This morning I was privileged to be given an opening address to the South East England Faiths Forum, an organisation which exists to promote inter-faith understanding and active involvement in the local community and who were meeting at Worth Abbey. As an agnostic, it could have been a peculiar situation to find myself in and yet Crawley has a long history of inter-faith working and the contributions of local faith communities to the social and cultural life of the town has been significant and worthy of recognition.
I’d like to welcome you all today to Worth, one of the Parishes upon which Crawley was built, although we are in fact technically situated just outside of the town.
The Venerable Bede tells us that Sussex was the last of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to be converted from what was then regarded to be Paganism, back in the Sixth Century, and that their finding faith resulted in the end of a period of drought and famine which had plagued the land. Probably the earliest local example we have of matters of Faith overlapping with matters of State.
While Crawley has a number of old churches, including the Saxon church of St Nicholas in Worth and Ifield’s Grade I listed Friend’s Meeting House, the town as it exists today began seven decades ago this year, with the founding of the New Town.
Central to the idea of New Towns was the notion that effective planning could create strong communities, with the town being built around self-contained neighbourhoods. Each neighbourhood would have its own shopping facilities, community facilities and religious facilities.
At first this meant churches, beginning with St Paul’s Methodist Church in my ward, but as the New Town grew so did our diversity and new places of worship developed: mosques, temples, gurdwaras and meeting halls. As each faith establishes itself, it adds to the religious and cultural life of our community. Sometimes migration has been less about the introduction of a new faith than the re-invigoration of an existing one, as we have seen with populations of younger Eastern European residents boosting the congregations of our Catholic churches.
It is worth noting that while Crawley has no synagogue, due to the very small size of the town’s Jewish population and despite land having been set aside for one by the Crawley Development Corporation, the Jewish tradition of Tzedakah can be seen in the form of the Montefiore Institute in Three Bridges, a 19th century building given to the nascent community by the Montefiore Sephardic Jewish family who owned one of the area’s large estates.
Faith has and does play an important role in the life of our community from overt forms of worship and celebration to informing the behaviours of their adherents in the way they live their lives. It is no coincidence that many of those most involved in the community and charitable endeavours of our town are those same faces most often found in the attendees of our various places of worship.
Beyond that, there is an important role for all our faiths in enhancing the wellbeing of local residents, in helping them to find better ways to live their lives.
In reading one of the books of a former Abbott of Worth, I came across a word I hadn’t encountered before ‘acedia’ the neglect of one’s inner spiritual life. Well, I’m an agnostic and yet we know from increasing amounts of research the importance of this inner life, often referred to in the context of mindfulness, in enabling people to live healthier and happier lives. This is a role religions have played for millennia and there is enormous social good them to continue doing so today, helping people to meet their inner spiritual needs and contribute to the life of their community.
Between the faiths in Crawley there have been efforts to promote inter-religious dialogue since the 1980s, most ably now undertaken by our Interfaith Network. One needs no lesson in history to understand the importance of such work in promoting community cohesion, an area where I’m pleased to say we’ve had a high degree of success in Crawley.
Just as a new start can offer an individual a chance to find a better way of life, as a New Town we have tried and succeeded at finding better ways for all our faiths to live together.
So, I’d like to welcome you again to our area and to wish you a successful conference.