I am now considered a “seasoned hand” at Political Party Conferences after attending two such gatherings on behalf of the Free Churches’ Leaders. I arrived Friday evening (October 8th) on train from Euston to Birmingham only to find that disembarking was a problem as the steps were congested with the press and their equipment. They were waiting to receive the number one show person in the Conservative camp, Boris Johnson. I was slightly bemused by someone in the stuck group who queried out loud about why the congestion, to be told that the press were waiting to interview Boris, and only to retort: “Lord have mercy”. Perhaps, the Divine did answer, as suddenly the congestion cleared for us to reach the top stairs and hall to see the large crowd around their idol.
The rest of the evening was less exciting as the Free Churches’ Leaders (URC, Quakers, Baptist, Methodists and Salvation Army) met with our team of staff advisors to be briefed on the full day’s (October 9th) programme, some of the key issues we need to raise with the politicians who have agreed to meet us, who will be hosting each of these sessions, which main debate we will sit in and what Fringe meetings we may be interested in joining.
October the 9th started with attendance to the Conservative Christian Fellowship (CCF) Prayer breakfast on the theme “Politics is Missional”, held at the Birmingham Christian Centre. The main speaker was David Burrowes MP (Enfield) together with Nicky Morgan MP (Loughborough). Both spoke of the ways their Christian faith shape their political life and made a plea for the Christian community to celebrate and encourage the involvement of more Christian politicians in governance. During the open question time it was fascinating to note the struggle to balance Christian engagement with critical questions around party policies. Mike King (Vice President of the Methodist Church in Britain) briefly reflected on the theme and said prayers.
After the Prayer breakfast we were able to meet with Colin Bloom (chair of CCF) and Stephen Crabb MP (Preseli Pembrokeshire), Steve Baker MP (Wycombe) and Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield and Attorney General). All three were very engaging. Bloom and Crabb challenged the Free Churches to continue to be in the forefront of politics and to help get more Christians engaged in politics. One concern they both raised was the negative response from many of their Christian Constituents on the government pledge to keep to the target of 0.7% of our Gross National Income for International Development. Baker affirmed cross-party collaboration and sees the importance of gospel values in economic life. And while one may not agree with some of his economic views, he would be an interesting person for JPIT to engage in critical dialogue with. With Grieve, we had a lengthy and very informative conversation on Civil Partnerships/Equal Marriage, Occupational requirements and the Christian ethos and Unmanned Weapons (Drones).
The one debate we managed to join as group was the address of the Secretary for State, Jeremy Hunt. Much was said, but we all struggled to find anything new or of substance and consequence. We took the opportunity to meet with the chaplaincy team at the NEC (venue of the Party Conference) and hear of the amazing work being done and some of the current challenges and needs. Some of us then joined a Fringe meeting where BOND was in conversation with Conservative Friends of International Development and chaired by Jon Snow. There were excellent presentations by Loretta Minghella (Christian Aid), Andrew Mitchell MP (Secretary of State for International Development), Mark Simmonds MP (CFID) and Alison Cairns (External Affairs Director, Unilever). Speakers addressed the theme of “Tackling Poverty in a Resource Constrained World”. Conversation points included the need for new structures and resources, for joined up agenda, for setting a global standard for companies working in local contexts, for a sensible tax regime and for a reconsideration of what is “smart development”. As I had to leave for another meeting I was unable to attend the final meeting which was with Eric Pickles MP (Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
Britain can indeed deliver, but much still needs to be transformed! And there are some wise and committed politicians across all political parties who now need to transcend Party Politics for the Common Good. Churches’ need to play an active role in helping this to happen!