BEING CHAPLAIN TO THE BEST MAYOR YET

Cllr Pete West proves… how one can be spiritual and yet still be an atheist

Cllr Pete West, Mayor of Brighton and Hove from 2016 to 2017 and the best yet

Last year something quite strange happened. I was invited by the incoming mayor of Brighton Councillor Pete West, to be his Chaplain, an honour that was totally unexpected and thrilling. And so I set out on a path, not yet ventured before in our City, to be an Interfaith Minister doing all the things a Mayor’s Chaplain does – read the prayers at full Council meetings, follow the Mayor’s progress in terms of his charities, offering support where required and conducting services for Remembrance Day and similar Civil events. It was inevitable that I encountered a wee bit of opposition — being elbowed out of Pride, after being asked to make myself available for it, and also being pushed out of a Remembrance Day service that I had written and prepared, by a minister of the Church of England; but these two incidents were only worth noting in that they illustrate the discomfort of certain parties in accepting women priests from different faiths. Both were predictable given the personalities involved. Overall the acceptance of a different style of minister was greeted with genuine appreciation and in some cases, real joy. It was unbelievably rewarding to carry out such a role, and the Mayor and Mayoress were generous and gracious beyond belief… and I knew something wonderful had happened when a leading Tory told me that he preferred the alternative prayers at Council to the usual Church of England stuff.

The Mayoress and Mayor at the Pavilion banquet, raising funds for great causes.

A record cheque of vast proportions for £94,000

And so, Pete West, our Mayor for 2016/17, proved to be a man of massive inspiration and strong convictions, capable of delivering ideas and events and fun and support for wonderful causes on a level that had never been seen in our City before. Unlike his predecessors, who opted to support four or five charities, Pete decided to support 27 and raised a record £94,000 for his beloved causes, at a time when people expected less rather than more, an achievement that should have been hailed from here to Lands’ End for its pioneering vision. There is so much to be said for those 27 Charities and their champion, and his wonderful Mayoress, Geraldine Keenan. It would take volumes to describe all the action – the events, the hilarity, the talks, the walks, the bike rides, the bravery… it is beyond me to even comprehend the scale of Pete and Geraldine’s amazing achievement.

But apart from the record £94,000 raised, Pete also made spiritual progress, the kind of progress that only an inspired atheist can achieve. He wanted a different style of Chaplaincy… He wanted all the faiths represented at Council prayers, and he got just that – representatives from the Buddhist, Unitarian, Islamic, Pagan and Jewish Communities, and in most cases the best of the best. The last two speakers – Asmat Roe and Rabbi Elli Sarah, representing the Islamic and Jewish communities, nearly brought tears to my eyes, and I think affected others in the council chamber similarly.

Leadership in a secular society doesn’t need to be exclusive – quite the opposite, it should be inclusive.  Pete’s term as Mayor was wonderfully inclusive, and even though my own group – The Interfaith Contact Group of Brighton and Hove (IFCG) was not on his list of preferred charities, our executive and members – garnered from all the faith groups in the City – have unequivocally hailed Cllr Pete West as their champion, and he will remain there, as a much-appreciated supporter for many years to come.

Thank you Pete and Geraldine.

Here are the words of my last reading as Chaplain to the Mayor to the Council of Brighton and Hove on May 18th. Hope you enjoy it:

It is in the adoration of people
That we become sacred…
It is in our hearts and minds
That spaces and places become holy
And so we open up our hearts this day
In the loving spirit of celebration
For all that is special in our City.

Let us join together to give thanks for
Those cherished edifices
And esteemed places of worship
Found in our beloved City
The churches, the mosques, the synagogues
And other places of worship and spiritual inspiration –
Meditation rooms and modest temples
That offer spiritual sustenance to so many
And let us give thanks to the Divine
That has blessed us with a home
Full of love and unexpected delights
A City coloured in diversity
And graced by some of the nation’s
Most glorious architecture
For these are all sacred gifts

Let us embrace the cosy cafes
And the outlandish oddities of Brighton and Hove
Inhale the fragrance of St Anne’s Well Gardens
Breathe in the bracing blasts of the choppy Channel
Drink in the sweet stickiness
Of a Sunday beside the sea
For these are all sacred gifts

There are so many corners
That conjure up memories of delight
Hope and joy in the minds of those alive… and departed
Loving reminiscences of optimism and romance
From the gilded glory of the Royal Pavilion
To the graciousness of the traditional tea-lounges
And however regal or cosy these might seem
They are all sacred gifts

It is the warmth and welcome
That is so much part of our place
A City of friendship that holds us all…
From the tiny tots tottering in the sun
To the students, lovers, old and young
Aunts and uncles
Refugees, actors and academics
Good people of every kind
And all of them… each and every one… sacred

We share and cherish the spirit of fun
The ticket, the part and parcel
Drink in the pleasure… the air and the sea
For this is your City, Mr Mayor
May it bless you and serve you
And may it bless and serve your successor
So that she too may carry the flag of love,
Generosity, inspiration and enthusiasm
And so gift the people of this City
With all that is good
And all that is compassionate…
In this way
We may be sure
That the sacred blessings go on and on
Throughout time and for eons to come
For we and our City are sacred