A White Poppy for Conscientious Objectors

And here’s one to mark International Conscientious Objectors Day (May 15th).

Tomorrow, May 15th, is International Conscientious Objectors Day. I’m wearing a White Poppy to mark the occasion.

It’s a day I can feel proud – of my country and of my faith group.

When, during the First World War, parliament reluctantly introduced conscription, the UK became the first country in the world to recognise the right of individuals to refuse to go to war.

Every other country had entered the war with conscript armies.

In Britain, however, there was opposition from politicians, who argued that compulsory military service would be undemocratic, and would undermine our claim to be fighting a war in the name of freedom and justice.

And from churchmen, notably Quaker MPs – like Arthur Rowntree and John Ellis – who believed the state has no right to force individuals to kill fellow human beings if this was against their faith or beliefs.

Thanks to these arguments the Military Service Act of 1916 allowed exemption, on the grounds of ‘conscientious objection to the undertaking of combatant service’.

Now, I have to admit that this clause was controversial at the time. The tribunals set up to decide individual cases, gave those who claimed this right a very hard time. And the controversy has survived for a very long time. My own father, who fought in the American Army during the Second World War, regarded ‘conscies’ as cowards and traitors.

Nevertheless the argument that Governments should respect individuals’ beliefs has won over most of the world. It’s now enshrined in the UN constitution and recognised in the laws of almost every country.

So today, I’m wearing my White Poppy with pride in both my country and in my church for showing others the way towards what I regard as a fundamental human right.


Script 60 in Each One of Us is Precious also marked International Conscientious Objectors Day but took a slightly different angle

The benefit of the doubt

Here’s a Thought for the Day I did on election day (May 7th).

So, it’s Election Day at last. I haven’t got a clue what the result’s going to be. I suspect it will be a while before we know who’s going to form the Government.
Quakers are quite comfortable with a certain amount of doubt and uncertainty. The first time I went to a Quaker meeting I was told ‘We don’t have a lot of answers – but we do try to ask the right questions’. As I’ve grown in the faith, I’ve learned that Quakers don’t claim to already know the ultimate truth – just how to set about looking for it.
And I don’t think we’re alone in this. In fact, I suspect that all worthwhile religions start with a questing attitude. Historically, one of the things that all three ‘people of the book’ – Jews, Christians and Muslims – have shared is a willingness to read their key texts critically. To find the underlying messages, they have to put the right questions to their holy books. The early Rabbis called this spiritual practice ‘Midrash’ – meaning ‘the way to seek the truth’.
I’ve recently read Karen Armstrong’s book ‘The Bible: a biography’. She argues, convincingly I think, that it wasn’t until the late 19th century that Christians – and others – began to read scriptures as word-for-word literal truth. This approach, based on certainty, has lead to unquestioning fundamentalism. We’ve seen the results in brands of Christianity that seem to teach intolerance rather than peace and humanity and also the atrocities committed in the name of religion by so-called Islamic State.
And I’m pretty clear this kind of certainty does more harm than good.


My original script finished with a paragraph about how I was prepared for a period of doubt about the result of the election if that was what it would take to get the right one. But that would have got the BBC into legal trouble,

Does religion do any good?

Good morning everyone

How does Christianity serve the community?

It’s a question many of us in faith groups across Bristol are trying to answer at the moment.

A campaigning group have asked us to fill in a questionnaire on what we’ve done for our communities over the last year. They plan to give the results from across the UK to whatever government is formed after the General Election.

There is a good story to tell. Christians have stood up to the challenges of the recession. Last year, more than twenty thousand Bristolians used food banks set up by Christian organisations like the Trussel Trust, the Matthew Tree Project and the Salvation Army.

I admire how the Salvation Army put their faith into action. Not just in relation to food poverty but also in drawing attention to – and combatting – major social problems like human trafficking.

And I think this highlights another important service done by Christians. Setting moral benchmarks.

Take the example of the Anglican Bishops last Tuesday. They issued a pastoral letter on the 2015 General Election, urging Christians to consider:

‘How we can build the kind of society which many people say they want but which is not yet being expressed in the vision of any of the parties’.

They point to the problems of loneliness in society and dare to question the need for a nuclear deterrent.

There’s been criticism of this from some quarters – mainly the right wing press. But I’d defend the Bishops for the stand they’ve taken. A big part of religion is about telling right from wrong. It seems to me that drawing attention to problems that should be addressed by Government is one of the main Christian responsibilities. And one of the most important services we can give to the community.


I was genuinely impressed with the Bishops’ letter, although I do think that Quakers in Britain’s General election 2015: a guide for Quakers is clearer and more hard hitting. You can find out more about it here.

William Penn and religious toleration

BBC Radio Bristol, 18 February 2015


I got involved in Quakers partly because of my interest in their history and I don’t think I’m the only person to find the Religious Society of Friends this way. So occasionally I use Thought for the Day as a platform to give some of the historical background to our faith.

