A blog post by Solomiia Kratsylo on the first retreat of the Emerging International Leaders Programme on FoRB, 7 - 9 April 2017
On Sunday afternoon, 9 April 2017, I was waiting at Egham station for my train back to Southampton and it occurred to me that only 48 hours earlier, I had arrived at the same spot, looking forward to a study retreat in beautiful surroundings but apprehensive about the prospect of spending three days without access to all the urban facilities I’ve grown accustomed to. Now, however, my concerns seemed a distant memory and it was with a sense of reluctance that I said farewell to the friends I had made over the weekend.
Before attending the retreat, I sought out the Berkshire volume of Nikolaus Pevsner’s architectural guide to the buildings of England. Since arriving in England from Ukraine, to take up a Masters course in Transnational Studies at the University of Southampton, I have found Pevsner’s writing to be an invaluable source of background information on the many interesting places I have visited. On this occasion his entry on Cumberland Lodge was rather dismissive of its architecture, but on arriving at Cumberland Lodge I was immediately struck by the beauty of the structure and left wondering whether Pevsner was in fact something of an old curmudgeon. The suroundings are worth a mention as well, as I had the chance to indulge in some lovely morning walks in Windsor Great Park, communing with nature, cycling with fellow scholars, and watching the sunrise.
Yet, I couldn’t help reflecting on the changing nature of the Lodge’s inhabitants. Whereas, centuries ago, they might have been representatives of an imperial elite, here they were now, individuals drawn from almost every corner of the globe, as there have been for the last 70 years, since Cumberland Lodge became home to an educational foundation that facilitates friendship and co-operation between people of different backgrounds and perspectives. Observing this diverse delegation of brilliant young scholars from around the world, arguing and debating together, I was reminded afresh of the inter-connectedness of the modern age.
I was not simply looking forward to meeting other Chevening and Commonwealth scholars; I also hoped that the retreat would be one of the most intellectually stimulating aspects of my stay in the UK. This turned out to be entirely justified and every aspect of the weekend fully matched my expectations. The range of backgrounds and disciplines being pursued by the scholars who were present reflected the fact that the protection of human rights, in particular the freedom of religion or belief, is relevant to all of humanity.
I found the introductory explanation of the history of relevant legislation and institutions, such as The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), very useful, as human rights can perhaps best be approached and understood within the context of widely accepted principles.
Canon Dr Edmund Newell, the Principal of Cumberland Lodge, played a key role in circulating amongst the scholars and encouraging us to work collaboratively. The retreat programme was very well structured, with lectures following on from discussions and group work. Each session allowed me to develop a more nuanced understanding of the importance of fundamental freedoms and I was particularly impressed with the insights of the other scholars, as each brought a new dimension to my understanding, rooted in different cultures and experiences.
However, what was particularly notable was the consensus on core values that all the participants articulated. Whilst some of us approached issues of religious toleration from slightly different angles, there was a remarkable level of harmony regarding essential values.
Cumberland Lodge provided a safe space where we could discuss issues that can be difficult to explore not only in a social environment but also in a formal academic one. As a matter of fact, I found out more about the personal opinions of my fellow scholars after three days with them than I know about university course mates with whom I have taken classes every week for a whole academic year. The structure of the weekend allowed for a more personal engagement with the issues at hand than the formalised postgraduate study I am used to at university. I found that this retreat engendered a more personal approach to contemporary issues.
For many of those participating in the Emerging International Leaders programme, religious persecution is not an abstract concept, but rather one of intense personal relevance. Consequently, people spoke with a degree of passion that I have not encountered in my university seminars.
One common theme that came out of our discussions was the almost universal tendency of dictatorships to exploit and denigrate minority faith groups, which reinforced my own instinctive suspicion of secular or religious muscular ideologies, where particular views and religious codes are embedded and enforced in state policy. The case studies we examined allowed us to investigate the issues of religious freedom and toleration from a wide range of perspectives.
After each day of intellectually demanding study I reflected on the remarkable energy that had been generated and went to bed in the evening feeling that I had grown as an individual and as a human rights defender.
I felt that we were not just sitting in the comfort of the ‘bubble’ of Cumberland Lodge, trying to find solutions to the thorny issue of human rights protection in the developing world, but we also gained an understanding of how even developed countries with prospering democracies, such as the UK, struggle to find solutions to some of most pressing modern challenges. It led me to a better understanding of the global nature of challenges facing humanity.
My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of an approaching train, which brought me back to reality. I realised that it was always going to be easier to discuss things with like-minded people, but that real field work on these issues would be much harder. And here I remembered the inspiring contribution of Baroness Berridge, principal investigator for the Commonwealth Initiative for the Freedom of Religion or Belief, who spoke to us during the retreat of the need to exercise our individual responsibilities to promote tolerance and inclusiveness in our own communities.