Walking around a party conference wearing a dog collar is certainly one way to get yourself stared at, as I’ve discovered recently. Last week a group of Free Church leaders had a day with the Lib Dem’s in Liverpool, and this week we spent Tuesday with Labour in Manchester. The day of Ed Miliband’s speech was a good opportunity to feel the buzz, press some political flesh and bend a few ears about issues dear to the churches’ hearts.
Unfortunately, as charity visitors we didn’t get allocated tickets to sit in the hall and hear the big event of the day, the new leader’s speech. We had to view it on the monitors in the exhibition hall outside. I found myself wondering how it was to be at the back of a large crowd when Jesus was preaching – unable to hear the message fully but still keen to catch the moment.
It’s not often nowadays that speeches last more than an hour. My attention was held, though some of those around me lost interest at various points. Afterwards I caught a distant glimpse of a departing Ed Miliband, surrounded by people and clicking camera shutters. Back in the lobby of the Midland Hotel it was tempting to try and decode the inscrutable expressions on the faces of some former cabinet members who had worked with both brothers.
We had started the day at a prayer breakfast organised by the Christian Socialist Movement, where I was asked to give a brief theological reflection on the issue of affordable housing. I quoted Isaiah 65, where the prophet talks of a community in which people can both build houses and live in them. It was good to find a room full of people at the Friends Meeting House and a receptive response. Another joy was sharing time with Deacon Eunice Attwood, Vice President of Methodist Conference, who’d been asked to offer prayer at the breakfast.
I’m in no doubt that it’s worthwhile for church leaders and church public affairs officers to attend these party conferences. It was striking how often politicians expressed surprise and pleasure to us that we had taken the time to show our interest in public affairs. We basked in the pleasure of being reminded how influential the churches had been in giving the momentum to MakePovertyHistory during 2005, allowing Gordon Brown to take new steps to combat poverty.
A few generations ago, a church leader might have been preoccupied with questions such as whether we could have confidence in an atheist Jewish party leader, who’s not yet married to the mother of their children. Today, those issues seem far less relevant to me than how this autumn’s cuts will impact communities across Britain. The churches are well placed to alert MP’s to places where the pain becomes too much for people to bear. From what we heard this week and last, there are plenty of politicians of all hues who expect us to be in touch with events around our churches, and who are waiting to hear from us how things look on the ground when the budget cuts bite.