Living with difference, demonstrating tolerance and respect for those with different views is surely a major challenge for our time. Our shortcomings in those areas call on us to be clearer about shared values

The Grenfell Tower fire, and the various responses it evoked from residents, local and central government, faith groups, lawyers and the media, as well as members of the public, spoke of divided communities, of poor quality social housing, of voices concerned about safety which had gone unheard, and of an absence of confidence among some that the official inquiry would get to the bottom of the matter. Yet the responses also demonstrated the values of compassion, hospitality and generosity from many who, appalled by the disaster and what it seemed to represent, were witnessing to their common humanity with the victims.

Located in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, one of the wealthiest local authorities in the country with the highest gap between rich and poor anywhere, Grenfell Tower was populated by poorer, mainly ethnic minority residents. The building had a large number of Muslim occupants. If it had not been Ramadan, it is thought that there would have been even more than the 80 or so who lost their lives. Living in the tower were families from Moroccan and Somali backgrounds. At least one of the dead was a Syrian refugee. Many of the tenants did not speak English as a first language. The uncertain immigration status of a number of residents means that the final death toll will almost certainly be an estimate.

Grenfell Tower reflected in microcosm the diversity and mobility of 21st century Britain as well as the fears and anxieties of the present. In times of change, especially during this period of economic and political instability, our values even if they are deeply rooted are also necessarily continually reinterpreted.

Driven significantly by migration, the resulting uncertainties about national identity, cohesion and community can lead to over-simplistic judgments, especially about the negative impact of such changes. These in turn may fuel anxieties about immigration and fear of ‘the other’ that need to be addressed. The position is complicated by the growth of fanaticism, by a suspicion that religion is at the root of society’s ills and by a denial of the legitimacy of non-religious approaches to life. The rise of Islamophobia and anti-semitism are manifestations of hatred and intolerance which are manifest in the public square and in the academy.

There is therefore a huge task to address in the context of ever-increasing diversity, the mobility of people and the spread of ideas through modern communications technology about how it is possible to demonstrate the essential human dignity and equality of all human beings irrespective of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion or ability. Living with difference, demonstrating tolerance and respect for those with different views is surely a major challenge for our time. Our shortcomings in those areas call on us to be clearer about shared values.

Could a new Magna Carta help seal divisions?

In 2015, the Commission on Religion and Public Life published its report Living with Difference: Community, Diversity and the Common Good. Chaired by former President of the Family Division and crossbencher, Baroness Butler-Sloss, the Commission had been set up ‘to consider the place and role of religion and belief in contemporary Britain and the significance of emerging trends and identities’, and ‘to make recommendations for public life and policy’. The Commission was not a government initiative but a private venture by the Woolf Foundation, situated in Cambridge, which is dedicated to the study of interfaith relations.

The Commission called for a national conversation: ‘At a time when so much is dominated by the sole value of individual choice, faith leaders and other opinion leaders need to initiate discussions on the values, political and personal, they have in common with each other and with the humanist values of the Enlightenment. A national conversation should be launched across the UK by leaders of faith communities and opinion leaders in other ethical traditions to create a shared understanding of the fundamental values underlying public life. It would take place at all levels and in all regions. The outcome might well be, within the tradition of Magna Carta and other such declarations of rights over the centuries, a statement of principles to guide the development and evaluation of policies relating to the common good.’

The calls for such a conversation have been echoed elsewhere. Last year the Review into Opportunity and Integration led by Louise Casey called for one, as did the Archbishop of Canterbury in a debate he initiated in the House of Lords last December calling attention to the shared values underpinning our national life and their role in shaping public policy priorities.

Taking up the challenge: the Temple project

A small group of us in the Temple, in the Temple Church and at King’s College London are trying to take up the challenge laid down by the Woolf Commission. Baroness Butler-Sloss is chairing the group which includes the Master of the Temple, Robin Griffith-Jones, a former Chairman of the Bar, Stephen Hockman QC, Sir Bernard Rix and Mark Hill QC. Our principal colleagues at KCL are Professor Maleiha Malik (Faculty of Law) and Dr Daniel DeHanas (Faculty of Theology). A generous grant from KCL and support from the Temple Church has enabled us to undertake a preliminary round of discussions to enable us to develop a bid, for submission by the end of this year, for a significant grant from the government’s research funds for a full, three-year study.

Our written output is unlikely to include a single new Magna Carta. We will be pleased if we can help local communities all over the country to generate Mini Cartas of their own, statements of their own hopes for their own locality. To that end our task may become the preparation of a template which can be adapted and adopted in divergent contexts. Whatever we do will be of greater value if government and other agencies support its dissemination and use. We therefore plan to reach out to the Department for Education, Department for Communities and Local Government and the Home Office. As a first step towards making representations to parliamentarians in both Houses, we also plan to submit evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement which will be reporting before the end of March 2018.

Our first consultation meeting in the Temple brought together former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, Baroness Warsi, bishops, theologians, lawyers and representatives of several faith groups. Igor Judge gave a valuable historical perspective taking us back to the last war, to Edmund Burke (of Middle Temple) and to Magna Carta and to the turmoil that has affected us in the past, far more dangerous than anything we face now. Further meetings have been held in London’s East End and in Leeds. A meeting hosted by the Centre for Law and Religion at Cardiff University is being planned for the autumn and the results of the initial phase of work will be presented before the end of the year at Middle Temple.

We have already absorbed much from the initial consultations. Some of it comes as no surprise. There is obvious and deep fragmentation, between communities separated by background, culture, education, wealth and aspiration; between local communities and local authorities in local and central government that shape so much of their lives, as the Grenfell Tower fire has tragically shown; and simply in isolation, in the absence of any clear community at all. Extraordinary work is being done by agencies, not least by churches, synagogues and mosques, but their people can feel unacknowledged and unsupported, as well as beset by a range of problems that they can barely describe let alone resolve.

We are steadily refining the scope of the project. We had always expected to work locally and we hope to tap into and fortify the local energies already committed to local concerns, personally important and passionately felt. Styles of facilitated and immersive conversation, now tried and tested, can give people a far greater confidence than they have had before to declare, define and realise their hopes and to address their cares. We are likely to focus on forward-looking, aspirational ideals rather than on typically retrospective narratives. We will ask in every such conversation: What will make this particular community the best it can be?

Our hope is that the Temple Church will be a natural and effective hub for the whole project. Society’s fragmentation is of natural concern to any church, in particular within the established, national Church of England. Meanwhile the law is, arguably, the most important and secure agent for cohesion that we have: all are under its power and protection. We hope therefore that some members of the Inns of Court will also see just how important their own skills might become for us. We shall need all the help we can get to ensure that voices are genuinely heard and respected, and not neglected. Practitioners trained to deal with victims and vulnerable witnesses, or to conduct mediation, could add immense value to the project.

To ensure we have a genuinely national conversation about promoting cohesion around the common good, we need to reach beyond the normal constituency of concerned, benevolent professionals. Our particular challenge is to connect with those who feel alienated from Britain’s political and cultural elite, who frankly feel disengaged and disempowered. Unless their voices are heard, the values and freedoms we prize, the rule of law and our democratic way of life, could well seem illusory.