Mayor and Faith Conference 2017

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Theology student Oliver Meek writes about an important conference held at the University of Birmingham in November.

Theology student Oliver Meek writes about an important event held at the University of Birmingham in November.

The Mayor and Faith Conference 2017 saw over 400 delegates from various communities and organisations descend on the University of Birmingham’s Great Hall for a combination of presentations, discussion groups, and networking.

One of the first gatherings of its kind, the event was set up and masterminded by the Mayor and Faith Steering Group, which was joint-chaired between Professor Francis Davis, Professor of Religion, Communities and Public Policy at the University of Birmingham and Director of Policy at the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion, alongside Mr Amrick Singh Ubhi, Centre Director for the Nishkam Centre Handsworth.  Both spoke in addresses at the opening of the event, along with West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, Professor Michael Whitby, Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of Birmingham, and Vice Lord Lieutenant Dr Beverly Lindsay OBE OD reading a message from Prime Minister Theresa May.

Multiple animated table discussions later, presentations began on the four central topics that the steering group had determined for the conference: homelessness, religion and the economy, hate crime, and leadership.  To these presentations, there were responses and questions from the floor, encouraging a strong discussion of the themes and producing recommendations for the Mayor to take forward into the action plan that he promised as a product of this event.  This was part of his emphasis that the dialogue that was encouraged on the evening would only be useful if it was used and taken forward; merely paying lip service to the religious community would not be acceptable.

Another important facet of Mr Street’s vision was (and is) the inclusion of youth in public life to encourage as much integration as is possible.  Young people being valued in civic policy and having their skills utilised in a way that is malleable with the times and circumstances will incite community cohesion, leaving behind the division that is encouraged in a societal dog-fight for jobs, resources, and opportunities.  The audience were visibly impassioned by this message, and moving forward act as facilitators for this change.

It was then fascinating to observe the suggestions and more detailed responses to each evocative topic in the break-out groups, again much of the time being spent in discussion with delegates whom one had not come across before.  The hate crime session, for example, focussed on positive policy solutions with methods such as sharing small initiatives that could be replicated on a larger scale with more resources, or asking the question “what can we do better?”.  This approach created a constructive outcome to the event and built upon the collective experience of those involved- each delegate attended 2 sessions, so out of the 4 topics came as wide a breadth of expertise as logistics allowed.

Proof of how well the event enthused the audience of faith leaders need only be sought from the observation of the challenge that our compere for the evening had when trying to regain the room’s attention back from having table discussions.  There was a definite buzz and genuine engagement with the principles upon which the event was set up, and most of the delegates couldn’t wait to get onto Twitter to voice their support for the speakers and to let their communities access what was going on.

On a personal level, as a Theology and Religion student, I am constantly being asked as to whether I would like to go into ministry after university.  However, being part of such a pioneering and unifying event as the Mayor and Faith Conference 2017 all but confirmed to me that one does not need to be a religious leader to work with or around faith in a way that promotes the best aspects of religion, and dispels ignorance around what being religious actually constitutes.  Ensuring that a diverse range of religious institutions are embraced as part of the rich fabric of society can be a goal that is contributed to in many sections of the working world, from pressure groups, to policy advice, to policing and community outreach.  The greatest results from these efforts will be gleaned when they are all in synergy however, and the Mayor and Faith Conference, as Mayor Andy Street said, is surely a keystone in implementing this collaboration and interaction to take forward in shaping the collective future of the West Midlands and its communities.

Oliver Meek, Theology and Religion Student, University of Birmingham

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