We were having coffee at the Beans Cafe (again). There in the local free paper was this announcement of public lectures by the Association for Global New Thought, which reminded me of our initiation of lectures in the North West of England from 1993 to 2004.
Our local town of Knutsford in Cheshire, England had just established a new Civic Centre with a then-modern cinema hall. We speculated one day that this space would be ideal for public lectures similar to the Schumacher Lectures that were (and still are) run annually in Bristol by the Schumacher Society. We realised that this would only happen if someone did something about it, so we did, with a couple of local friends. Fortunately the hall was available on suitable evenings.
The first series of six ‘Knutsford Lectures’ was held, one evening per month, in the autumn/spring of 1993/4. We learned the ropes as we went, including booking the hall, arranging speakers, selling tickets, audio recording, and initially primitive publicity – hand-delivering leaflets, informing local media and developing mailing lists.
The overall series theme was ‘Visions of a New Renaissance’, which remained the theme for all our lectures. The scope of change necessary in our thinking was indeed of a magnitude that implied the need for a New Renaissance, and vision was needed to set the direction (this is even more true today). Proverb 29:18 “Without vision the people perish” seemed apposite.
Individual speakers chose their own subject within that context. We even had a logo.
Our first speaker was Rt Hon David Ennals, one-time Secretary of State for Social Services in a Labour administration, also known as Baron Ennals – although he was obviously totally disinterested in titles and had a charming personality, as indeed did most of our speakers. Ennals accepted our invitation with alacrity, subsequently explaining that he was delighted to see such an initiative, knew how hard it is to get things off the ground, so wanted to support it. Despite being obviously somewhat handicapped by the ailments of age, he gave an entertaining talk which was much appreciated. Sadly David died a couple of years later.
We eventually ran three seasons of lectures, building up a small organising committee of enthusiasts. I think Polish philosopher Henryk Skolimowski probably hit the nail on the head when he said to me that I was involved in organising the lectures because that was my process of educating myself. I hope it also helped others.
Our speakers included Jonathon Porritt, who gave us a taste of the problems organisers face, when he arrived over twenty minutes late with a ‘full house’ audience waiting. Other speakers included scientist Rupert Sheldrake, the Schumacher Society‘s own Satish Kumar, Stephan Harding from Schumacher College, and Peter Harper from the Centre for Alternative Technology. In conversation, Satish subtlely challenged us with ‘why not set up your own Schumacher Lectures?’, thus planting the seed that led us to start annual Manchester Schumacher Lectures in 1996, where Satish was our first speaker.
The Manchester events took place over a full day, with usually three speakers followed by a panel session, chaired by myself or Chris Lyons. Here we managed to attract sponsors, including the Ecology Building Society, who faithfully supported us throughout. And there was the provision of music, bookstalls, refreshments etc.
Memorable speakers included Alan Watson Featherstone, founder of Trees for Life, Patrick Holden of the Soil Association, novelist Lindsay Clarke, scientists Mae Wan Ho and Brian Goodwin, ex-bishop David Jenkins, activists George Monbiot and Ann Pettifor. Many speakers joined with the organisers in a post-event evening meal, which was usually enjoyed by all.
We also had a fair share of problems. Two well-known international ‘green’ speakers cried off late after committing to come; maybe Manchester was not prestigious enough for them. Fortunately, Herbie Girardet of the Schumacher Society was very helpful in finding late replacements. Also, two well-known UK speakers excused themselves from the agreed panel session, two others behaved in a rather ‘precious’ and demanding way, and there were often problems with the sound/AV systems. It is not always fun organising such events!
I think the stresses and strains eventually took their toll, and the energies of our committee reduced, without the renewing emergence of new blood. Eventually, after the 2004 lectures, we closed down the Manchester Schumacher Lectures, bequeathing our remaining resources to the Schumacher Society. But the spirit did not die; almost immediately new Schumacher events were set up in Leeds, and continue to this day under the banner of Schumacher North.
The need for new ideas showing up the inadequacy of current thinking is ongoing and will never die out – so there will always be the need for initiatives such as this, changing the world’s thinking one person at a time…
So, all good wishes to the organisers of such initiatives, whether run from a more religious perspective, such as the Association for Global New Thought (which I guess is part of the New Thought Movement) or from a more general spiritual or even secular perspective such as the ongoing Schumacher Lectures and the regular events held at Alternatives at St James Church in London.
PS Success of our New Renaissance lectures was dependent on the voluntary energies and good will of many people, but perhaps worth special mention are those who at different times formed the core of our organising committee: Joyce Hopewell, Annabel Burton, Chris Lyons, Mary McGregor, Joan Poulson, Mike Lowe, Esther Austin and Chris Wright.