Ian Geary (Public Affairs Advisor for The Salvation Army) shares his personal reflection on the three Autumn Party Conferences he attended. An interesting and thought provoking read. Enjoy!
Politics – It’s Just Stuff….
‘Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens?’
‘Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance?’
‘Who can fathom the Spirit[d] of the Lord, or instruct the Lord as his counselor?
Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way?
Who was it that taught him knowledge, or showed him the path of understanding?’
‘Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket;they are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust.’
‘Lebanon is not sufficient for altar fires nor its animals enough for burnt offerings.’
‘Before him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing.’
Isaiah 40 vv12-17
‘ LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens.
Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.’
‘ When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,4 what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?[c]’
‘ You have made them[d] a little lower than the angels[e] and crowned them[f] with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their[g] feet: all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.’
‘ LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
What do Liverpool, Birmingham, and Brighton have in common? Well, only two of these locations has a Premiership football team, but more importantly they were the focus of the recent party conference season.
Through my employer, The Salvation Army, I was able to attend three conferences. My focus was very much on my work, so I am not really qualified to give you a definitive account of all that went on, although that doesn’t usually stop me though. I do, however, offer my reflections.
Sometimes these conferences are known for the bold headlines, huge egos and sometimes comical events that take place. However, they set the scene for the important application of Christian witness. After all, it was Desmond Tutu who famously quipped:
“When people say that the Bible and politics don’t mix, I ask them which Bible they are reading”.
Thus, each year, The Salvation Army along with colleagues from other churches,(the Methodist Church, Baptist Union, Quakers In Britain and United Reformed churches) make a beeline for the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP party conferences.
Our work is in many ways, relationship-building. We can share our experiences as churches and learn from each other. Fundamentally, it is underpinned by the recognition that there is a need for Christian witness at the conferences as we work with politicians in the work of reconciliation and committing to the common good. At a time when political debate can be polarised or even toxic this model of engagement should not be underestimated.
In addition, The Salvation Army runs ‘fringe meetings’ each year. These are focussed events seeking to highlight a specific policy concern, build our profile and make an impact. This year at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool we focussed on employability and at the Conservative Party conference on our campaign on adult social care.
Our ecumenical work has a commonality at all three conferences; connections with the main prayer breakfasts (organised by the respective Christian fellowship associated with the political party), a series of meetings with MPs and also for me organising a fringe meeting.
My aim is not to bore you with the details of my comings and goings but to reflect on some deeper themes that emerged from these areas of mission.
Prophetic and Pastoral
I attended an event in the summer promoted by Sojourners; they reflected on work that the US churches had done to protect the poor when the Obama administration came under severe budgetary pressure. This campaign, that transcended the US culture wars was called ‘The circle of protection’ – a protective encircling of the poor by churches and their prophetic campaigning. Crucially this work had a pastoral and a prophetic dimension. To some degree our work in politics is to embrace a prophetic and pastoral orientation i.e. holding all systems up to the reality of God’s kingdom and loving the people whom we engage with and are advocating for. It would be unfair to oversimplify this but one tends toward a right love of truth and one towards a right love and acceptance of people; together they personify the multi-faceted majesty and grace of Christ.
In the same register, when I witnessed the launch of Christians on the Left latest campaign ‘Love your CLP’ I felt something prophetic stirring. Labour does not need civil war it needs civility. It needs some love. The prophetic and pastoral embraced in one campaign.
Our engagement at Party conference sees prayer as an essential part of the political process. When too much of the policy world is rooted in enlightenment wisdom and the technique of modernity we could lose our distinctiveness. We should be careful not to abandon our fundamental practises and try and ape the world and its desire for influence, positioning, and success. We can’t always do this and we don’t always need to. In my view, prayer breakfasts should be more about prayer than breakfasts and encouragingly our conference meetings with MPs offer prayer. It is refreshing to see it being received. When the Rev Michaela Youngson from the Methodist Church spoke at the Christians on the Left prayer breakfast about ‘prayer as a revolutionary act’ you could clearly see the need for us to raise our voices and raise our sights. What if each party conference had one day in the week devoted to prayer? Bono once said ‘Dream out the kind of world, you want to live in and dream out aloud.’
Perspectives on poverty
The Conservative Christian Fellowship prayer breakfast reflected on the interaction between loneliness and poverty. We heard about the dangers of isolation in an increasingly fragmented and isolated world. As Christians I believe we need to care about material and relational poverty. Again the very fact CCF even put on such an event is prophetic and pastoral.
Who would have thought that loneliness would become a political issue? Well, there has been a cross-party campaign on this issue but to their credit the Conservative Government has pioneered a strategy on this issue and appointed a Minister to oversee it too.
Maurice Glasman once reflected that ‘There is no love in the system’. If we could bring a bit of love, befriending and decency into politics we might see some amazing changes.
To some this will sound twee. Yet it friendship can be prophetic.
