Many Social Spaces under One Roof: Taking Part in the “Cambridge Conversations”

Barney Leith, one of the faculty for the Wilmette Institute’s course on Social Action and Public Discourse, and a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United Kingdom, was invited to speak on “Toward the Common Good” at the third round of the “Cambridge Conversations,” held in Cambridge in November 2012. The invitation was an opportunity to participate in public discourse on an issue of vital importance to the well-being of humanity. The format of the event provided a variety of social spaces in which to interact with a variety of individuals on a variety of topics related to the conference. That the meeting took place in Cambridge was especially meaningful to Barney, as he first encountered the Faith there in 1965 and declared his faith in February 1966. Here is Barney’s report on the Cambridge Conversations.

The spaces in which we can participate in the discourses of society are many and varied. Sometimes a single event can offer us a multiplicity of different spaces under one roof.

Such was the case at a recent event at the University of Cambridge’s Emmanuel College.

The Cambridge Conversations were launched in February 2012 with the aim of providing a politically nonaligned space where public-policy issues arising out of the reshaping of British society as a result of the UK government’s “Big Society” initiative can be discussed in a way that is both intellectually rigorous and practically applicable. (Prime Minister David Cameron introduced the phrase “The Big Society” to indicate a claimed reduction in central government’s involvement in local affairs and to encourage the voluntary and community sector to take more responsibility for the delivery of a range of public services.)

The conversations are hosted by the University of Cambridge’s Emmanuel College; they are sponsored by the Anglican Diocese of Ely and by the East of England Faiths Council (EEFC), a regional interfaith organization that supports faith communities in their engagement with public policy issues.

Jenny Kartupelis, EEFC Chief Executive, whom I have known and collaborated with for a number of years, invited me to speak on November 17 in a “debate” at the third round of the Cambridge Conversations on the subject of “Towards the Common Good.” The theme had arisen during the first two rounds of the Conversations, and participants had requested an opportunity to discuss the concept in greater depth.

Social Space: Tea and Cake

The Conversations are structured to provide varied opportunities for interaction with other participants. As people arrived, informal conversations began over tea and cake. This was a time to introduce oneself and to answer the inevitable questions: Where do you live? What do you do? Whom do you represent?

I made sure to tell my interlocutors that I was a member of the national governing council of the UK Bahá’í community (I usually use these terms, since people can misunderstand the phrase “National Spiritual Assembly”).

I also told them that I am the Chairman of Trustees of the Faith Based Regeneration Network (FbRN), a UK-wide network that supports organizations and individuals involved in faith-based social action, including those who work for faith-based nonprofit organizations and those who, inspired by their faith, work for secular social action nonprofits.

This information establishes my bona fides as a speaker and interlocutor on the topic of social action and, on this occasion, on the subject of “the common good.”

Among those I met during this informal tea-time chat was Lord Richard Wilson. Having been Master of Emmanuel College until earlier this year, Lord Wilson is now Deputy Master. Previously he had been Secretary of the Cabinet and Head of the Home Civil Service from January 1998 until September 2002. (There is no more senior position in the British Civil Service, which is entirely nonpolitical—in theory at least.) Lord Wilson would chair the “debate” later on.

Social Space: “Speed-Dating”

After an introduction to the formal part of the afternoon by Jenny Kartupelis, the Right Reverend Dr. David Thomson, Bishop of Huntingdon, introduced a period of “semi-structured networking,” which he likened to speed-dating. We were given four six- or seven-minute periods in which to find someone we did not know and to have a conversation with them. 

My first conversation was with Carolin Göhler, CEO of Cambridge Past Present and Future, a civic society concerned with preserving Cambridge history and heritage and also with ensuring that Cambridge is sustainable and community friendly. She was interested in hearing about the Bahá’í Faith and about FbRN.

Next I conversed with Claire Lea, who is in charge of donor relations for Romsey Mill, a Christian charity working with children and young people in a deprived area of Cambridge. Because Romsey Mill seemed to be exactly the kind of faith-based organization that would be a good match for FbRN membership, I gave her details about the FbRN website. I also spoke to her about the Bahá’í Faith.

I then moved on to Councillor Peter Moakes, Leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council, based in Ely. He was a bit “funny” about the Faith, saying he was OK with that being my faith, but he was a Christian. He told me about East Cambridgeshire, which has only two towns of any significance, Ely and Soham. Most of the district is made up of relatively small villages. One of his interests/concerns was building community. The villages were communities, but pubs, post offices and village primary schools—all centers of community—were closing.

My final conversation was with David Thomson, the Bishop of Huntingdon. He actually sought me out. We found much to agree on at the level of faith and theology about the common good, speaking about the connection of all things and about where we would draw the boundary around those who enrich our lives. For example, would we exclude the fetus in the womb or the person with dementia? We agreed that we would not draw a boundary at all, that from “God’s eye view” all are members of His family.

Social Space: Updates

The “speed dating” was followed by a series of ten-minute updates on various local social-action and conservation projects. This was a space in which I had nothing to contribute.

Social Space: “Debate”

After the brief updates came the “debate.” It was not a debate in the sense of speeches proposing and opposing a motion. Rather, it consisted of four short speeches, followed by discussion from the floor.

Lord Richard Wilson. Lord Wilson spoke first. When he had been in the Economic Secretariat in the Cabinet Office from 1987–90—Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister—he had drafted a speech for Mrs. Thatcher. As she reviewed the speech, she came across the word “society,” exclaimed, and struck it out. She then went through the rest of the speech deleting the word “society” wherever it occurred.

