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The Story of the URI in the UK

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.

By Malcolm Stonestreet

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.

Thank you.

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2 Responses to “The Story of the URI in the UK”

  1. » On November 30th, 2005 at 3:40 am Lucien Cosyns Said:

    In my humble opinion, I dare to express my feeling that there is a lack of global vision and of collaboration in action, which should be the primordeal aim of whatever interreligious dialogue organisation. What happened to the original goals of the URI ? What about the world forum of the faith communities ? Union means strength, and the media are only interested in the power of the many.

  2. » On January 2nd, 2006 at 9:31 pm Peter F Womack Said:


    Greetings Reverend Malcolm Stonestreet, Lucien Cosyns, and Friends, respectively,

    May Peace Be With You.

    The article on the progression of United Religions Initiative in Britain is interesting. The insight of the experiences, the lessons learned, and the objectives for the future are valuable and appreciated. As can be expected, there is much similarity between the InterFaith initiatives described in this article and InterFaith initiatives taking place in other locations throughout the World, including here in the Great Lakes region of the Western Hemisphere.

    The notion of the Shared Sacred Spaces is particularly interesting. This notion is similar to the specific initiative of this InterFaith Settlement. This InterFaith Settlement is an intentional community that welcomes adherents of the respective religious traditions of the World, including Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. The function of this InterFaith Settlement is to maintain a shared space, intrinsically sacred, that facilitates daily and pragmatic interaction between the respective adherents of the respective religious traditions of the World.

    Lucien Cosyns, your consideration pertaining the maintenance of a global concentration is appropriate. There was an interesting tendency within the speech, Reverend Malcolm Stonestreet, to emphasise a British national identity to foster the progression of the InterFaith initiative. And consequently there was an emphasis on the solicitation of money to facilitate such progression. This is understandable, and the genuine efforts that you and your colleagues with URI UK have made to progress the objective of InterFaith and interreligious tolerance and understanding and Peace throughout the World and Universe are appreciated.

    It may be provided that there are additional means through which to make similar progression. For example, one of the guiding principles affiliated with this InterFaith Settlement is to abstain from holding or exchanging money. This may be compared to the prohibition practised by certain Buddhist monks as well as the teaching of Jesus, ‘Render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and render unto God that which belongs to God.’ The practical benefit of this approach is a comparative perception of integrity in pursuing the communicated objectives of this InterFaith Settlement and a comparably tangible and direct measurement of the benefits provided to this InterFaith Settlement with the tangible as well as intrinsic (or intangible) benefits provided by this InterFaith Settlement.

    Lucien Cosyns, the website that you offer is rather interesting. The provision of the resources and the cooperation that is provided through your website are appreciated.

    On a side note, I may provide that the ‘hotmail’ email account that has been previously utilised in conjunction with this InterFaith Settlement has been closed by Microsoft Networks, though interestingly enough, the web log service provided by Microsoft Networks remains functional.

    With humble and benevolent regards,

    Peter F Womack

    Peace belongs throughout the Universe.

    All Praise Belongs To God.

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