In celebration of life

In his final blog entry, Jim Corrigall attempts to recapture his spiritual journey into Unitarianism

I was brought up in an anti-apartheid household in South Africa by parents of no religious faith but with strong principles. After my father died, I was sent to a church boarding school. Here I chose to be both baptised and confirmed in the Anglican faith – largely because I wanted to fit in with my peers. By the time I left school, I regarded myself as an atheist and did so for most of my adult life.

However, I studied both English literature and theology at university, and always had a great love of religious poetry. As a student in South Africa, I campaigned against apartheid, working closely with radical Christians many of whom I came to admire.

I continued with political and trade union activity throughout most of my journalistic career in Britain, but several years ago I began to wonder if there was more to life – however much I valued my family, friends and work.

I began reading widely, including religious literature. I tried one or two churches, but found them too dogmatic and literal in their interpretations of Christianity. A chance remark by a friend just over four years ago led me to the Unitarian website.

I was hugely inspired by what I read there. Here was a faith that did not demand any body of beliefs, but would allow one the chance to explore. I was not sure what I believed, not sure even that I believed in God, but I felt I wanted to allow my dormant spirituality a chance to develop. I told friends that I did not know whether I wanted to ‘worship God’, but I certainly wanted to ‘celebrate life’.

And I found in Unitarianism a group of people who welcomed me for my doubts, my scepticism and my questions. And I found I could ‘celebrate life’ in Unitarian chapels and churches – in services which seemed to follow traditional patterns, with hymns and ministerial addresses and meditations (or prayers), but which were in fact quite different – full of poetry and the wisdom of many faith traditions.

I have found a religious home which has indeed enabled me to explore my spirituality – after a period of looking at Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, I have more recently been exploring radical Christianity – including its roots in the Unitarianism of the Radical Reformation. I trust this will be a spiritual journey without end, as rightly befits a denomination without dogma.

Jim Corrigall is communications consultant to the Unitarians in Britain, a post he took up in June 2007, after 17 years as a journalist at BBC World Service. He was born and educated in South Africa, coming to Britain in 1974. He was an anti-apartheid campaigner for many years. Jim became a Unitarian four years ago, and is chair of the congregation at Golders Green Unitarians.
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There's something missing from our counter-terrorism debate

The policy reckoning that occured after the 2005 terrorist attacks did not happen after the one in 2016. 

“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department, says Wernher von Braun.” That satirical lyric about Nazi rocket scientists has come to mind more than few times watching various tech giants give testimony in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee, one of the underreported sub-plots of life at Westminster.

During their ongoing inquiry into hate crime in the United Kingdom, committee chair Yvette Cooper has found a staggering amount of hate speech being circulated freely on the largest and most profitable social media platform. Seperately, an ongoing investigation by the Times has uncovered how advertising revenue from Google and YouTube makes its way straight into the coffers of extremist groups, ranging from Islamist extremists to white supremacists and anti-Semites.

One of the many remarkable aspects of the inquiry has been the von Braunesque reaction by the movers and shakers at these tech companies. Once the ad revenue is handed out, who cares what it pays for? That’s not my department is the overwhelming message of much of the testimony.

The problem gains an added urgency now that the perpetrator of the Westminster attacks has been named as Khalid Masood, a British-born 52-year-old with a string of petty convictions across two decades from 1982 to 2002. He is of the same generation and profile as Thomas Mair, the white supremacist behind the last act of domestic terrorism on British shores, though Mair’s online radicalisation occurred on far-right websites, while Masood instead mimicked the methods of Isis attacks on the continent.  Despite that, both fitted many of the classic profiles of a “lone wolf” attack, although my colleague Amelia explains well why that term is increasingly outmoded.

One thing that some civil servants have observed is that it is relatively easy to get MPs to understand anti-terror measures based around either a form of electronic communication they use themselves – like text messaging or email, for instance – or a physical place which they might have in their own constituencies. But legislation has been sluggish in getting to grips with radicalisation online and slow at cutting off funding sources.

As I’ve written before, though there  are important differences between these two ideologies, the radicalisation journey is similar and tends to have the same staging posts: petty criminality, a drift from the fringes of respectable Internet sub-cultures to extremist websites, and finally violence.  We don’t yet know how closely Masood’s journey follows that pattern – but what is clear is that the policy rethink about British counter-terror after the July bombings in 2005 has yet to have an equivalent echo online. The success of that approach is shown in that these attacks are largely thwarted in the United Kingdom. But what needs to happen is a realisation that what happens when the rockets come down is very much the department of the world’s communication companies. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.