The Revd Nigel Uden, Moderator of the United Reformed Church General Assembly, reflects on this year’s Party conference season
My fellow Moderator, Derek Estill, and I have shared the responsibility of visiting the Conservative and Labour Party conferences – boxing and coxing to represent the United Reformed Church as part of the delegation organised by the Joint Public Issues team. Last year, I was in Birmingham, watching the then Prime Minister shimmy across the stage to Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’. This year, I was in Brighton, standing at a large TV screen alongside various Labour MPs, as Lady Hale read the judgment of the Supreme Court regarding the proroguing of Parliament on 10 September. Both were significant moments.
In Birmingham, Mrs May seemed to be on something of a high, and the warm up act from the Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, was a remarkable example of the oratory characteristic of some barristers. At that time, the UK’s departure from the European Union seemed assured for 29 March 2019.
In Brighton, all but six months after that departure date had come and gone, the Labour Party conference was rapidly reorganised as prorogation was deemed unlawful. MPs leached from the conference hall to clamber aboard trains for London in time for the following day’s resumption of parliament.
In both years, Party conferences bred fevered excitement from abroad: In 2018, one party seemed to have cracked it, and to be in the ascendant; in 2019, the other saw opportunities to be seized.
All of this was fascinating to observe.
Our group of Church representatives had gone to the Labour Party conference prepared with questions about poverty, hunger and universal credit, about refugees, immigration and asylum, about the climate crisis, about nuclear weapons, the arms trade and peacemaking. What I realised most of all, though, was that the value of Church representatives going to a 24-hour segment of Party-political conferences was at least partially pastoral. We learned how deeply difficult it is to be in parliamentary politics at the moment. One MP told us it was ‘terrible; truly terrible’. This description seemed to arise from several causes: the attitudes of some in the House of Commons, the vilification of the MPs via social media, the readiness of the press to write as if forgetting MPs are human beings, and the unrelenting sense of uncertainty about where, how and when the Brexit issue will end.
Even as one echoes the many calls for parliamentary discourse to be more refined than of late, I am renewed in my sense that praying for politicians – national and local – is an essential part of the Church’s vocation. And, if words fail us, maybe we could borrow one of the prayers familiar to the House of Commons in its regular prayers:
Lord, the God of righteousness and truth,
grant to our Queen and her government, to Members of Parliament
and all in positions of responsibility,
the guidance of your Spirit.
May they never lead the nation wrongly
through love of power, desire to please or unworthy ideals,
but laying aside all private interests and prejudices,
keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all humankind;
so may your kingdom come and your name be hallowed, Amen
Nigel Uden, October 2019