Leicester is not only a religiously diverse city but a place where faith groups and faith leaders play an unusually significant role, working with the council and playing a central part in the city’s public life. In this short commentary, John Hall, Director of the St Philip’s Centre, offers an introduction to the festivals and community work for which Leiecster is well known, but warns not to view the city through ‘rose tinted spectacles’.
This article is a response to Public Spirit’s profile of Leicester.
It was not an easy birth! It was not even a planned pregnancy! But ‘One Leicester‘ is how a proud city describes itself in 2013, as parent to the most diverse offspring of any city outside of London. But is it a beautiful baby or has some monster been born? Where else might the heady mix of religion and politics at a local level be so worth a look? For what has happened in Leicester might happen in other places too.
Before today’s ‘One Leicester’, there was a long gestation period with many threatened miscarriages on the way. When Ugandan Asians were told to leave their country within 90 days by Idi Amin they saw Leicester City Council adverts telling them their city of choice in England was ‘full up’. Political leaders in the city also made pronouncements to deter people from coming to Leicester. However, notwithstanding the deterrence, people came – in great numbers – and made Leicester home. As the present mayor Sir Peter Soulsby says, ‘The ad was gloriously counterproductive. It brought Leicester to the attention of people who had never thought of coming to the city’. Within little more than a generation, a city that once thought of itself as largely white Anglo-Saxon, was transformed for ever into, as one national newspaper headline recently described it, ‘a model of multiculturalism.’
“This is a city where, because no one faith holds the majority, there is a healthy and respectful balance of power between different faiths.”
Leicester should not be looked at through rose tinted spectacles, but critically. It has many positive features that commend it – its many different peoples by and large get along together and generally reflect an integrated society of both civic engagement and vibrant religious community life. Its religious festivals have become legendary – Diwali, centred on the Belgrave Road and led mainly by Hindus but enjoyed by all; Vaisakh, with an annual procession led by Sikhs; Iftaar, the meals hosted by Muslims but this year increasingly offered to be enjoyed by the whole community; and Christ in the Centre, an Easter piece of street drama provided by Christians in the heart of the city. Religion is so much a part of the life of this city’s citizens it is ignored at everyone’s peril. These events enjoy the support of the city council which has made a point in recent years of keeping up a lively dialogue with the city’s faith communities.
Political life in Leicester has resulted in the first Hindu woman in the country, Manjula Sood, becoming a mayor here in 2008. There have been Muslim and other faith mayor’s too. City councillors have long reflected the religious diversity of the city and brought it into the council chambers. This is a city where, because no one faith holds the majority, there is a healthy and respectful balance of power between different faiths. Religious leaders, like the current Bishop of Leicester, Rt Rev Tim Stevens, have made a major contribution toward bringing religious and political and other community leaders together to address concerns and challenges. So often have these people met to address issues that the phrase ‘an attack on one faith is an attack on all’ has almost become a byword. The city, because of size, history and local demographics, has a history of leaders working together.
Yet changes come and challenges arise which threaten the prevailing harmony. A local concern over a new worship building going up, a perceived failure in policing or incident of religious discrimination or hatred, an act of vandalism on a faith building, a rise in tensions overseas, or even the need for support for a new faith school are just some of the issues raising their heads. Add to the mix the occasional visit of the English Defence League on the one hand and radical religious speakers on the other, then one quickly realises that harmony is hard won.
In Leicester we also have the St Philip’s Centre for study and engagement in multi-faith society, which not only provides courses for religious and public authority bodies, also promotes inter-faith dialogue and engagement. For example, the highly successful Near Neighbours programme has been delivered in Leicester through the Centre. Many schools and colleges locally also take advantage of the St Philip’s Centre programme to prepare pupils for life in multi-faith society. Its School and College Roadshows taking out religious artefacts and faith practitioners on site provide a great vehicle for inter-active learning.
Leicester is a vibrant and stimulating multi-cultural city where the latest question seems to be, not ‘What are the tensions?’, but rather, ’How can we all share in the exciting re-discovery of the bones of King Richard III in a local car park?’
John Hall is Director of the St Philip’s Centre, Leicester and Bishop of Leicester’s Inter-faith Advisor. Principal for the MA course in Inter-religious Relations, his PhD from Warwick looked at discourse and race/racism. He is a Church of England minister and author of a number of booklets, notably on ‘Riot’. He has contributed to various government, religious and academic bodies.
 As noted in the profile accompanying this article, outside of London, only Slough and Luton match Leicester for ethnic and religious diversity.
 Peter Popham, ‘We’re All In This Together: How Leicester Became A Model Of Multiculturalism’, Independent on Sunday, 28 July 2013. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/were-all-in-this-together-how-leicester-became-a-model-of-multiculturalism-even-if-that-was-never-the-plan-8732691.html [accessed 31 July 2013]
 St Philip’s Centre website has a wealth of useful information: http://www.stphilipscentre.co.uk/
 Near Neighbours is a Department for Communities and Local Government funded initiative. For more information: http://www.stphilipscentre.co.uk/near-neighbours/
The image of Sikh volunteers is included courtesy of the St Philip’s Centre, Leicester.