Building Bridges

By John Ellis

P1010092The arrival of the Party Conference season means that our splendid staff in the Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT) have been briefing Nonconformist Church Leaders ready for the delegations that attend each conference. We began at Manchester with Labour. As usual the United Reformed Church, Methodist Church, Baptist Union, Salvation Army and teh Society of Friends were represented.

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The Church Leaders delegation

The Conference was thought rather low key. Ed Miliband may be reflecting on whether a veneer of spontaneity is such a good idea if you forget vital passages. But for us the most valuable part was our discussions with a variety of MPs and MEPs: Anglicans, atheists and others were willing to find time in pressured diaries to talk with us.

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Hilary Benn in full flow

Hilary Benn, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, was personable, energetic and in a hurry. Graham Allen, MP for a poor area of Nottingham had very specific requests for us to pass on to the local churches in his constituency. Jude Kirton-Darling, the Quaker MEP for North East England, encouraged the Churches to promote positive messages that would help counter the impact of more extreme political parties.

We had not previously met Helen Goodman, MP for Bishop Auckland, but she proved very open and interesting. As Shadow Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport she agreed that if Labour won the 2015 General Election the official approach to commemorating the First World War should be reviewed to ensure the story of the Conscientious Objectors is properly honoured. She thought the liberalisation of the gambling industry by the previous Labour Government had been “a massive mistake”. We were also pleased to learn she had made use of the JPIT papers on poverty in Britain.

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Making a point to Stephen Timms

Our time with Stephen Timms MP, who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society, was valuable on issues specifically relevant to the Churches. He was not aware of the problems the new Lobbying Act has created for Churches (as our Mission Council will discover at its November meeting) and wanted to examine that further. He also showed us a draft Covenant intended for Local Authorities to agree with faith groups in their area. The principles on which this rests include that “faith communities are free to practise their belief and religious observances without restriction, and to raise their voice in public debate and to be respected, within the framework of UK law.” This seemed a promising initiative.

Amidst the noise and campaigning of the Conference we hope we built some useful bridges for further engagement with politicians and our political process.

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