Stephanie Eaton, the sole Lib Dem councillor in Tower Hamlets, and probably the borough’s deepest thinker (ok,ok, I know it’s not a high bar..), has this to say on the Community Faith Buildings Scheme:
Thanks for offering me a chance to comment on the Mayor’s decision to allocate £595,000 to the improvement of faith buildings in the Borough. I’m going to come at this topic in a slightly oblique way but I hope you’ll see the point I’m making.
In Perth, Western Australia, where I was born, the Swan River holds great significance to the Noongar aboriginal people. The water is sacred because a dreamtime spirit in the form of a snake called the Waugal created the river on its journey to the sea.
The Swan River is ‘sacred’ for me too, but not in the same way that it is for the Noongar. For me, a non-believer and member of no church, I feel a similar sense of attachment to faith buildings in Tower Hamlets, and that’s why I support the policy of the Council contributing to their upkeep.
Of course, all Council spending has to be justified, and especially so when there are reductions in government grant. Last year Tower Hamlets Council had a reduction of 7% of its net revenue budget. But even after cuts we are a Council that spends £1,327 million per year. This year, we are increasing the level of general reserves by £11.7 million to £38.1 million. Unlike some other Councils, Tower Hamlets Council’s finances are in good shape. However £595,000 is a significant amount and could be spent in other ways. Some people will think that it should be spent elsewhere – because to spend it on faith buildings is to privilege religious groups at the expense of others.
To my knowledge there are no places that are “atheist only” in the Borough. But as an atheist, I have enjoyed concerts in St Leonard’s Church, discussed books in the lovely Nelson Street synagogue, seen history exhibitions in the London Muslim Centre. I love hearing the bells ringing out from St Anne’s Limehouse and am moved by the annual service to remember the victims of the Bethnal Green tube disaster at St John’s Church. Like many residents, religious and otherwise, I also sit in Museum gardens, use the Idea Stores, cycle around Victoria Park, and go to events at York Hall. All of these places have been developed with public funding and are supported by Tower Hamlets Council. Secular buildings and spaces that are welcoming to all enrich our Borough. Religious buildings can do so as well. I appreciate that not everyone wants to visit a church, mosque, synagogue or temple. I will never use the Mile End skate park but I’m happy for it to be there and to make my contribution to its costs.
Places and buildings are important to different people for different reasons. I do not believe the Waugal lives in the Swan River. But the river is a mystical place for me in my own way. There are faith buildings and secular buildings in Tower Hamlets that are special or sacred for one person or another. I think it’s good that the Council helps to preserve and enhance faith buildings as it does secular buildings and places. To do otherwise would be to deprive us all.
It would make a good Church sermon, this.