Simeon Mitchell reports on a church leaders delegation to the Liberal Democrat conference.
“It’s a party full of real individuals,” commented a seasoned colleague when I imparted the news that I would be accompanying a delegation of Free Church leaders to the Liberal Democrat Party Conference this month. Browsing the fringe programme before arriving in Brighton, the array of concerns represented was certainly broad and eclectic, from mental health to land tax, electoral reform to air pollution.
However, around the conference hall – and in the media’s reporting of the event – a single topic of discussion dominated, which was Brexit. The Liberal Democrats have taken a firm stance against Britain leaving the European Union, and the unity and passion of members on this issue was clear.
It was perhaps apt then that the delegation began their day at the conference by listening to former party leader Tim Farron speak powerfully about forgiveness, at the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum Prayer Breakfast. He challenged people to think about what it might mean to follow Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” in a fractured political culture. No-one mentioned ‘Leavers’, but they didn’t need to.
The church leaders, who came from the URC, Methodist and Baptist Churches, the Salvation Army and the Quakers, then had a series of meetings with six Lib Dem MPs (half of the parliamentary party) and a similar number of Members of the House of Lords. They also joined in with some fringe events and were able to observe some of the speeches in the conference hall.
The church leaders meeting Tim Farron MP
The purpose of the delegation was to offer a Christian presence and witness at the conference. It was also an opportunity to share issues of concern to our Churches, and to listen and learn from those who are engaged in the world of politics. One delegation member, Revd David Mayne, Lead Pastor of Shoeburyness & Thorpe Bay Baptist Church and Moderator of the Baptist Union Council, describes it as “Part lobbying, part ecumenical working group, part chaplaincy.”
This meant that each meeting was very different. Some of the politicians were keen to have a debate about policy matters, whereas others welcomed the pastoral opportunity to reflect on their experience of being in political life, and offered topics for prayer. We discussed a wide range of issues. Church leaders were able to raise the concerns that Churches have about current welfare reform and immigration policies, among other topics.
“It was a privilege to spend time with public servants, both MPs and Peers, who were open to our conversation and questions and willing to share their own concerns around Universal Credit and the ‘hostile environment’,” commented Revd Michaela Youngson, President of the Methodist Conference and Chair of the London Methodist District.
“We were able to assure the politicians of the prayers of the churches as well as our commitment to work in partnership with decision makers, locally and nationally, particular in responding to the needs of the most vulnerable in society.”
Excellent to meet with these church leaders. But yet another group seeing first hand the negative impact of a rushed #universalcredit roll out. We need to change this and make sure universal credit doesn’t mean hunger https://t.co/5QbYer2QCP
— Jamie Stone MP (@Jamie4North) September 17, 2018
It was a first experience of a party conference for Revd Nicola Furley-Smith, Moderator of the Southern Synod of the United Reformed Church. She commented, “I felt both encouraged and privileged at being able to see party democracy in action and to get a sense of some of the issues that delegates and MPs really care about in their communities, whether informally at the prayer breakfast or in deeper conversation with those MPs who found time out of their busy programme to talk with us. It was not only a good opportunity to challenge MPs on justice questions such as immigration and housing, but also to hear their concerns about being in politics today, and to reassure them of our prayers as they tackle issues concerning the vulnerable in society.”
David Mayne added, “It is always good to meet face to face with our MPs and Peers. I think this is a significant witness and engagement with the public square and those who serve within it. It provides an opportunity to challenge injustice and to advocate for the vulnerable and ignored, but also to listen and to recognise the struggles facing our parliamentarians.”
Surveys regularly find that politicians are among the least trusted and respected groups in society. But when people are asked about their local MP, or an individual politician they have met, the response is distinctly more favourable. When we meet people, even if we do not agree with them, we learn something of their story, their humanity, their individuality. Days like this are a reminder of how important and valuable that is.
So my colleague was right: the Liberal Democrats did prove to be full of real individuals, just like every political party, every church, and every gathering of the human race.
In a couple of weeks, JPIT will be launching ‘Meet Your MP’, an initiative to encourage local churches in England and Wales to arrange meetings with their political representatives. It could be through inviting your MP to a church event, or taking them on a walk of your local area. The purpose is to build links and mutual understanding, to open up dialogue – and perhaps to discover something of who they are as individuals, too. Find out more here.
Tom Brake MP meeting the URC’s Revd Nicola Furley-Smith
Look out for our reports from the Labour and Conservative conferences over the next two weeks.