Unitarians come from a tradition of religious dissent. We have congregations throughout the British Isles and there are connections with others throughout the world.
There are also Unitarian Societies which are independent of the congregational structure. They are special interest groups such as the Society for Psychical Studies, the Penal Affairs Panel, The Music Society and groups who holiday and groups who go walking. The Earth Spirit Network is one of the Societies. We refer to it as the ESN. The ESN has local groups and a national membership who produce a magazine.
Unitarians tend to be open minded people. There is a broad spectrum of belief ranging from the humanist to the atheist to the liberal Christian. Each one has different views about just about everything. They are bound together by unseen bonds related to community and personal spirituality. Unitarians have a tradition of service to the wider community.
I have been involved in the Earth Spirit Network since its early days. Times have changed since those early days. Then it was called the ‘Neo Pagan Network’ and had a secret membership where everyone used a nom de plume. At the time the Unitarians were more overtly Christian and many saw paganism as a step too far. But if you look through the hymn books, most were strongly nature based. We made a decision eventually to ‘come out’. We changed the name to the Earth Spirit Network and that more closely describes us.
We have a web site and a closed Facebook page and produce an annual magazine called ‘The File’.
The Unitarians have an annual business meeting called the General Assembly. It is an opportunity for the Societies to recruit new members and to host lectures and workshops as a sort of glorious fringe to the main event. The ESN run workshops on relationships with the seasons and raise awareness of the delicate balance of existence in nature.
I belong to a group in Bolton where I live. We meet to celebrate the eight festivals of the wheel of the year and we go out on trips to sacred sites.
Usually there are up to a dozen of us who meet in a local church hall. Most but not all of our members are also members at some of the congregations. And some of the congregations now have special services that connect to the seasons.
There is a local Pagan group in Bolton, the Bolton Area Pagans. They meet in a pub called The Sweet Green Tavern. We go and join their moot sometimes for talks or drumming.
I came to Bolton nearly thirty years ago as a newly appointed middle aged minister to a town centre congregation. They were an active lot and most were involved in charity work of one kind or another. We had founders of the women’s refuge, founders of the Race Equality Council, the local churches together group and the United Nations Association.
Bolton is one of the Gateway Towns and so is home to a mix of faiths and nationalities. My background was working in the oil and petrochemical industry in the Middle East. As I arrived in Bolton I joined a newly formed group, the Bolton Interfaith Fellowship. We started with representatives of the three main faiths in the town – Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. At first we organised talks on such things as marriage customs in three faiths, and traditional ceremonies through the year.
In time we were organised enough to join the Interfaith Network UK and received some funding for a worker and an office. We became the Bolton Interfaith Council and were more involved with Bolton Council. We joined their community cohesion committees.
The Bolton Interfaith Council launched the Bolton Faith Trail. – a visit and talk at different faith places of worship. Now more than two thousand school children do the Faith Trail each year as well as new police, NHS and Council staff. The leaders of the main faiths meet as The Faith Leaders Forum. At a time when outside groups came to demonstrate and create racial tension, they failed because of the frameworks of cohesion that Bolton had set up. A youth group called The Interfaith Young Ambassadors was set up and they took part in civic events as part of their activities. The Spirit of Bolton was an all day event on the town hall square with music and dance from all the different cultural groups living in the town. One of the Hindu temples have a Scottish Pipe Band who perform all over the country.
The Bolton Area Pagans used to attend a regular lunchtime forum where there were talks or specific areas of concern could be raised.
‘Knowledge dispels fear’ is a motto I picked up along the way in life’s travel and I feel it is so relevant to interfaith relations. The more we learn about one another’s faiths and customs then the tensions caused by suspicion and wariness are broken down. What we wear and the customs we follow identify us as separate from others but in reality we should think of ourselves as cousins in the human family. Despite what people wear or believe they are human beings with families to care for just like everyone else.
A former Bishop of Bolton used to talk about ‘The Faiths Market Place’. In Saudi Arabia where I worked the market place is for Islam only. No other faith is recognised or allowed to practice in the Islamic Market Place. For we workers there was no day off for Christmas, decorations were not allowed to be in view. We couldn’t have a Carol Service but we could put on a Festival of Winter Songs and go to the restaurant for a turkey lunch. By comparison the market place in France is secular. You can practice your religion and wear its emblems at home or the place of worship but they were not allowed in the public market place. The United Kingdom has an open market place. People can practice their faith and wear its emblems in public. All are welcome in our market place. To my mind the open market place is the most advanced market place but it comes with challenges.
Faiths working together enrich and strengthen the market place we share. To do this we have to learn about each other and dispel the fears that arise through ignorance. There should be no need for any faith to be secret nor reject the right of another to follow their faith. The world is a long way from perfect but by accepting our different faiths we build rather than divide the society we live in.
Written by Tony McNeile