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. Here, Simeon Mitchell reports on the Labour Party Conference.
“It’s just horrendous, there is such an atmosphere of unease,” commented one MP, as she met with the delegation of church leaders at the Labour Conference. It was a message we heard repeatedly in our meetings with politicians and their staff. The ongoing wrangling over Brexit was clearly putting parliamentarians under enormous strain, with bitter and increasingly rancorous divisions not only in parliament but also evident within the party and in interactions with members of the public, especially on social media. “There has never been a more difficult time in my experience of politics,” added another MP.
Given this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that there was a strongly pastoral dimension to many of the conversations this year. The annual delegations – of leaders from the Baptist, Methodist, and United Reformed Churches, along with representatives of the Society of Friends (Quakers) and the Salvation Army – set out to offer a Christian presence and witness at the party conferences.
After meeting the delegation, MP Kate Green wrote “Thank you for your friendship, support and encouragement.”
“I was struck most of all that we were paying a pastoral visit to public servants, for whom these are days both of challenge and vulnerability,” commented Revd Nigel Uden, Moderator of the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church. “It was a privilege to accompany them for that brief moment, and to commit to praying for all parliamentarians through this difficult season.”
The meetings also provided an opportunity to discuss issues of concern arising from the community work undertaken by churches locally, from welfare changes and asylum policy to the potential impact of a no-deal Brexit on the poorest in society. Baptist representative, Revd Diane Watts, reflected afterwards that “It was evident that the work of churches in providing foodbanks, debt advice and other expression of social justice is greatly appreciated. I was struck by the unanimous support for faith communities and, in particularly, for the work of churches in the local constituency.”
Global concerns also figured strongly. A meeting with the Shadow Minister for Peace and Disarmament, Fabian Hamilton MP, was a chance to hear about Labour’s developing thinking about nuclear disarmament, arms controls and how to marshal the UK’s military and civilian resources to “do good” in the world. The Churches’ support and advocacy for the UN Treaty for the Prohibition on Nuclear Weapons was clearly significant and valued. “Faith leaders stand up for humanity in society,” he commented, “and this instils hope in others.”
A number of the politicians were keen to encourage the churches in playing a role in promoting healthy discourse in the currently fractured political culture, through initiatives like Meet Your MP, Conversation Welcome and Citizens’ Assemblies. These meetings testified to the value of bringing different people together to listen to each other and talk about the issues that really matter, seeking the common good.