Our perspective on any issue, cannot simply be the same as the world’s view. That is why I quote Isaiah 40 and Psalm 8 at the start of this article. So much about politics is rooted in ‘mansoul’ not God’s perspective, let alone his Kingdom. Let’s strive to start from his perspective and we shall end up in a good place.
‘What a wonderful world it is,’ George MacLeod said, ‘provided you believe in another world. Not over against this world, but interlaced with it.’
Lisa Bodenheim, in Disturbing Complacency
During the Liberal Democrat Party Conference in Brighton, we attended the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum prayer breakfast. (The main Christian body associated with the Liberal Democrat Party). Tim Farron MP (Liberal Democrat, Westmorland and Lonsdale) spoke about the power of ‘total forgiveness’.
The political world is harsh and unforgiving. The media have a lot to blame for this but not they don’t bear the whole responsibility. It is hardly surprising if the system is at times dysfunctional if MPs are berated for every mistake they make or every nuance that is misinterpreted. Fed by a shallow social media culture we are creating a vortex of spite. We need to pray for a forgiving spirit to permeate national life.
The current Liberal Democrat Christian Forum magazine refers to the ‘power of listening’; again this message of forgiveness and listening is a prophetic and pastoral statement as it runs counter to the modus operandi of contemporary politics.
Christian engagement in politics should seek the paradoxical as a prophetic statement. Forgiveness, listening, love and friendship – all alien to certain political creeds - if embedded in the political system could be transformational.
Positive yet perpetually counter-cultural
Christian involvement in politics need not be throwing rocks all the time at politicians, in the main and in my experience the vast majority of politicians, left, right and centre enter the vocation for noble reasons. Yet, we are not meant to be genuflecting to liberal democratic culture either. We are not the prayer wing of Progress or Bright Blue. We are to be as Stanley Hauerwas said ‘ resident aliens’.
There is a crucial point to be made that a Christian perspective is not just a lovely, healthier contribution (although it is) it is vital. For example, the below quote which reflects on a theological perspective on the global refugees crisis leaves us in no doubt, that it is impossible to reflect on human life ‘apart from the mystery of God’. So, politics without God (something William Booth warned about) is a real danger and a dangerous reality. We need theology in our politics, it’s not just a ‘nice to have’ the alternative is a culture of death.
‘In the book of Genesis we are introduced to a central truth that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26–27; 5:1–3; 9:6; 1 Cor 11:7; Jas 3:9). This is not just another label but a way of speaking profoundly about human nature. Defining all human beings in terms of imago Dei provides a very different starting point for the discourse on migration and creates a very different trajectory for the discussion. Imago Dei names the personal and relational nature of human existence and the mystery that human life cannot be understood apart from of the mystery of God.’
So let’s be positive and affirming but please God always counter-cultural. There is a very important reason why this is the case. The incarnation was THE political event not the 1997 election, the repeal of the corn laws, Suez, Brexit or the fall of the Berlin Wall.
'...the vibrant certainty that history has been invaded by God in Christ in such a way that nothing can stay as it was, and all terms of human community and conduct have been altered at the deepest of levels.'
……A prelude to the Polis…
Inevitably party conference season ends. The hustle and bustle of political life resumes and the ongoing debate about Brexit once again dominates the headlines. However, while party conferences are soon forgotten – even with dancing Prime Ministers - yet, from our vantage point, all those attending, in my work sphere, felt it was a highly worthwhile thing to do.
I see clearly that the churches have both a prophetic and pastoral role in brokering a space where serious and civil conversation can take place on the issues that we care about. Party conferences provide a space to undertake this work and crucially to bring the churches concerns to the attention of policy makers.
Yet, there is a bigger story.
It may be that the church re-evaluates, over time, its engagement with politics. Not too abandon it but to affirm its value and recognise its limits in a more expansive sense of God’s kingdom and perhaps to explore a different way of understanding politics. Politics though important, is not a be all and end all. Indeed, we need more confidence in the kingdom shaped political call of the church and its identity as a ‘polis’. By this I mean a perspective advocated by Stanley Hauerwas. A reviewer of his work reflects.
‘We need not deny Hauerwas’ oft-repeated claim that the Church is a social ethic or the claim of this volume that we need a “theological politics” that understands the Church as an alternative to every other polis or civitas’
We may need as much emphasis upon a sort of new monasticism as predicted by Boenhoffer and more recently in the ‘Benedict Option’, embracing what CS Lewis termed ‘Deep Church’. We are being slowly consumed by capitalism and technology and a very shallow but pervasive variant of liberalism. We should relinquish our fantasies and love of power and seek our calling at the margins of Empire. It is time to dig deep and think again about political engagement. Paradoxically, the aforementioned Christian practises can renew the church, society and therefore renew politics.
For the world thinks that the church is marginal to it but the world is marginal to the world. I am all for getting involved in politics, I have spent a lot of my life doing this very thing and it is a good thing, yet it is a drop in the ocean and if we take it too seriously we idolize it. As John Wimber once said about another phenomenon ‘it is just stuff’ and life starts and ends with God.
“We can only understand how God is knowable from the way He actually gives Himself to be known.”, Karl Barth