Where we all think alike, no one thinks very much
Tim Lenton meets some local Christians expressing their faith in the political arena.
No one could accuse all Christians of thinking the same: there are about as many Christian denominations in the UK as there are days in the year and different shades of opinion within each one.
Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily: God wants us to love each other, not replicate each other’s views and attitudes. But if the differences lead to cutting ties with each other, or to anger and violence, then clearly this does our Lord a disservice, presenting a false picture of Him to the world.
We all have our own callings, and therefore different priorities. There is nothing wrong with this. After all, as US author Walter Lippmann put it, where all think alike, no one thinks very much.
But what if our sense of priorities is overwhelming? And what if we feel, as a result, called to go into politics, or at least to take up strong political standpoints, trying to influence the world – as we see it – for the better?
As we press forward into 2019, we can hardly be unaware of the differences churned up by the Brexit referendum, and the way many people, including Christians, have been provoked into anger when the result, or what followed, did not go as anticipated. Families, as well as churches, have been split when such anger has been unrestrained or unthinking.
It is important that if we are a divided nation, we should not be a divided church. God is love, after all.
So how do Christians manage political activity which, by its very nature, invites a strong response from Christians with different views?
Gordon Bambridge, who is a Conservative councillor on Breckland District Council and the cabinet member for planning and housing, went into politics about 20 years ago “to help others and improve the place where I live”. He says: “I do want to influence others to think and act as I do, but I always recognise they are entitled to be different, and I believe I always respect that.”
He adds: “Arguments in matters of religion leading to hatred and violence do occur, but they are largely from persons who have a semblance of faith but no real relationship of faith. It’s so in politics as well.
“I will debate robustly with Labour Party supporters and others. I often feel they are basically wrong on an issue, but they are entitled to have their opinion. Lots of Christians are afraid of debate, and avoid it, but in fact we should do much more of it, both within the church and within politics.”
Though some Christians might be tempted to play down differences for the sake of peace, Mr Bambridge says: “I believe as a politician I should be absolutely honest in all things and do exactly what I say or promise. As a Christian, the same of course should apply, and in the combined role it is even more important.”
Retired priest the Revd Liz Cannon, who normally votes Labour and is concerned about the human rights of all those living in the Holy Land – both Palestinians and Israelis – agrees that honesty is vital and says that avoiding sensitive issues is wrong.
“We need to step out of our comfort zone,” she says, “and hear different opinions.”
She believes it is not only possible but essential to “remain friends and stick together with people you disagree with”.
In fact, she would like the church to be “a safe place for people to learn to disagree well”.
At a time when political issues arouse strong emotions, this might be a vital role for the church to play. In any case, Christians should not abandon politics because of possible opposition.
There are many examples from history of Christians taking leading roles in reform – roles which may have made them unpopular at the time. Opposition to slavery is one example. Nearer to home is the robust stand for prison reform taken by Elizabeth Fry, who was born off Magdalen Street in Norwich and lived for a time in Earlham Hall, now part of the University of East Anglia.
She helped to abolish transportation of criminals and was the first woman to present evidence in Parliament – on the need to reform prisons. She visited 106 transport ships and saw 12,000 convicts, as well as visiting many in jail. She affected thousands of people and had an influence far beyond the relatively small gatherings of Quakers from which she sprang.
Her concern was partly political and partly Christian – specifically the offer of redemption instead of the popular eagerness to punish criminals, something that is still in the public eye today. She also attracted controversy, both then and now.
As well as offering redemption, Elizabeth Fry also had a passion for justice, and this is something that resonates strongly with Rob Archer, who is coordinator of the West Norfolk Green Party, and their transport spokesman.
His key Bible verse would be Micah 6:8 – “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” In his political life, justice is the big issue. He says: “We need to challenge systems that restrict justice for the poor and vulnerable, whether it is air pollution, climate change or anything else.”
In this sense, he feels that all churches should have a green lifestyle (with a small g) and be concerned about eco issues. “I’d like to think I can compromise,” he said, “but right and wrong are important.”
He points out, though, that Christians can shift their views on issues that once seemed immovable. “We can agree to differ. That’s important too.”
Mr Archer is concerned that Christians should not be put off getting involved in politics because they see it as a murky area. “There’s often a reluctance to get involved,” he says, “but it’s essential that those who feel called to get involved should do so.”
One prominent local Christian who responded to that call is the Revd Philip Young, a former vicar of St Thomas’s Church in Norwich and once Diocesan Environmental Officer for the Norwich Diocese. He now lives in Felixstowe and stood as an Independent for Suffolk Coastal in the 2017 General Election, attracting 1.4 per cent of the vote.
He writes regularly for Network Norfolk and in a recent column spoke out about the way in which political issues could become barriers for Christians. He wrote: “Can we make 2019 the year when we build bridges between us instead of walls? We only have one world, and it would be a crying shame if we were so busy fighting one another that we forgot that it best serves us all to live peacefully together.”
David Barclay is a Partner at Good Faith Partnership, which exists to connect leaders from faith, politics, business and charity on issues of common concern. He writes: “It is God’s work in the end. There is liberation in that. Love will triumph.
“When Jesus sums up the Old Testament of the prophets – it is about relationships. ‘Love your God, Love your neighbour as yourself’. The roots of so many political problems are in fact broken relationships and world views which don’t set the right level of value on the importance of relationships.”
Catherine Waddams, who is visiting professor of regulation in the business school at the University of East Anglia – and a Reader at St George’s Colegate in Norwich – says that at all times we should be “looking for Jesus in other people”.
She feels it is important to make our position clear “without expecting to convince. You just put something out there. People do change, but you can’t change people.”
She adds that it’s also important to be true to yourself. Although you may withhold your opinion about an issue such as Brexit, subsequent events – such as violence and name-calling – may bring you to a point where you have to make your position on that aspect clear.
“Strength of feeling on a political issue (or on anything else) can be a gift or a curse,” she concludes.
The attraction to get involved in politics, as hinted at the outset, should be linked to the invitation to think, and not just accept what others say. Os Guinness, writing in The Dust of Death as long ago as 1973, said: “What is called for on every level … is a total confrontation between Christian truth and the prevailing consensus.”
If we simply sign up to a prevailing consensus, division and probable hostility are likely to follow. In the end, this will have a huge bearing on relationship issues. Are we simply repeating a party line, or do we have a burning desire to make a difference – for justice or for honesty?
It would be good to see the church, in the words of Liz Cannon, as a safe place for people to learn to disagree well. Perhaps there is a chance to pluck exactly that opportunity out of the turmoil we see around us.
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