Delegations of church leaders from the Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed Churches, the Quakers and the Salvation Army attended the conferences of the main political parties this autumn. Revd Beth Allison-Glenny, Public Issues Enabler for the Baptist Union, reflects on her experience at the Conservative Party Conference.
I’ve never been to a party conference before. I’ve never been a political party member, preferring not to declare a personal preference to any one party, but to ‘think – pray – vote’ for the MP who I think would serve people the best.
That being said, you probably wouldn’t describe the political views I do express publicly as very politically conservative, and so when given the choice between the different party conferences I asked to attend the Conservative party conference to satisfy my increasing sense of curiosity about our governing party. I wanted to discover how the party ‘felt’ from the inside: was it the same wrangling as the media portrays? And more than that, I was curious as to understand those MPs who were in parliament as Christians, but who had a voting record that I would critique. I wondered how those who followed the same Christ could come to such different positions to me on issues like welfare or nuclear weapons.
So I arrived in Manchester with great interest, but no clear sense of what to expect.
My overwhelming first impression was that of the security: vast numbers of police, airport style screening, large barriers and road blocks. Watching the speed with which police searched someone’s forgotten shopping bag whilst moving everyone away just outside the secure zone made me realise that this was not just procedure, but they had every expectation that this conference might not be safe.
And this continued throughout our conversations with MPs. The strain of being in parliament at the moment is clearly huge, and we heard phrases like ‘I’ve never known anything like it in 30 years’. There was a worry that adversarial politics was reaching a breaking point, with one MP suggesting that politics is no longer about convincing the other person, but rather showing those who already agree with you how wrong the other is. This entrenching of divides, rather than a desire to reach into a middle ground, is reflected in the language in parliament and in the narratives outside of it. Where people had previously been able to debate fiercely in the chamber and go the bar together afterwards, the political divides were now evidently straining relationships even inside the parties.
This was reflected too in the more personal worries: the personal security in their homes and parliamentary offices was now a key concern, in light of the threats they were receiving. Many blamed the speed of social media for making it too easy to send messages of hate. There was the frequently named fear that another MP would be hurt, or worse. For all the strains of relationships, the care the MPs had for those receiving the worst of this abuse was evident, regardless of what they thought of each others’ politics.
Which brings me to the second question I had in the back of my head: how could Christian MPs follow the same Christ and have such different approaches to society? The answer I came to, as we heard about people’s life of faith and politics, was not so much an explanation, but simply the reminder that they did all start from the same faith. They started from the same Jesus. They may at times prioritise different parts of Scripture, or come to different conclusions on the best way to reach the same end, but there was a clear integrity to the different positions. Positions we could sometimes challenge, positions we could listen to and learn from, but positions that came second to the person of Jesus.
I couldn’t un-church these MPs for their politics. I had to acknowledge it was the same God calling them in their lives as in mine. It was a humbling reminder that I may also be wrong.
It’s also the key hope I took away from the conversations we had. Whenever we asked what the church might do to help the divisions, politicians returned to the language of loving our neighbours whether or not we agreed with them; being magnanimous if you felt you had the political victory, and recognising the important role of democracy if you did not. The MPs returned continuously to the idea that the church was a place (one of the only places) which bridged the different political and social divides in our society, enabling people to connect with each other on a level playing field, recognising our mutual humanity and learning from each other even as we disagree.
In a time when politicians are risking their life and safety to be in public office, we were reminded that church was one of the few places MPs were invited without an agenda or any expectation of some sort of transaction. It is one of the only spaces left that they would be asked how they were and receive care. So if you do one thing as a result of reading this blog, it could be to send a message to your MP simply to check in on them, to let them know you are praying for them, and to offer them the hospitality and welcome of church. If you want to go further, then our Meet Your MP resources provide a guide to arranging a meeting and conversation. You don’t have to agree with them; it’s about modelling a different way of being in a time when the country is feeling fraught and fractured. Perfect love casts out fear.
There was something more too: we were reminded that when the people of God are in despair, God leads them. One MP asked us to preach from Habakkuk, and so I sign off with these words:
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Saviour.
The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.