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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If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood