Bashir Ali, an LSE undergraduate student of Anthropology, talks about his experience on the LSE Faith & Leadership Residential. Twenty five participants gathered together at The Royal Foundation of St Katherine’s for a full programme of panel discussions, leadership workshops, talks, meditation and shared meals.
Just over a week ago, as a participant on the LSE Faith & Leadership programme, I was fortunate enough to join over 20 other students, of varying faiths and none, for a weekend residential at The Royal Foundation of St. Katherine’s – an establishment founded in the 12th Century by Queen Matilda to act ‘as a centre for worship, hospitality and service’.
Okay, I say residential, and whilst that conjures up images of cottages and lakes, we could still see Canary Wharf. But that in itself made it the whole experience quite surreal; it was a hub of spiritual solace in the middle of the city.
Nonetheless, the first session of the day kicked off on just that — the City, and the avenues in which faith can and should engage with it. We had a very engaging and lively discussion with Jasvhir Singh, a practising family Barrister, and Barbara Ridpath, Director of St.Paul’s Institute spoke on the importance of personal ethical standards in the corporate world. Barbara recalled how Wall Street (and all that it stands for metaphorically) initially had noble goals, touching on how some of those goals have been lost and whether or not regulation is necessary if we can once again revive a corporate culture with a positive ethos. Jasvhir Singh shared some practical advice on how faith groups and networks can influence and impact the ethical side of high finance, relaying some of the work City Sikhs is achieving through CSR, and how other faith groups can model – or innovate – new forms of engagement that can positively improve the culture of their firm.
The second session of the day leant toward political and social engagement, with contributions from Elizabeth Oldfield, director of Theos, Michael Binyon, prominent journalist at The Times, and Stephen Timms, MP for East Ham. The session addressed religion in the public sphere, its heightened presence in the media, especially print, and the relationship between the state and various faith groups. It was very inspiring to hear their stories in such an intimate setting. Stephen Timms, whose recent travels to Bangladesh — a nation that many in the constituency maintain close ties with— led him to find constituents abroad who recognized him first! Michael Binyon OBE, who has served as The Times’ Moscow Correspondent and has interviewed Putin twice, shared some remarkable insights on how the Russian Orthodox Church was able to rise to prominence following the collapse of the Union, as well as some of his most recent work covering religion in Britain. Elizabeth Oldfield spoke on secularism and how the stigma surrounding personal faith is dissipating, and shared some research on the increasing religiosity observed in London, especially amongst youth, and how, in time, this may be a pattern that’ll emerge in other parts of the country.
The final part of the day introduced us to the President of the Buddhist Society, Dr Desmond Biddulph and his insights into the ‘Buddhist Imagination’. As well as a general history of the Buddha and his teachings, we delved a little into the origins of Buddhism in the UK. The speaker emphasised how mind without morals is not the purpose of meditation, and how the practice should not be divorced from ethics. We even stopped for three minutes to meditate, led by Biddulph— it was the first time I’ve ‘officially’ meditated and focused on my breathing. After all the wellbeing workshops I’ve missed at LSE, it left me feeling slightly guilty that this was my first ‘mindfulness’ session.
As the first day drew to a close, I remember walking into my room and instinctively feeling compelled to open the desk drawer. I don’t know why. I’ve grown accustomed to seeing the Holy Bible, but where they often seem quite incongruous, this particular Bible felt different — this was a retreat with a rich history and religious identity attached to it. In the spirit of interfaith and common understanding, I skimmed over a few pages before preparing for a night’s sleep.
Come day two, there was no time for passivity — an action-packed day it was indeed. If our first day addressed faith, then on day two it was clearly leadership’s turn. Antithetical to every concept of icebreaking, we had to, from the offset mind you, make clear exactly what our intentions were and our visions for the future. The session was led by the brilliant Ruhana Ali, an LSE Alumna and CEO of Nasiha Consulting. The highlight of the trip has to go to the ‘meaningful conversation’ challenge, where for twelve whole minutes, we were to speak to someone new about our innermost values and deepest motivations — and we did this twice! It was a very powerful lesson to take home, not least because what lasted nearly half an hour felt no more than five minutes.
The afternoon brought with it a new face, Krish Raval, Director of Faith in Leadership. We spent quite some time reflecting on leadership and attempting to define it, the correct understanding of it being crucial to the rest of the day. We went on to learn about the various temperaments that exist. I discovered that I happen to be of the phlegmatic persuasion — don’t worry, I had to google it too. The connection between leadership and the temperaments was wonderfully illustrated with Nelson Mandela — whom Krish has had the honour of meeting personally. The ideal leader is one with depth, one that transcends the temperaments and is able to exhibit characteristics of each when necessary. Up until the point about Mandela, I was quite pleased with my phlegmatic self.
I must thank each of the contributors for their immense wisdom and breadth of knowledge, but it wouldn’t have been the same without the amazing co-participants, the authentic conversations or the occasional bursts of laughter that lightened the mood — a mood, might I add, that at all times managed to maintain a serenity unlike anywhere else. Faith here was the foundation, not the footnote. I speak for myself here, but it reinvigorated everything I stand for, and for that I thank the LSE Faith Centre for what was one of the most unique and enriching experiences I’ve had to date.