Friday, January 23, 2009

An invitation to be reckoned with

After the lunchtime Eucharist, an hour and a half at the sink dish washing in the Tea Room, chatting, catching up on the news, enjoying the atmosphere - most enjoyable. Then, a brisk walk to school for an end of day chat with the Head and Deputy, to check out dates for the term ahead, before the meeting at the offices of Scarman Trust to find out more about their project on faith diversity awareness training.

It was good to be meeting up again with Terry Price, Scarman's local director, again after three years. He was very supportive of the efforts we made to develop St James' for community purposes. Although that was a failure and a great disappointment, it was also merciful when I think of the scale of running costs that would have followed on from a successful bid for funds to adapt and renovate the building properly. Now we're in the early stages of a plan to adapt the former school caretaker's house for community purposes, with a much greater chance of funding success, and a project that will be sustainable in design from the very start. Terry is fully aware of this because Su West whose community work post is Scarman funded, is involved with the new project. Happily she has recently accepted to become a school governor, which is a great plus in upholding the vocation of Tredegarville to be in every sense a community school.

At the meeting, along with Terry and Charles Willie was Paul Keeping, who is the Equalities Officer for Cardiff Council. We've been promising each other to get together for a chat ever since the Spiritual Capital conference, and now we meet in a common area of interest - anti-discrimination practice and policy. It was good to walk back into the city centre together afterwards, and do some catching up. As for the meeting itself, Terry gave us some background to the work he's been doing over a five year period, with others across the European community. The resource material is at an advanced stage of preparation and there's an opportunity to try it out here in Cardiff in April. The next stage is to recruit a suitably diverse group of 12-15 people from public service bodies, faith and voluntary groups, willing to engage in the exercise. When I got home I found it easy to identify more than a dozen people I thought it might be worthwhile sending an invitation to. Then I had to think out what to say to them to alert them to the arrival of the invitation sent out by Terry. Even if only two or three can make the time, it will contribute to getting a critical number of participants for the test run.

An exercise designed to raise awareness of religious diversity cannot help but be informative, and lead to dialogue about similarities and differences between faith communities. This exercise has an additional function, which I believe is crucial in developing real social cohesion that embraces all kinds of religious diversity and reduces the threat of alienation and extremism. It will get people of different faith cultures exploring different experiences of what it means for them to be part of a secular society in which they are one minority among many, and learn to recognise how this impacts upon others, including those who do not practice religion, or are completely ignorant of it. This will, I believe, prove helpful to those who must make decisions or give a lead to others serving people in situations where religious differences are not well understood.

So often religious differences are seen as problematic, too hard an issue to tackle, better avoided or ignored, when in reality it's a matter of knowing how to take religious people's interests and concerns seriously. If this is done successfully, it makes possible a wealth of constructive contributions from people of faith, for the common good, as we tried to argue in the Spiritual Capital research report. The way in which the Western Mail's reporting of our launch conference diverted attention away from actual findings to the secular humanist agenda of protest against religion playng any part in public life is to my mind a clear example of anti-religious discrimination from the Media Wales news team. I'd love to see the hacks and their editors go through this training exercise once it's fully fledged. It could help them do their job, not only better, but more fairly.

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