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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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.