Archive for Church & faith

Bishop of London’s pre-election pastoral letter

Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, has issued this pastoral letter to the Anglican churches in his diocese, about the elections.

“Although its date has yet to be announced, it is certain that there will be a General Election by early June, and the political parties are clearly now well embarked on a pre-election campaign. We will all be thinking about how we respond to the call to participate in the democratic process, both in terms of the national and local debates that are to come, and of course in terms of how we eventually cast our individual votes. I know that some parishes will be organising their own hustings meetings.

“Churches Together in Britain & Ireland (CTBI) has worked with church bodies and agencies to create electronic resources to assist us as we approach the election. These include guidance for hustings meetings (and a registration system for events) and a substantial briefing document on wide range of issues, Faith in Politics, which suggests questions for candidates.

“In addition, the Evangelical Alliance has also created an election web page which will feature, inter alia, interviews with the party leaders.

“I commend both these resources to those who are organising or who plan to attend hustings meetings; and indeed to anyone considering their own vote. They do not attempt to represent a Church view or follow a party line; but they are a useful source of information for Christians, however they decide to vote.”

At least one church in Islington, St James Clerkenwell, has already contacted me about hosting a hustings meeting, provisional date 21 April. So it looks as if the Bishop’s guidance is already being put to good use.

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Advent calendars

A bit late I know, but as well as the sort you hang on the wall, there are lots of Advent Calendars out there to enjoy online.

I really like the Paperless Advent Calendar from the wonderful Paperless Christmas team.

‘Why are we waiting’ is a serious-minded calendar from the Church of England, embracing the spirit of Copenhagen (before it went horribly wrong) with daily reflections on a simpler lifestyle.

For those who prefer politics to religion, there’s a daily political cartoon from Work 4 An MP.

The Tate Gallery has a children’s calendar of modern art. And fans of Etre et Avoir will like this sweet French calendar of carols.

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Labour’s Equality Bill lets down gay employees

Islington has been at the forefront of gay rights campaigning, including the first gay rights demonstration – led by Young Liberal Louis Eakes – on Highbury Fields nearly 40 years ago.

Just last week I was having coffee with a supporter who first joined the Lib Dems because of our pioneering record, championing gay, lesbian and transgender rights when these weren’t the mainstream issues they are today.

The world has changed for the better. This year I was one of thousands dancing through the sunny streets at London Pride. Civil partnerships are a real breakthrough we should all welcome. But homophobic bullying and hate crimes are still a reality. And so is employment discrimination.

Labour likes to trumpet its record on gay rights. But now the EU is threatening the Labour government with a European court order and possible fine, because they are breaching EU employment equality laws, by allowing organisations to discriminate against gay employees on religious grounds.

This is bad news for employees and also for faith groups, who once again get unfairly characterised as prejudiced extremists. The reality is that most faith groups are responsible, liberal employers. Gay rights issues are a divisive issue within faith groups, not between faith groups and the rest of society.

EU law is not about taking the faith out of faith organisations. In a pluralistic society that would be unacceptable. EU employment law rightly allows religious organisations to apply a reasonable requirement based on religion. So faith schools could require some or most teachers to be of that faith. (Although when St Andrew’s CofE school, where I’m a governor, appointed our new head, we followed the ‘Christian dentist’ approach: when you have a toothache, do you go to a good Christian, or a good dentist?)

Faith groups should not be allowed to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation. And indeed under EU law they are not. But the UK Government is resisting this. Our local Lib Dem MEP Sarah Ludford has highlighted Labour hypocrisy on this issue. As she says, “It is extraordinary that Harriet Harman’s new Equality Bill does nothing to remedy this continued illegal discrimination, which would have warded off Brussels action. Her bill indeed seems to be more about gestures than real change.”

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Help give leukaemia a licking this Wednesday

It’s the time of year when people who aren’t religious often find their way into church – perhaps to buy charity Christmas cards, or for a carol service. Last night I was in the choir at St Mary Islington for our carols by candlelight, and it was lovely to see some unfamiliar faces there.

But now people are being invited to a local church for a very different reason. The family of Clerkenwell woman Rachel Baughen, who has leukaemia, are asking people to come along to St James Clerkenwell on Wednesday to see if they are compatible marrow donors for her. The Evening Standard has more about the appeal here.

What’s encouraging about this initiative is that it is using the new, less intrusive, saliva test rather than a blood test. So no matter how squeamish you are, it’s easy to get screened. Of course if you turn out to be a match, to Rachel or to anyone else on the register, then the donor process is rather more demanding. But how often do you get the chance to save someone’s life?

I shall be heading to St James Clerkenwell on Wednesday where the clinic is running from from noon to 2.30pm and 4.30pm to 7pm: perhaps I’ll see you there!

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As we forgive others…

I don’t always listen to ‘Thought For The Day’ religiously. In fact, at one time, the start of TFTD literally set me running from the house: the signal I was late to catch my train to work.

But last Friday I did catch the Thought, and it really made an impression on me. The Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks spoke about forgiveness, as part of Yom Kippur.

He speaks eloquently and powerfully in a way that reaches beyond individual creeds to touch on some essential human truths about the need, one we all have at times, to draw a line and move on.

The podcast is still on the BBC website for now, it’s the one for Friday 25 September. And should go up soon on the Chief Rabbi’s own website. It’s worth a listen.

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Too busy to blog… or too hot

It’s been another madly busy (and hot!) few days and I’ve struggled to find time to blog – even though there’s so much to write about.

My thoughts on government climbdowns, heatwaves, Michael Jackson and Sarah Palin will all have to wait. Possibly forever.

But I’ve not been idle. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve:
– appeared as panellist on Radio 5 Live Richard Bacon show
– supported the Save Finsbury Health Centre fundraiser
– visited the National Garden Scheme open day in Clerkenwell
– met Holloway residents to talk about recycling
– chaired Pizza & Politics event with Cory Doctorow
– appointed a new Headteacher for St Andrew’s School
– spoke at a candidates’ training day
– enjoyed the Maggie exhibition at the Cartoon Museum
– led the prayers at the service welcoming Martine Oborne to St Mary’s
– attended the Canonbury Society summer party
– led deliverer recruitment sessions
– appeared on LBC’s ‘Politicians’ Panel’
– joined the celebrations at the Jubba achievement awards
– met Lib Dem school governors
– enjoyed a social event for Lib Dems in Cally ward.

Will try and blog about at least some of these in the coming week. And today I’m dropping by my church awayday en route to joining the Lib Dem contingent at London Pride. Possibly a unique combo?

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Planning in Islington: let’s get it right!

Even the smallest planning decisions can have a massive impact.

During the Euro elections I heard from one man so frustrated that his change-of-use application was turned down at least 5 years ago that it still affects his voting intentions today. What was routine policy (and technically entirely correct) for the Council, was an unwelcome and life-changing decision for him.

And in the last couple of weeks I’ve met more people with planning on their mind: from an architect enthusiastic about designs for homes, workshops and new open space on an old industrial estate, to the family upset that a neighbour’s controversial extension has got the go-ahead.

Even more distressing was the rejection of plans for a new community centre at St David’s Church on Westbourne Road. The church building, like so many, had been surplus to CofE requirements, and so leased to another denomination, in this case the Greek Orthodox. They have now moved to a new home in Islington, leaving St David’s empty once more. In the interim, a new Anglican congregation had started worshipping in the church hall, and running busy community projects.

Working with the community, the church came up with plans that would bring the old church building back into use, not just for worship on Sundays, but as a place of service throughout the week, including a new home for the fantastic Prospex youth club (they work with some of the most excluded kids in the area). The plans even had hundreds of petition signatures in favour. So what was the problem?

Well, the community centre works have to be financed somehow, and the plan was to sell the current church hall site for housing; mostly private, although with some units for social rent and for the church’s own staff. And this ran up against the local Labour party’s unbending insistence on 50% affordable housing – whatever the context and whatever the planning policies actually say – in part of the borough where they dominate the area planning committee.

Everyone knows we need affordable homes in Islington (and it’s good the LibDem Council is building more). But even if there was a 100% rule there would still not be enough homes to go round.

We need more homes – but also the facilities to make those homes a decent place to live. And that’s why I think Labour’s rejection of the St David’s scheme was such a big mistake. A real benefit has been lost to a community that really needed it – by the very people elected to represent them. And it’s not just me saying that. Hopefully there will be a rethink or an appeal: watch this space.

It’s really important that the planning policy framework is right; yet most people, understandably, only encounter planning policy when their own application or objection is up for decision.

So I thought I’d share this email received yesterday:

Your Neighbourhood, Your Islington, is Islington’s Core Planning Strategy. It sets out our plans for the future of the borough up to 2025. Its aim is to make Islington a better place to live and work. As well as setting out how different parts of the borough might develop, it also sets out Islington’s approach to important issues including how we will seek to improve the built environment, provide for affordable housing and employment spaces, respond to climate change, and provide facilities for our communities.

Over the last year we have sought the views of residents and organisations on these and other issues. We have now produced a first draft of the plan called the Core Strategy Direction of Travel.

You can view the Core Strategy Direction of Travel at: our website, your local library, or the Municipal Offices, 222 Upper Street, N1 1XR

If you would like a paper copy of the plan, or have any questions then please email ldf@islington.gov.uk or call 020 7527 6799.

We would welcome any comments in writing by post or by email. Please send these by post to Planning Policy, 222 Upper Street, N1 1XR , or by email. It would help if you could send any comments to us by Monday 3 August 2009.

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Inequality: bad for our health?

New figures from the Office of National Statistics report that London’s children are the most deprived in the UK.

One in four London children is growing up in poverty, and we already know that for Islington it’s nearer half all children.

