RESIGNING as leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron has said that it was “impossible” for him to reconcile his position with being a “faithful Christian”.
In a speech at the party’s London headquarters on Wednesday evening, Mr Farron said that he had found himself “torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader”.
He went on: “A better, wiser person than me may have been able to deal with this more successfully, to have remained faithful to Christ while leading a political party in the current environment. To be a political leader — especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 — and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.”
Mr Farron, a born-again Evangelical who has led the Liberal Democrats since 2015, was repeatedly questioned by reporters about his views on homosexuality in the early weeks of the election campaign (News, 28 April).
Eventually, he told the BBC that he did not believe that gay sex was sinful; but, in his resignation speech, Mr Farron admitted that he felt “guilty” that the focus on his faith was obscuring the party’s campaign message.
“From the very first day of my leadership, I have faced questions about my Christian faith,” he said. “I’ve tried to answer with grace and patience. Sometimes, my answers could have been wiser.”
While he defended journalists’ right to ask whatever they saw fit, Mr Farron said that he seemed “to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in — in which case, we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society. That’s why I have chosen to step down as leader of the Liberal Democrats.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury that the political Establishment needed to reflect on why a “decent” man such as Mr Farron had felt it necessary to stand down. “Tim Farron honourable & decent. Regardless of party if he can’t be in politics media & politicians have questions,” he wrote on Twitter on Wednesday evening.
Other bishops have also expressed sadness at his resignation on Twitter.
In the BBC interview in April, Mr Farron had said that he did not think that it was his place to “pontificate on theological matters”. “I am quite careful about how I talk about my faith. I do not bang on about it; I do not make a secret out of it.”
Polling by ComRes during the election campaign found that 64 per cent of people agreed that politicians should be free to express their belief that gay sex was a sin, and 67 per cent agreed that if a politician believed that in private, he or she should still be able to hold public office.
The repeated questioning of Mr Farron had prompted an intervention by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, who wrote in their election pastoral letter that the religious faith of politicians should not be used as a weapon against them (News, 9 May). “If we aspire to a politics of maturity and generosity, then the religious faith of any election candidate should not be treated by opponents as a vulnerability to be exploited,” they wrote.
Sal Brinton, the Anglican president of both the Liberal Democrats and the party’s Christian Forum, said that it was the “relentless, punishing scrutiny” from the media which had forced Mr Farron to fall on his sword.
“The constant questions about certain matters related to this faith were getting in the way of the message he was trying to transmit about the party and our policies, despite his very best efforts,” she said on Thursday.
She suggested that it would be an “awful indictment of our media” if other Evangelical Christians felt unable to put themselves forward for political office.
There was no conflict between faith and leading the Lib Dems, either in Mr Farron’s mind or for the party, