on your mobile

icWales - The Bible on your mobile

The Bible on your mobile

The word of God has entered the digital age with a new service allowing Christians to download the Bible directly to their mobile phones.
A company has launched a religious line of products for mobiles, giving users the chance to express their faith through their phone’s wallpaper and ringtones.
The service, Ecumen, can deliver daily prayers and the whole Bible can be downloaded to a mobile for just £6, marketed with the phrase: "The only Bible you can read in the dark."
Erik Fok, head of sales and marketing at Teimlo, the Monmouthshire company in charge of Ecumen, said he believed young people would appreciate the service.
Mr Fok, a committed Christian, said: "The market for Christian content on mobile phones hasn’t been well-served."

Thursday, 4 October 2007

The power of remembrance

Alexandra Gardens in Cathays Park, adjacent to the Welsh Assembly Government building houses Wales' national memorials to the dead of two World Wars. The national Falklands War memorial was also placed here recently, on the 25th anniversary of the re-capture of the Islands. In effect, the Capital City acts as custodian of these cenotaphs, and serves as host to the official ceremonies and acts of worship that take place here on several occasions every year.

War memorials commemorate people of all faiths and none at all. The six civilian laundrymen killed whilst serving on Her Majesty's Ships in the Falklands are listed simply as 'Chinese'. There'd be a one in a thousand chance that any of them were Christian. The lone Gurkha killed in the conflict would have been of Hindu religion. The Gurkha regiment has a Hindu chaplain. Jewish and Muslim military, hospital and prison chaplains are also appointed in recognition of the various faiths of people represented therein.

There is no established religion in Wales or Ireland, as there is in England or Scotland, but in all the nations of the British Isles, despite the dominance of Christian history and tradition, or maybe because of it, tolerance and even-handedness in respect of people's religious identity by those in Crown or public service grew during the twentieth century, starting with protestant - catholic relations, then extending towards people of other faiths, once these had established themselves in numbers. This was happening long before the emergence of today's somewhat different secularist tendency, striving for neutrality in respect of religion, finding the 'different' needs of religious groups as a problem.

The military has long recognised that serving the spiritual needs of their personnel is a vital component of both welfare and morale. There can be no doubt that the experience of wars involving large numbers of citizens in the twentieth century has played a part in retaining religious ritual in civic ceremonies, ritual in which it is possible for people of all declared faiths and none at all to make common cause in acts of public remembrance. Even our good First Minister, an agnostic who regards religion as 'a private affair', can stand alongside believers, wavering or convinced, to recognise and value those whose lives were sacrificed for the common good.

This will to persist in this cultural tradition represents an aspect of Spiritual Capital that remains at the heart of modern secular society, outside the domains of our varied religious communities as much, if not more than it remains within them.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Grave matters

One major area of activity by the City Council touches upon people of all faiths and none at all - is bereavement services. Large areas of land, around Cardiff either owned, or managed by the Council on behalf of churches, are maintained in good order and kept open for burial of bodies or cremated remains, and visits by the bereaved.

Seven cemeteries are in use, plus Thornhill crematorium. This has two chapels and there are several other churches and cemetery chapels available for funeral ceremonies. Chinese, Muslim, Jewish and Greek Orthodox burial sections are available to members of those communities wishing to be buried together.

Everyone has the right to arrange funeral ceremonies according to their own wishes, or to have no ceremony at all. The City will make funeral arrangements on behalf of those who are destitute and without next of kin.

It is also possible to be buried on private land, although permission has to be obtained that involves consulting the City Planning Department, the Environment Agency and making an application to the Home Office.

On a darker note, the City’s action plan for managing a major emergency or disaster, such as would be implemented during a pandemic or an outbreak of war, caters not only for sick and injured, but also care of the bereaved, temporary storage of and disposal of the dead – a potentially difficult and complex operation. The best possible handling of a major crisis is vital for maintaining social cohesion and recovery.

Considering the thousands of people who die and are laid to rest each year in Cardiff, issues of contention arising to public awareness are few and far between. Any kind of mistake in the handling of dead bodies is extremely rare, due to the rigour of the administrative procedures involved. Occasionally regulations concerning memorials become a matter of controversy, largely due to changes in what the public regards as acceptable leaping ahead of convention.

Vandalism of memorials rightly makes the news whenever it happens. Given the cemeteries’ large land areas and boundaries, total security is almost impossible. The sanctity of a cemetery relies on public good-will, and suffers from a climate of indifference, as it would also suffer from neglect of maintenance. Churches whose graveyards are not Council maintained tend to suffer far more from neglect, because shrinking religious communities cannot afford their upkeep.

Difficulties in securing the funding to restore a dilapidated listed Victorian cemetery chapel in Cathays cemetery, may well reflect tension between conservation ideals and practical function in a full cemetery, with limited potential for additional interments.

It was designed for use in an era when the majority of the bereaved were Christian. What purpose does it serve in an age where only a fifth of the population as a whole has some sort of need to express any kind religious belief publicly? It’s doubtful that it would be worthwhile making it a faith-neutral sanctuary (like the renovated crematorium) in these change circumstances.

Altogether this is one area of excellence in public service which relies on sensitive partnership between local government, faith communities, and private enterprise – in this case companies providing funeral services and memorials. All together are challenged by social and cultural changes in practice that render the routine duty of disposing of the dead more complex than it has ever been.

Lewis Mumford’s master work 'The History of Cities' points out that when human beings were still nomadic, they established permanent places to house the bodies of their dead, and set up memorials to them. The necropolis, the city of the dead preceded cities of the living. But what is the role of the necropolis in this time of unprecedented mobility and the rise of the megalopolis? We are already seeing memorials to the dead speading far and wide in the form of roadside shrines, park benches, stone cairns on mountainsides. There are even memorial plaques mounted in the promenade decking of Penarth Pier, a venue also used for the unofficial disposal of cremated remains. Such changes challenge, not only religious communities, but also civil authorities charged with maintaining a social order which is acceptable to the majority of citizens.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Best practice advocacy

The Spiritual Capital-Cardiff research project exists thanks to funding from the Community Development Foundation's Faith Community Capacity Building Fund, which aims to empower religious communities of all kinds to relate better to the institutions and organisations of a secular civil society in Britain. This is the outcome of the government's social inclusion policy - getting everyone involved in shaping society and the way it runs, making use of the best of the values and skills of its citizenry.

It's most encouraging to discover that the same government impulse is at work on the other side of the institutional fence, encouraging Local Authorities, Health, Police and other public bodies to establish 'best practice' in their relationships with faith-communities. An organisation known as the Consultation Institute, based in Orpington, Kent exists to train people working in public service and provide resources for those involved in public or stakeholder consultations. The organisation is offering a regional training day in Bristol on 10th October.

It's clear there are cultural divides between the way a modern society is run, and the way traditional religious institutions and communities run, even though most of the latter have experienced modernisation in many of the ways they operate. There are differences in philosophy, values and priorities which lead to mis-communication in both directions.

Spiritual Capital research highlights and promotes the treasury of human resources that are all too easily taken for granted or overlooked and undervalued by civil society. Inevitably it uncovers weaknesses and flaws that need to be remedied. It is equally important to value strengths and encourage high aspirations. This leads to much more vigorous participation, and partnership between agencies of civil society and faith communities. Each is enabled to challenge the other from a desire to include everyone and achieve the best for everyone.