In a guest blog, Rev Bryan Kerr explores his experience of leading hustings events during elections.
It was during an interview, as Tony Blair was answering a question on his faith, that his former director of strategy and communications Alastair Campbell, interrupted and quipped, “We don’t do God”. Conversely, there are some people in churches say that take the opposite line and tell people “We don’t do politics”.
As with much of Scotland, the political landscape within our area has shifted in recent years. With a parish in the rural part of Lanarkshire it used to be said, with only a hint of a smile, that the returning officer weighed the votes for one party rather than counted them. Our Westminster constituency is now the closest three party race in the Scotland, as only 0.7% separated the SNP, Conservatives and Labour candidates in the 2017 General Election.
That is one of the many reasons that I feel it is vital that our churches do indeed ‘do’ politics. If we reflect on the story of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament there are countless encounters between Jesus and the ruling parties of his time. Jesus challenges a new world order where the first shall be last and the last shall be first. He challenges his followers to care for the poorest amongst us, to stand alongside the marginalised, to feed the hungry, give rest to the weary, and care for the prisoner. Such was the fear of those who held power at the time that they plotted to bring Jesus down, to eradicate the threat of him spreading what they viewed as dangerous and unsettling views.
The centuries may have passed but the challenge of Jesus is still as relevant as it ever was. We only have to open a newspaper, switch on the TV or radio, or refresh an app to be confronted with situations and stories that remind us that the Kingdom of which Jesus spoke is still some way off.
We have a responsibility and calling as people of faith to work for a better society. We can all make changes in our own homes and practices but real change is effected when those we elect have the ability to listen to our views, our hopes and our fears and are able to bring them to mind as they vote on legislation. Creating those spaces for our views to be heard in a constructive and positive manner is, in my opinion, one of the ways in which the church can indeed ‘do’ politics.
Over the last ten years in the community in which I minister I have had the privilege, responsibility and daunting task of chairing a hustings meeting for every election that has taken place for the local authority, Scottish Parliament and Westminster constituencies. Prior to the churches in our community getting involved in the events, the local community council ran them under the banner ‘Greetin’ meeting’*. They were well attended but could, on occasion, be fractious and heated. A decade ago I asked the Community Council if the churches could get involved in providing a space for the events to be held in the hope that the narrative could change from ‘greeting’ about things to ‘talking’ about issues. I was invited to chair the meeting and have done so at each election since.
A hustings meeting allows the community to hear directly from the candidates seeking election. With a range of questions on different topics, my role as chair is to ensure that everyone is heard and there is a balance between party activists and those in the community who have no formal political party allegiance. At the start of each event I ask those who are members of political parties to raise their hands and indicate to me in order that I can seek to ensure that our event does not simply become party members asking ‘helpful’ questions to their candidate.
With the availability of technology we have the capacity to ensure that our hustings meeting is broadcast live on the church website as well as providing a ‘watch again’ service for those unable to attend in person at the time of the event. This ensures that a wide range of people such as parents of young children, the housebound, those in hospital, those in outlying areas can engage with the politicians with the ability to email questions before and during the event.
Chairing a hustings event can be daunting, however my experience is that the candidates find it even more so. They are not given prior knowledge of the questions and all are invited to answer each question. Candidates are asked to be respectful of one another in both spoken and body language and those in the audience are issued with the same request. There is always space for robust debate and disagreement but never any space for name calling.
The involvement of our church in these elections has enabled us to grow positive and strong relationships with both the successful and unsuccessful candidates. As a congregation we have an ongoing relationship with those who are elected to ensure that hear the voice of the church and perhaps act upon it when they feel able.
As a congregation we remember our politicians in prayer and will send messages when we see our politicians are going through difficult periods with legislation and debate. The hustings event is an evening of a successful candidate’s journey into a parliamentary term, but it is only the beginning of a positive relationship between the parliamentarian and the church that last many years.
Rev Bryan Kerr is Minister at Greyfriars Parish Church, Lanark, a congregation of the Church of Scotland. He is involved in the Church of Scotland at a national level in various capacities, including as
convenor of the Rural Strategy Team which south to affirm, support and equip rural churches for the vital work they do around Scotland.
*In Scotland, ‘Greeting’ as a slang word can mean both to welcome someone, and to cry.