Newcastle Sets the Pace for Millennium Preparations
01 August 1998

It was billed as a conference. It was more an experience.

It was billed as a conference. It was more an experience. More than 300 people, from many faith backgrounds and none, met in the Civic Centre of Newcastle upon Tyne, England, in June to plan for 'social and spiritual regeneration'.

The event got off to a rousing start with a virtuoso performance by Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. Eloquently and with passion, he outlined his vision of a 'republic of hope', based on five building blocks: families, communities, schools, morality and public 'shared places'.

'Social regeneration is spiritual regeneration,' he stressed, quoting the Biblical text: 'Not by power, nor by might, but by my Spirit, says God'.

'At the heart of all our faiths is the belief that there is something that we can do,' Rabbi Sacks said. 'If I can change, my world can change.' That was why morality was so vital. Equally important was having an 'internal compass' in a world where rapid change would otherwise be 'anxiety producing'.

In his view yesterday's 'religion of power' was being replaced by a 'religion of success'. Its laws included 'thou shalt not fail, thou shalt not be unemployed' and its creed was 'salvation by shopping'. Its high point was the National Lottery, and divine grace had been replaced by the secular value of luck. He looked to people of faith to emerge as a counter-culture offering more than brute strength or the ability to ride one's luck. He highlighted the increasingly serious problems being encountered by teachers in schools. Whereas in 1940 they had cited talking out of turn, chewing gum, dropping litter and running in corridors, nowadays problems included drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, rape, teenage pregnancy, robbery and assault. Of the general decline in morality, he stated, 'I have heard time and again that this process is irreversible. That is erroneous.'

The initial inspiration for the conference came from Hari Shukla, formerly Director of the Racial Equality Council of Tyne and Wear. He felt that too few Millennium plans were addressing the need for moral and spiritual values that could make the new millennium better than the old. One who responded to his vision was Bill Midgley, then Chief Executive of the Newcastle Building Society. He told the Newcastle Journal: 'Everybody else is ploughing huge amounts of money into buildings but surely it's more important to be thinking about people. We want to motivate others to give something back to society and we want Newcastle to lead the way.'

Shukla, Midgley and others formed a committee to launch the conference, not as an end in itself but as the start of a process. Indeed, all those attending the conference were asked for their ideas on how to take it further.

The three-day programme was packed with events. In addition to an array of speakers, panel discussions and workshops there were lunch-time events and public lectures. The Lord Mayor of Newcastle, Danny Marshall, received some of the conference participants in the 900-year-old keep which stands on the site of the castle from which the city takes its name.

The main subjects were 'family and education', 'faith, moral values and our children's future' and 'ethics in institutions and the environment'.

The media was one of the 'institutions' strongly represented. Film-maker Lord Puttnam, of Chariots of Fire fame, called on those who worked in the visual media to accept responsibility for what they produced. 'It is high time that those of us working in the media rediscovered that connection between what we do and the social and moral impact it carries with it,' he said.

There was an audible hush in the conference hall when journalist Graham Turner recounted his experience of paying back £1,000 of false expense claims to the BBC when he was their economics correspondent. One of the most important jobs of the media in a democracy, he said, was to be 'whistle blowers when things in public life sink below par'. This strongly suggested that 'we ought to make sure that our own whistles are clean before we start blowing'.

'The media have been captured by the tyranny of infidelity,' claimed Observer columnist Melanie Phillips, in a public lecture at Newcastle University. 'Marriage was always the main root of responsibility.' Yet 'popular culture is promoting adultery-chic wholesale. Marriage is a near universal ideal and needs buttressing by law, the state and society. Religious leaders play a part in this. So must government policy.'

The need to strengthen marriages and families was a constantly recurring theme of the conference. Janet Walker, Professor of Family Studies at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, said that, by the age of 16, 28 per cent of British children experience their parents divorcing. 'We might be less alarmed... if we could be sure that mothers, fathers and their children all lived happily ever after divorce but sadly we know this is not the reality.... Family dissolution is almost always deeply distressing for parents and their children.' She said there was a need to think 'how we can better prepare our children for life ahead by teaching them good communication skills, encouraging them to value and to work at interpersonal relations'.

Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminster, introduced the subject of business ethics by saying that all business projects should be 'evaluated by their impact on the human person'. He quoted the Pope's view that 'a company is first and foremost a community of persons who seek to satisfy their own needs and who form a particular group at the service of the whole of society'.

'Both points are key,' commented the Cardinal. 'To see an organization or institution as a community is immediately to view it from a completely different angle. Communities by their very nature recognize the priority of human relationships in a network of reciprocal moral obligations. Secondly, to see a business as a group at the service of the whole of society is to recognize... that if a business is genuinely meeting human needs by providing work and contributing to a social environment in which human dignity can develop, it is a positive and honourable vocation.'

Tim Melville-Ross, Director General of the Institute of Directors, spoke of his commitment to seeing that anyone who wanted to become a Chartered Director should subscribe to a 12-point ethical code as part of their qualification. Directors and business leaders should give a lead by being 'open, honest and diligent'. He said that the recent 150-member National Forum on Education in the Community had 'laid to rest the idea that because we were a pluralist society we had no values'. He spoke about the 'Hub Initiative' which was to create a similar forum within business.

In what some saw as an over-provocative closing address the former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, caused many laughs--sometimes at the expense of other speakers, sometimes of himself. He reviewed what he saw as positive and negative aspects of the conference. Its 'width of concerns, the very interesting grouping' of participants and the turnout of speakers--'busy people who saw its importance and relevance'--had been 'magnificent'. But there had been too much wanting 'to get back to' and 'restore' rather than what we could learn spiritually in order to go forward.

'Discipline can be rediscovered by rediscovering discipleship,' he said. The challenge was to 'be realistic about the world and the Faustian freedom we now have, which demands far more dependence on God... Should we not see what God wants to make of us and stop belly-aching about what we want to make of God?'

Conference participants have the next three years to see what they make of social and spiritual regeneration. 'It is our hope that in 2001 we can bring people back together so we can measure what has been achieved,' Bill Midgley told the Journal.
Kenneth Noble

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