It is a momentous time. This year we mark the anniversary of the October revolution, which sparked on of the greatest repressions of religion and faith in history. But let us remember the inspiration for this comes from a profound misunderstanding or religion’s role within society and the words of Comrade Marx. He is famous for invoking religion as the opiate of the people, but to take this in isolation means the opposite of the point made. Religion offers us an escape route from the relentless ethos of consumerism and profit, the hard edge of soulless types of logic at the expense of spiritual and material wellbeing. This has been a frequent theme of Pope Francis, but it is present in the logic of the reformation, in the epics of Hinduism, in the Exodus story of Judaism and in the logic of the protestant reformation as it brought religion closer to the people it was always there to serve.
It is a means of community resistance in the face of the things which divide men and women from our brothers and sisters. The famous line about being the opiate is preceded by the words “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” In this sense, faith is a respite and a guiding point; even as a secular humanist myself, it is very plain it is important for us as humans to have something to live for and something to live by.
This time is also momentous because of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. The EU is intricately bound up with the ECHR, and has therefore stood as a barrier between religion and the state in a way which is positive for faith.
Article 9 ECHR – Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
2. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
We might be losing our relationship with the EU, but this ethos is one which we will preserve in Brent at all costs. All people have a right to their faith and we will protect that.
And the final part of what we celebrate today is not the rights that accompany faith, but its obligations. The golden rule that we treat others as we would wish to be treated is the foundation of the ethics, laws and spirit of faith – the beating heart of faith itself. Regardless of our own relationships with god or morality, we find ourselves bound to it, and compelled by the spirit of these ideas to carry out good works – something also represented in the Jewish term tikkun olam – the idea that we must act to heal the world. It compels us to work together and to respect each other.
I often look to the Christian socialist concept of the brotherhood of man – a notion from faith which expands beyond any individual creed. Locally in Brent and in the world more widely, we look to people of faith to provide leadership in creating a world which is just, sustainable, and better for the soul. We look to you to help us build a place where relations between faiths and ethnicities are tolerant and rich. The people of Brent expect this from leaders of faith, and in the spirit of the faith covenant, together we must make the shared commitment that they will not be let down. Thank you all for coming.