Monday, March 09, 2009

Gaining Faith in Twitter

Back from the Lib Dems spring conference in Harrogate, the greatest revelation for me was the use of twitter to comment on live proceedings. The 'back-channel' is the technical term for this kind of electronic muttering at the back of the room instead of paying attention to teacher. It has long been said about conferences that the main point is getting to meet people and talk to them, rather than the official speeches and whatnot. Twitter, it seems, brings some of the benefits of being able to talk, to a medium in which you are expected to sit, listen, and clap politely.

I signed up to Twitter a couple of years but didn't really see the point and didn't use it. And I still don't really - I probably won't use it again until the next conference. But during the debate on faith schools - and is this really yet another Lib Dem first? - I had to do what I could to sway the vote, and I had access probably to a handful of other delegates following the #ldconf tag.

I was energised by supporters of Amendment 3, including Vince Cable and Tim Farron, calling the original motion an attack on faith schools - which it was not - and calling for support for Amendment 3, as a "compromise". In fact the original text was a compromise - it respects parental choice of a faith school, and even allows new faith schools, but it demands of faith schools the same high standards of non-discrimination, tolerance and inclusivity, that are expected of all other taxpayer-funded schools. Extremists on both sides will argue that you can't trust the other lot to run schools at all. But that is prejudice. This position does not prejudge a school by the faith, or not, of its leadership, and is supported by a broad coalition of liberal believers and liberal atheists. This coalition is exactly the kind of initiative that is vital in today's society that is at risk of having walls go up between believers and unbelievers.

Rabbi Jonathon Romain spoke at the fringe meeting in support of this compromise, saying 
I want my children to go to a school where they can sit next to a Christian, play football in the break with a Muslim, do homework with a Hindu and walk back with an atheist - interacting with them and them getting to know what a Jewish child is like. Schools should build bridges, not erect barriers.
A Rev Chad of St Chad's (no relation) also spoke at the fringe explaining that he felt the christian ethos was about reaching out to the community, not erecting barriers to keep it out.

It is hard to credit then, the arguments for amendment 3. I suppose if somebody comes to you and says "I represent Jews, or Catholics or Hindus..., and I say this policy is an assault on our faith schools", it is difficult to disagree. But it remains the case that opinion among believers is as divided on these questions as opinion always is, and anyone claiming that a faith speaks with one voice is being a little mischeivous.

Amendment 3, then, sought to maintain selection by faith, that is in Romain's words, to erect barriers not bridges, in part 1, and in part 2, to allow discrimination in employment against senior teachers (eg a head of chemistry) who were of the wrong faith, or who suffered a crisis of faith or the failure of a marriage. Part 1 passed, thanks to the the wrong "assualt on faith schools" hyperbole - that I can't blame delegates for buying in to. Part 2 fell, thank, er, Providence.

Overall I am satisfied with the outcome. I raised this whole issue a year ago on Lib Dem Voice, at a time when many in the party blogosphere were holding pointless and destructive arguments over the existence of God and the merits of religion. And even then I thought the selection by faith issue would be too tough to crack and suggested a compromise on it. It is a shame perhaps that my compromise wasn't put to conference. It allowed selection by faith, but insisted that a declaration of faith be considered sufficient. This addressed the problem of people having to go to church under false pretences, of believers missing out because some cleric or other thinks they don't believe well enough or objects to their lifestyle/social class, etc. It reflects the fact that faith is simply not visible to somebody outside one's own head, and does not justify giving unelected clerics, or anyone else, a gatekeeper role to public services that we have already paid for through taxation.

But the win, as far as I am concerned, is this coalition of liberals. I joined the Lib Dems to make common cause with other liberals, not with (or against) other atheists. The religion and faith schools questions seemed to threaten to divide this party. Blair and Bush might be mocked and condemned for their pro-war faith, but really it doesn't matter. Non-believers can be just as hawkish. What matters is your politics. 

I hope you understood all that from my tweets.

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