Preston councillor Martyn Rawlinson is an agnostic.
But he is taking a leading role in the town’s forthcoming Interfaith Week.
It’s been quite a journey.
When Martyn started researching for his Masters certificate in Community Leadership at UCLan he tapped into an unknown reservoir of goodwill and good works in the town, much of which had previously passed him by.
It set him thinking how such work could be helped and how faith groups with a common purpose to improve society, could work together and continue their work.
The result, apart from new letters after his name in recognition of his academic studies, is a 17-point straight-talking action plan contained in his research paper Interfaith Dialogue and Social Action: Does Preston Need an Interfaith Strategy?
Coun Rawlinson will be launching his research, which will also be available online as an eBook on Preston Council’s website, at a special event on Tuesday, November 13 at 6pm at Preston’s town hall on Lancaster Road.
It is one of 12 events, plus a special exhibition at Preston Minster, marking Interfaith Week 2018 which runs from November 11 - 18.
The Labour councillor points out that Preston is “a religious city” with more than three quarters of Prestonians professing religious belief when questioned for the 2011 census, but he believes the city’s very diversity also makes it vulnerable and argues much more could and should be done to improve links between communities.
While he concluded: “Preston’s diverse racial, religious and cultural mix displays relative harmony; and the city’s faith and interfaith communities provide a variety of both spiritual and secular opportunities and activities for community engagement.”
He also fears such work could be hampered in the future and says: “National narratives around human migration, terrorism and Brexit are contributing to an increase in hate crime and county research suggests opportunistic racial and religious hatred has become normalised in some communities.”
His paper argues that such “divisive social and economic narratives and the continued public sector funding squeeze” are jeopardising efforts at community change.
His recommended steps for improved interfaith dialogue and social action include providing more administrative support and (modest) funding to the faith and interfaith sector. Aims of the interfaith community “not the public sector’s service requirements according to politicians or officers” should be uppermost.
Martyn also has a warning about vocabulary barriers and says: “We must all start using terminology interchangeably and destroy silo-like thinking patterns on faith, race and culture.”
He stresses an “appreciation of distinctiveness” should be the aim of dialogue to challenge narratives which focus on “how someone else’s distinctiveness somehow threatens our own.”
He said: “As a councillor of 15 years and a community activist I had somehow managed to stay relatively detached from this vibrant scene, possibly due to my own agnosticism.”
He now argues the same detachment and lack of understanding often applies to links between the public sector and faith communities and public sector workers need more training on faith issues.
Inspired too by his studies at UCLan, which introduced him to the idea of interfaith dialogue, peace-building across religious divides and the difficulties of creating such dialogue, he looked at what was happening in Preston at grassroots, examining the activities of the interfaith community and members’ relationship with public bodies. He said: “The distance between the volunteers and the public sector is somewhat mirrored between the volunteers and their own faith groups. They find it difficult, for various reasons, to engage their own institutions in their interfaith activities.”
Another highlight of the week will be the visit to Preston of a touring exhibition.
Peter Lumsden has organised the display at Preston Minster entitled "Weaving Wisdom" and an associated event discussing the topic of wisdom , cultures and cotton.
The exhibition from the Touchstone Centre Bradford features rug designs which are based on discussions between women of different faiths from the UK and Pakistan about the meaning of wisdom. Peter, who teaches at UCLan and is a Methodist lay preacher, said: “The week is a focal point that involves people of all nationalities, all traditions, all faiths.”
PRESTON FAITH FORUM'S INTERFAITH WEEK EVENTS NOVEMBER 11-18, 2018
SUNDAY: Open Faith Forum meeting from 2-5pm at UCLan Chaplaincy Oasis Centre on Kirkham Street
MONDAY: Faith Trail tour of Buddhist, Muslim, Baha’i and Xaverian Catholic faiths from 9.30am - 12.30pm at the Buddhist Temple on West Cliff
Discussion about the book ‘Sapiens’ at the Oasis Faith Centre 7pm - 9pm
TUESDAY: Interfaith and social action research launch by Coun Rawlinson, Town Hall 6pm - 7.30pm;
Faith Trail tour starting at Sikh Gurdwara on Bow Lane 5.30pm - 8.30pm
Cultures and Cotton Faith and Wisdom discussion on wisdom in faith traditions (prompted by exhibition at Preston Minster) Town Hall 7.30pm - 9.30pm
WEDNESDAY: Speed Faithing - learning about other faiths 6pm - 8pm Town Hall Committee Room A.
THURSDAY: Reflections on writing of Khalil Gibran about Jesus 7pm - 9pm, Quaker Meeting House, St George’s Road
FRIDAY: Interfaith Shabbat, interactive learning about Judaism 7pm - 9pm, UCLan Oasis Centre
SATURDAY: Faith, Food and vegetarian Food fun night at Tabor, Sharoe Green Lane 7pm - 10pm
SUNDAY: Questioning Islam Q and A session 7.30pm - 9.30pm, Ashton Methodist Church
Open Day at City Mosque, North Road 1pm -6pm.
ALL WEEK: Weaving Wisdom Preston Minster. The exhibition is open all day Monday, Friday and Saturday and from noon on Tuesday and Thursday. (Check exact times with the Parish office by calling 01772 901313.)