We laid our beach towels on the chairs …

… metaphorically speaking at least. Five church leaders together with knowledgeable staff from the Joint Public Issues Team and the Salvation Army spent Monday evening and Tuesday at the Conservative Party Conference. There was the conference service on Monday evening during which we heard a moving plea from the Archbishop of the Sudan for prayers for peace in that troubled land. We attended a Prayer Breakfast on Tuesday morning – organised by the Conservative Christian Fellowship and sponsored by the Free Churches – giving an opportunity to share prayers for MP’s, local councillors and those who had stood for election in May but failed to gain a seat.

During the day we had separate meetings with six MP’s – it was for these meetings that we needed to ‘hold’ the chairs we had secured on one of the balconies of the conference centre – space being at a premium. During these meetings we learned something of the government’s agenda and of the pressures of being an MP with family in one place and working life in another. We were told about how Christian faith informed the discussions and decisions in which these people are involved and a plea for more involvement by church people in the political process. It was good too to find a recognition of the work already being undertaken by faith groups which we were assured was being recognised within the Big Society agenda. We asked how churches could support individual MP’s and engage with the government agenda. The aim of the exercise was not to lobby MP’s but we shared concerns about the effect of the emerging policies on the most vulnerable in our society, sharing first hand the stories from our own experiences.

The rhetoric of the public statements did not always lie comfortably with the genuine and open conversations we had with individuals and sitting in on Iain Duncan Smith’s address to the conference on Benefit Reform particularly emphasised this for me. The standing ovation he received at the end left a small group from the churches sitting as a minority of the sceptical/dissenters/questioners. He talked a lot about getting people into work with no acknowledgement of the lack of jobs and he talked about introducing an Enterprise Allowance Scheme – some of us remember that scheme from the last Conservative government!

The opportunity to ‘people watch’ was wonderful and the time to identify familiar faces from broadcasters to cabinet ministers was fun. But most importantly it was time to engage with policy makers especially Christian policy makers who like most people find themselves in a minority in their context whilst genuinely trying to do the best they can to witness to their faith day by day.

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