“Society,” Mrs. Thatcher had said, was too abstract a term; it did not indicate who would actually get things done. Lord Wilson then wondered how one could generate the power and energy in people to get things done. Central government, he said, took on too much and tried to do things it could not actually do.

Despite the talk of localism (part of the government’s “Big Society” agenda), central government had leached the power from town halls and had effectively made them agents of central government. But central government could only impose generalized solutions to problems facing local communities. What was needed was to find ways of tapping into the energy of communities—which is undoubtedly there.

Self-interest, Lord Wilson continued, unfortunately gets in the way of arriving at the most effective decisions. We have legitimate differences of opinion about what is the common good, but people will almost always start by considering what they see as their self-interest. Furthermore, humans tend to gravitate toward disagreement, a tendency that is encouraged by the media. Why is this? There is a lot of common ground. How do we get people to move onto the common ground?

If we are to agree on the common good, organizations must face the truth and tell the truth —something they are often unwilling to do—but at a pace at which people are able to accept and when they are ready for it. Timeliness is crucial.

And we need to get people to recognize their own power to things and get things done.

Robin Millar. After Lord Wilson, Robin Millar of the Centre for Social Justice spoke, setting out what he considered to be necessary for “the common good.” He made three points:

1.  Policy comes as an intermediary between philosophy and action. The common good may be more a philosophical concept but its outworkings are part of everyday life. It is important to keep a focus on the Common Good running through a whole project.

2.  Fairness—some people think poor “deserve it”—a moral underclass.  Some think redistribution of wealth is the answer. Some think we must remove exclusion of some individuals—the “social inclusion discourse.”

Politics and business have let us down on addressing the common good.  Are they themselves a “moral underclass”?

3. The ontology of the Western world leads us to attribute values to things we can measure and see, such as money.  We need to bring a different approach to values back into the conversation.

Barney Leith. My turn came next. My key points were these:

The oneness of humankind is the foundation for the common good.

  1. The interconnectedness of all people and things is the basis for human flourishing.
  2. To achieve the common good, all human beings must powerfully sustain one another. (I quoted ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s words on the matter from the first extract in Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá).
  3. Justice is the foundation for a peaceful world.

I used (in an abbreviated form) the example of the Seva Mandir (“Service Temple”), as researched by the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity, as a social action project in India that makes it clear that it works for the common good and whose philosophy is overtly based on oneness and integration.

I concluded by saying that Seva Mandir is not a Bahá’í organization, but it exemplifies in its philosophy and practice key principles and values that are crucial elements in the Bahá’í teachings and which underpin what I, as a Bahá’í, would understand to be “the common good”:

  • unity in diversity
  • justice
  • the interconnectedness of “the world-tree” (to use ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s phrase)
  • human solidarity and the need for us all to powerfully sustain one another
  • spirituality, which concerns collective well-being, not just individual well-being
  • the importance of love, unity, and trustworthiness in all that we do
  • the alignment of means and ends—if the phrase “the common good” is not to be merely empty rhetoric, the way we work with our fellow human beings for the common good says as much as the words we use.

Andreas Whittam-Smith. The final speech was by Andreas Whittam-Smith, thinker, founding editor of The Independent, one of the UK’s major serious newspapers, and commentator on public issues. He used the occasion to speak about Democracy 2015, his proposal that the next general election be a time for ordinary people to reclaim politics from the party elites by seeking the participation of the public in an inclusive policy-making process to decide on a popular manifesto for government. He wants “nonpoliticians” to stand for parliament in 2015 and to serve for only one term, so they do not spend their political time and energy seeking to be re-elected.

The speeches presented a rather curious, unsystematic, mixture of ideas. On the one hand, Lord Wilson’s presentation was very good, focusing on the practical application of principles in a political setting. Whittam-Smith, on the other hand, was promoting an idea that applies purely to the UK parliamentary system, sounds good on the face of it, but would seem to have a range of problems.

Social Space: Discussion

General discussion followed the speeches. Some very good points were made from the floor, but relatively few were about the principles that underpin our understanding of what constitutes the common good and how we bring it about. In the end, the participants discussed, even if a bit haphazardly, some aspects of the common good, an issue that is part of a number of issues being considered in discussions about how British society can be reshaped.


It was good to have the opportunity to participate in these social-spaces-within-a-social-space and to contribute formally to the discourse on the common good and informally to the conversations in most of the other spaces that the occasion provided. In such circumstances one has to be fairly nimble in one’s thinking and utterance, shaping what one says to the conversation that is actually going on while remembering the purpose of one’s engagement in these conversations.

In fact, it may be more accurate to say “purposes,” since any social encounter is multidimensional: one is initiating or reinforcing a relationship within which one takes care to hear what one’s interlocutor is actually saying, assessing his or her positions on a range of issues, responding in a way that allows Bahá’í principles to be heard, but not attempting to thrust ideas on the other person. One might see this as a kind of dance of mutual interchange and, one hopes, mutual respect. And it is important not to allow the conversation to become trivial or conflictual.

In such a social encounter it is important to bear in mind the warning given by the Universal House of Justice in its message to the Bahá’ís of the World at Ridván 2010:

It will be important for all to recognize that the value of engaging in social action and public discourse is not to be judged by the ability to bring enrollments. Though endeavors in these two areas of activity may well effect an increase in the size of the Bahá’í community, they are not undertaken for this purpose. Sincerity in this respect is an imperative.

I hope that those I encountered and those with whom I conversed on November 17 will have gained a positive impression of the Bahá’í Faith and an understanding of some of its principles.