19 December 2013

 

Commemoration of Nelson Mandela in Leicester

This issue has produced an article and comment in the Leicester Mercury.

There have also been some letters on 20/12/13 and 25/12/13 .

Following the death of Nelson Mandela an invitation to a “Thanksgiving for the Life & Legacy of Nelson Mandela” was issued by Leicester City Council, Leicester Cathedral, St Philip's Centre and Leicester Council of Faiths to be held on Saturday 14th December. The event consisted of a gathering at Nelson Mandela Park (with readings, singing and a Christian prayer), a procession to the Cathedral and a Church of England Service, where representatives of various faiths and beliefs made short statements paying homage to the life of Nelson Mandela.

Whilst this attempt at an inclusive celebration of Mandela's life by the Church of England was to be welcomed, particularly as it had not always been so strongly supportive of him, it also incorporated the civic celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela. As such the event failed to involve other non-religious groups, such as trade unions, from within Leicester that had worked against apartheid. The City could have organised a fully inclusive civic event at a neutral location such as the Town Hall. A Christian ceremony is uncomfortable for many non believers and those whose strict adherence to their religion prevent them joining ceremonies involving worship by other religions.

This placed members of the Society (and no doubt others)in something of a quandary as many have been life long supporters of Mandela together with the anti-apartheid movement, but were not religious and did not wish to attend a Church of England Service. The Society decided that it would be represented at the event as it would have seemed churlish and devisive to boycott it. Some members stayed away, others just attended at the Park and others attended the whole event, which was well managed.

While the Society has no objection to the Church of England holding such events and inviting all to attend, we oppose the City granting the privilege to a particular religious denomination instead of providing an official civic event.

Our acting President, Gush Bhumbra sent the following "open letter" to Sir Peter Soulsby, The City Mayor.


Dear Sir Peter,

We applaud the decision to mark the ending of Nelson Mandela’s life with a commemorative event in Leicester. The great man is renowned for creating a rainbow nation and he deserves a fitting tribute from our rainbow City.

We are very concerned indeed that you chose to endorse a commemorative event that is a religious affair, inevitably dividing us and reinforcing the privileges of the Church of England. Mandela advocated an inclusive and plural society free from discrimination, prejudice and privilege.

Even in South Africa itself his life is not being marked with a state religious event, so why it was thought appropriate to do so here, where more than a quarter of the population profess no religious affiliation, is beyond us. It is offensive to many of us to have to sit through a religious service in order to be able to make a public show of respect to this great secular leader, who never used religion to justify any of his thought processes or actions.

An opportunity to unite the whole community is lost when religion is touted as the only way to mark significant events in Leicester. A secular society is inclusive of all, providing for freedom of religion and from religion. The Bishop of Leicester has no place leading a civic event such as this. A City Mayor is elected to organise such events for the whole community.

We strongly believe future events that are universal in nature, such as this, should be marked in a secular fashion at a non-religious venue. We have many secular venues here in Leicester, some of which are even owned by the local authority, so there is no excuse to choose Leicester Cathedral for such events.

Yours sincerely,

G. Bhumbra

Before the Society received any response from Sir Peter, the Bishop of Leicester issued his own letter
 
Dear Peter,
COMMEMORATION OF NELSON MANDELA
In common with the Leicester Secular Society I am delighted that the life and work of Nelson Mandela has been commemorated in the city.

 
However, since the Society's Open Letter makes direct criticisms of the role of the Bishop and of our Cathedral, and indeed of religion in general, we feel it important to make a response.

It is sad that an event to celebrate Mandela who did so much to heal wounds should become a cause of conflict in the City. I am sure I speak for Christians and those of all faiths in making it absolutely clear that we believe that no one should be coerced to express a faith or belief at any time, least of all on such an occasion.

However, the Secular Society seems to be implying that religion should be excluded from all forms of public celebration. In Leicester, where the cityscape is shaped by the mosques, temples, churches and synagogues of the great world faiths, our very identity is associated with public respect for each other’s beliefs on a great variety of public occasions. These include the recent visit of Her Majesty the Queen as well as the annual remembrance of the fallen on Remembrance Sunday and on many other similar occasions. 

At the heart of our cities stand cathedrals which embody a faith tradition alongside the story of a local community. In Leicester our Cathedral gathers people of all faiths and none at times of celebration and sadness and when great national or international events touch all our lives.

The Cathedral does this work in partnership with the City and County with a commitment to a vision of the Common Good arising from the Christian faith. This is a faith which seeks to offer hospitality in a city like ours as an expression of the Church of England's role in serving all the people. This task is specifically focussed in the public office of the Bishop and in the role of cathedrals. This is why the hospitality of the Cathedral was offered by the Dean on this occasion. We are puzzled to note that the person who spoke in the Cathedral on behalf of the Leicester Secular Society felt it necessary to write a letter of complaint.

We agree that a secular society should be inclusive of all, but this surely cannot be achieved by excluding the most deeply held beliefs of participants from public events. Anyone who watched the ceremonies in South Africa will have seen formal, public expressions of faith at many points in the proceedings. The people of South Africa appear to take it for granted that faith is a natural context for events of this kind, so that all the leaders of the world faiths prayed publicly at the Soweto memorial.

Lastly, it is simply untrue to claim Mandela as a ‘great secular leader who never used religion to justify any of his thought processes or actions’. In his autobiography, ‘The Long Walk to Freedom‘ he writes that he saw that ' The Church was as concerned with this world as the next: I saw that virtually all of the achievements of Africans seemed to have come about through the missionary work of the Church.'

Secularists have nothing to fear from Christians. And indeed, in the spirit of Nelson Mandela people of faith and of no faith have nothing to fear from one another. Please let us continue to keep a public space in this City for those of all faiths and none.

Yours sincerely,

The Rt Revd Tim Stevens
The Very Revd David Monteith

We believe that the Bishop has misinterpreted the letter sent to the Mayor.
  1. It is precisely because Mandela was a unifying figure who stood out against privilege for any one group that we felt we had to protest at the Church's pre-eminent position in the celebration of Mandela's life.
  2. We are not, however, directly criticising the Church for wanting to celebrate Mandela's life in their own way with Christian prayers - that is their right and one we defend. But what we object to is the City Mayor making this THE civic event of commemoration. We do not recognise the Church as speaking for us and we doubt whether Leicestershire people who do not profess any religious belief (one quarter of the population) or many believers in other religions would accept that role for the Church either.
  3. The very fact of this debate shows that the Church cannot be a unifying force in our society and the bishop is simply mistaken to think that he can speak on everyone's behalf. That can only be done by the elected civic authority on the basis of a neutral secular approach that treats all beliefs as essentially equal.
  4. It is disingenuous of the bishop to allege that our letter is attempting to silence the views of religious people at public civic events. What we are saying is that all such broad public celebrations should be conducted by the secular civil authority with representatives of all strands of opinion present, not belief or faith groups alone, and the secular civic authority must be seen to be clearly in control. This was clearly not the case in the cathedral and the City Mayor and the bishop are wrong to think that that venue should be acceptable to all as some kind of neutral space.
  5. The Anglican church represents no more than one quarter of the population of Leicester. It is completely wrong that they should insinuate themselves into a leadership role in community affairs.
  6. Finally, in respect to Mandela's beliefs, at no time in his adult life did he make any declaration of religious faith. What he did was to praise the role of churches of various kinds, along with a whole range of other organisations, in the struggle to end Apartheid.
Gush Bhumbra was interviewed by Ben Jackson on this subject on 19th December - the programme can be found here 2 hours 44 minutes in.

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