The Story of the URI in the UK
November 22nd, 2005 by sfuqua
In an address delivered at Saint Ethelburga’s Church, Rev. Malcolm Stonestreet speaks of the history and future of the United Religions Initiative in the United Kingdom.
Thursday 10th November 2005
Mr Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen may I add my welcome, to that already expressed, to all of you and my congratulations to John Harrison and the young adults from Blackburn on their production of the splendid exhibition “Spirit of Blackburn with Darwen”. This exhibition has been evaluated by the Centre for Local Economic Strategies – a piece of work we await with some expectation. It will not all make easy reading but it will guide the Trustees as they seek to roll this work out across seventeen other communities in the North. We have learnt a lot in this pilot project and when the work starts in Burnley next month we will be much wiser.
May I ask you to look with me at the story of URI UK over the last seven years? In 1998 we hosted a three day conference at Saint George’s House Windsor. Our purpose was to listen to Faith Leaders and Politicians and those already committed to Inter Faith work in this country and find out if and how we might make an appropriate contribution to this. We were encouraged to set up a nation-wide network of projects – practical grass roots projects – working with young people of all the faiths.
On the 14th August 2000 we launched URI UK at a grand ceremony in the Millennium Dome. We received encouragement from the Prime Minister, the Mayor of London and we received the Blessings of representatives of all the Faiths. Two young people – one a Muslim the other a Christian – spoke and encouraged us in this work.
There followed a period of reflection, of research and of networking – many meetings, many conferences and some pilot projects to test the water and try our hand at this difficult and sensitive work. We began to see that the Arts, Sacred Space and Education might be the routes for us to deliver a significant contribution
In 2003 the Trustees commissioned The Beales Report. We were greatly encouraged by this. Our plans seemed to fit national strategies and were both appropriate and urgently needed
In 2004 the Trustees wrote a Five Year Business Plan – a substantial document which suggested we needed four hundred and nineteen thousand pounds for each of the next five years to establish URI UK as a useful and pertinent network throughout England and Wales.
Throughout this developmental period we continued to run Regional Conferences and to be involved with others in learning to understand what was actually happening in the grass roots communities. During these consultations, encounters and conferences we thought the best way to start would be – Spirit of the North. This would draw together the three strands of our work right across the North of England. The three stands are:
- 18 Photographic/Arts projects pulling together civic, faith and educational leaders. Spirit of Blackburn is the pilot for this piece of work. It enables young adults to work together, to create and to honour those from different spiritual backgrounds who make a significant contribution to the economic and community life of their town. This is innovative, dynamic and unique in its approach to community cohesion in communities which are at risk of religious conflict.
- The second strand of Spirit of the North is vitally important – it concerns Shared Sacred Space. We all know that Religions have buildings or Space. We all know that these are very precious to the adherents and that they hold something of the mystery and wonder, something of the eternal within this earthly order. They are holy places and they are a focus of peace and hope and fellowship. We also know that in this naughty world they become the focus of conflict, anger and serious community division. In Cheetham Hill, Manchester we have been offered twelve square meters of ground in a building and we have found leaders of the Sikh, Jewish, Christian and Muslim Communities who are prepared to work together to develop this as Shared Sacred Space - a very important exercise. Working with the Forestry Commission we are identifying three areas of fifty hectares (in the three Regions: NE, NW, Yorkshire and Humberside) which can be owned by a company made up of 100 different congregations (again from all the faiths) and developed as Shared Sacred Space. Such sites might be used for celebration, shared prayer for Peace, Education and for a shared and joint statement by the Faith Communities about the Environment. This is where our five year discussion about providing a Peace Centre has led us. When I was recently visiting some North American Indians I joined in a celebration of harvest. After the ceremonies and as I was bidden farewell the leader said “Walk gently upon blessed mother, you came from her, she will sustain you and you will return to her, Malcolm, walk gently upon blessed Mother Earth”. In an age with a particular concern for the Environment the Faith Groups might stand together in this land and begin to proclaim the sacred nature of all creation.
- Together with our commitment to the Arts and Sacred Space comes our commitment to conversation and meeting both across the faith groups and across the gender and generation boundaries. We have hosted meetings of about a hundred people in Newcastle, Birmingham, Nottingham, Manchester, London, Cambridge and Oxford where fifty slightly older people have met with fifty younger people. Our next such meeting is in the Palace of Westminster on 6th December. Their conversation has been about their spiritual journey and the results have been profound. John Battle has referred to each of these conversations as being a brick in the building of our new society. We wish to host many more such meeting right across the North of England.
So that is where we have got to – these last seven years have been very exciting and great fun - all totally new territory for me. It has cost money and the Home Office has helped and many charities and individuals have supported us and I take this opportunity to thank all of those who have given. Now this phase of our work, envisioning and planning, is complete. We are as ready as we will ever be to roll this out across the North of England and later, hopefully, throughout the country. The Spirit of the North will enrich work currently being done, will encourage new people to involve themselves in this work and will network both statutory and voluntary practical projects together in an encouraging and liberating way. It will involve young people.
We are looking for the day when Faith Groups stop just looking for their own space and privileges and begin to stand together to help this nation to recognise the spiritual nature of creation and of every living person – the environment is an ever demanding sphere for our joint work.
So what we have developed over the last seven years is now ready for delivery. We believe Arts/Photography, Sacred Space and talking across the generation, gender and faith boundaries are the way. We are ready to do it. We believe the projects are appropriate and practical. We believe it is possible – we may be slightly in front of the game, but if we lay the foundations now , this will serve the nation well for the next hundred or so years. It is ground-breaking work, just in front of need, so it needs imaginative, creative people to fund it. This would be a good gift to give to your children and your children’s children. If we find the funding now to establish the network we believe that in the future funding will come from local and regional pots. But we need national funding to get over the hill and lay out the foundations. We need two hundred and fifty thousand pounds for each of the next three years to establish this. We need to make it quite clear this is not establishing a new religion it is building a series of bridges. We need to say this is not about serving faith groups but about the part faith groups can play in National and local community cohesion. We passionately believe religion, spirituality, faith – call it what you will – is the vital key to such cohesion. It has been in the past and it will be in the future – the alternative is too terrible to contemplate. In many communities the peace is very fragile – it could go either way.
I lay this before you. We have done our work. We are ready to do our best in the next phase of all of this – but until the funding can be found we shall have to place all our plans and dreams on the back burner.
Mr Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, I leave it with you.
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