Good morning everyone

Early on Saturday evening I turned on my car radio hoping to hear the sports results. Instead I heard about the terrorist shootings in Denmark – particularly poignant as I was just leaving one of the oldest Quaker Meeting Houses in the world. One that attracts a steady stream of visitors, particularly from the United States, because the grave of William Penn – the founder of Pennsylvania and a pioneer of religious toleration – lies in its burial ground.

Jordans Meeting House in Buckinghamshire was built in 1688. The first year that Quakers were allowed to worship together freely. A few years earlier, Charles II had given land in America to William Penn to settle a debt owed to his late father, Admiral Penn, who is buried in St Mary Redcliffe church. William saw his inheritance as a chance for his ‘Holy Experiment’ – a state based on Quaker principles.

From the beginning religious freedom would be absolute – in stark contrast to the Old World that the colonists would leave behind them. All were to be free to lead their lives as their conscience dictated. Although the basic principles were Quaker, Penn was convinced that his own sect should not dominate others. As well as Quakers, Pennsylvania attracted religious refugees from right across Europe. Not just Christian minorities – such as Huguenots, Amish, Catholics and Lutherans – but also Jews.

In line with his pacifism, Penn refused to fortify his capital, Philadelphia. Instead he made peace with the local Indian tribes in a treaty which gave them a fair deal and which the Pennsylvanians stuck to for many years.

Jordans is a quiet and peaceful place. Hearing about killings linked to religion when I turned on my radio was a rude re-entry to the outside world. A sad reminder that Penn’s experiment in toleration still offers lessons. I really hope that we shall soon start to learn them.

More than fifty shades of grey

BBC Radio Bristol, 11 February 2015


When Anna and I went to the cinema to see The Imitation Game in the week before Valentine’s Day, I noticed and the timing of an upcoming attraction.

Good morning everyone

Have you noticed that Saturday’s premiere of 50 Shades of Grey falls on Valentine’s Day?

You’ll not be surprised that I haven’t read the book. It’s not just that my inner prude is coming out more as my hair gets greyer. It’s also that as a Quaker, I know there are far more shades of grey than just 50.

If you follow the news headlines it’s very easy to get a black and white picture of the world. That people are either good guys or bad guys. But, really the world is much more subtle and complicated than that. And so are the people who live in it.

Quakers believe that there is that of God in everyone, though it can sometimes be hard to find. We make a distinction between the person and the things he or she does. We aim to ‘hate the sin but love the sinner’.

In my view people are rarely completely bad – or completely good. And even the worst people sometimes do good things. We’re all just human beings. Each of us our own shade of grey.

But what I think sets us apart from the rest of creation is that we know this. What makes us different is that as we grow up we learn that there is a difference between good and evil. All of us have the potential to go either way. Growing up is about learning to pay attention to the moral compass we all have inside which helps us recognise the difference between right and wrong.

Being human is about making choices, opting for the light rather than the darkness. And learning to live with the many shades in between.

Some of Eddy’s more recent Thoughts for the Day

I’ve decided to post some of my most recent scripts for BBC Radio Bristol’s Breakfast Time Thought for the Day. I hope they give you a flavour of what you will find in my fund-raising book Each One of Us is Precious. Incidentally, the Breakfast Show now has two presenters – Steve LeFevre and Laura Rawlings.

Thought for the day, BBC Radio Bristol, 16 January 2015


Anna and I stayed with John in Cambridge when we went to a friend’s funeral in January, just after the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris. I chatted to John a bit about what the publication is actually like, and the result a few days later was this script.

Good morning to you both

This time last week events in France were moving towards their tragic climax. I just want to say a few things about what I’ve learnt about the need to use words carefully.

Like many, I’ve felt the temptation to be swept along with the tide of support for Charlie Hebdo after the cold-blooded butchery committed in their offices. I’ve been heartened that so many different people have stood up for the right to free speech.

But that doesn’t mean I support and condone the actions of the journalists. They’ve treated the Prophet Mohammed in exactly the same way they do French politicians such as Marine La Pen – or even Christian leaders like the Pope.

They did show a lack of respect for Muslim traditions and values. I can quite understand that even a moderate Muslim, trying to find a middle ground, would have been hurt and angered by the deliberate insensitivity the magazine has shown over many years.

I’m having to choose my words very carefully here. It would be easy to give the impression that I feel the journalists brought it all upon themselves. I don’t believe that at all.

I think you know my Quaker belief that all human life is sacred means I can never see any murder as justifiable. But I do wish that the staff at Charlie Hebdo had chosen their words and images with more sensitivity.

So much of the conflict in our world today springs from the inability of the three ‘peoples of the book’ – Jews, Christians and Muslims – to focus on the enormous amount we have in common rather than the minutiae that divide us.

My worry is that by exercising their right to free speech so enthusiastically, these satirists may have unintentionally delayed the day when that can happen, when we can all live in freedom with the respect we deserve.