How my religion works

How Bahá’ís worship, how the religion is structured and who wields power

We don’t have any priests or ministers in the Bahá’í Faith. We are responsible for our own spiritual lives. Each morning when I get up I read a passage from the Bahá’í scriptures (these comprise the writings of the Báb and of Bahá’u’lláh, together with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s interpretations of his Father’s teachings. The passage can be as long or as short as I want. And I recite some of the beautiful prayers given us by the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.
During the day I’ll say one of our obligatory prayers. I’ve three to chose from: a short one to be said between noon and sunset; a medium one to be recited three times in the day; or a long prayer that is said with various prostrations and hand movements at any time in the day.
Prayer and the reading the Bahá’í scriptures is the responsibility of each individual Bahá’í. No one is going to ask us whether we’ve done these things.

Another personal responsibility is observance of the Bahá’í month of fasting from 2 to 20 March. We don’t eat or drink from sunrise to sunset during those days – but we are exempted if we’re ill or travelling or pregnant or nursing a baby.

Why do these things? It’s all about aligning our lives with what we believe to be the will of God, about reflecting on what life is about and discovering what life means. It’s about becoming a better human being and being better able to be of service. Service to others, too, is a form of worship.

Our local communities meet once every nineteen days for the Nineteen Day Feast. We worship together – no rituals, only prayers and readings and perhaps some music, and anyone can read; we discuss community business; and then we socialize, have food and drink, and deepen our fellowship with each other. These meetings can take place anywhere: a Bahá’í Centre, if there is one; a rented hall; someone’s home.

The Bahá’í community is governed by democratically elected councils – local, national and international. The local and national Spiritual Assemblies, as they are called, are elected once a year. No one stands for election; all adult Bahá’ís are eligible to serve. The Universal House of Justice, the supreme authority for the Bahá’ís of the world, is elected once every five years by the members of the National Spiritual Assemblies throughout the world.

I’m a currently a member of the UK National Spiritual Assembly and work full time as its Secretary for External Affairs. This does not make me a religious leader nor does it give me any power. But it does give me the responsibility of representing the Bahá’í community to government, parliament, the media, and civil society.

The job of the Assemblies is to empower and enable the Bahá’ís, individually or in groups, to plan activities.

Bahá’ís throughout the world are currently focusing on four kinds of activities that are open to all, regardless of whether they’re Bahá’ís or not: devotional meetings in our own homes; spiritual and moral education classes for children; classes for junior youth (12-15 year olds) and study groups where anyone can come to explore what the Bahá’í writings say about the big questions of life and death.

Becoming a Bahá’í when I was 18 was undoubtedly the most important decision I have ever taken. My whole adult life has been shaped by my faith. Every moment of every day and every action I take is guided by my faith. I pray that the moment of my passing from this world to the next will be protected by my faith.

Barney Leith has been an active Bahá’í since the mid 1960s. In 1993 he was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly of the UK Bahá’ís. Barney has been married to Erica since 1970. They have three grown-up offspring and three grandchildren.
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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.