The growing gap between rich and poor is not only a terrible failure by the Labour government; it makes society more stressed, less healthy, trusting and secure, than societies where wealth is more equitably distributed. Although it’s arguable that redistribution is the consequence, rather than the cause, of a happier society.

In the midst of this, an invitation arrives from the Rev Chris Brice in Gospel Oak (what a great name for a parish!):

Professor Richard Wilkinson acclaimed author of: “The Spirit Level – why more equal societies almost always do better”

Is speaking in London On: July 5th At: 6pm at St Martins Church Gospel Oak NW5 4NL

Followed by a Question and Answer Session after his talk

ALL WELCOME !

Come and hear about the pernicious consequences on millions of UK citizens of Britain being one of the most economically unequal countries amongst the 23 richest democracies.

Prof Wilkinson has carried out a number of studies on the effects on inequality on health, and the links between inequality and racism – highly topical given the rise of the BNP. It is, after all, just a short train ride from Gospel Oak to Barking.

Gross and growing inequality is certainly bad for society’s health. That’s not to say it’s avoidable. Like sugar or sunlight, it’s excess that’s bad for us. I don’t believe total equality is achievable – and certainly not by means that are acceptable to liberals (or Liberals).

Liberal Democrats are pledged to fight poverty, ignorance and conformity, not inequality per se. But the extremes of rich and poor, and the growing gap between rich and poor, both globally and within communities, undermine the conditions in which liberalism can flourish and breed intolerance. To quote Barack Obama, money is not the only answer, but it makes a difference.

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Pitta and politics

On Wednesday night I was heading up the Holloway Road on the world’s slowest bus (thank you blue car parked in the bus lane) for our Pizza Pitta and Politics evening.

Each month Islington Lib Dems have a Pizza & Politics event where we discuss politics and, er, eat pizza. This month’s was a bit different – a Pitta & Politics evening, joint with the (Holloway-based) Dialogue Society, with yours truly in the chair. Our topic was how you tackle violent extremism in a liberal society.

I still remember where I was on 9/11 and 7/7 and the sense of panic, horror and anger as the news came in. Islington is a highly diverse borough, and we lost more of our citizens and workers in the 7/7 attacks than any other individual borough, so these issues affect our area deeply.

I was incredibly proud of the reaction of ordinary Londoners and the emergency services to the attacks. But I’m not proud of everything our Government has done since, from appearing to endorse torture flights to undermining the same rights that the terrorists want to destroy.

Tackling extremism is something on which the Dialogue Society, formed by 2nd generation British-Turkish Muslims, has done a lot of work. It was an unexpectedly topical topic, because among all the revelations about MPs expenses (how many homes do you need to be in the Home Office?), Jacqui Smith has just launched the second round of Contest, the Government’s anti-extremism strategy.

Dialogue’s concern is that in attacking the minority of extremists head-on only serves to polarise them more, by casting them as ‘the other’. Young people like to join groups that are supportive yet seem subversive: most are harmless, some are not. Bigging them up only glamourises them. And at the same time it gives negative images of Islam to the rest of us, which make a bad situation worse. Dialogue prefer to promote the positive tenets of mainstream Islam – peace and justice – both to Muslims and to non-Muslims, achieving what they call ‘de-radicalisation by default’. Instead of talking up extremism, you starve it.

We certainly did not starve – fantastic Turkish food, and food for thought from our speakers; Dialogue director Ozcan Keles, Meral Ece OBE and leading MEP candidate, and international academic Jonathan Fryer. Meral reminded us that challenging extremism is everyone’s responsibility and that only a tiny handful of Muslims are extremists. Yet it’s the 20 demonstraters in Luton who make the headlines, not the peaceful majority. Instead of the 4 Ps of the Government strategy, Jonathan proposed an Ode: outreach, dialogue and engagement. We even had Simon Hughes on a video link from Westminster.

We were enthused by how much of an agenda liberal Muslims and Liberal Democrats have in common, from defending free speech to encouraging democratic engagement – and challenging the stereotype that we’re both full of men with beards.

Next steps include mentoring future council candidates (provoking puns about Young Turks) and future events with the Dialogue Society, with the help of the Liberal Democrat Friends of Turkey.

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Let there be (energy-efficient) light

Good news from Monday’s church council meeting.

Our church has adopted eco-congregation status and as part of this we got an energy audit done. Traditional church buildings are a nightmare to heat in an environmentally conscious way. In fact, they are a nightmare to heat full stop. High ceilings, big windows, and sometimes only used for a few hours a week. Our energy audit came up with lots of proposals: from lagging the roof space to replacing all the lights, converting the heating and installing solar panels.

And now Islington Council’s climate change fund has awarded us a grant towards the cost of the solar panels and the new lights, and advice on getting help with the rest. So often people have good ideas for going green, but just don’t have the capital to hand to make that investment. Islington’s climate change fund is a fantastic initiative and I hope other local groups will be encouraged to apply as well.

Several people on the church council are among those who gave up our £20 direct debit discount in order to boost the Climate Change fund. So we’re delighted by this kind of recycling!

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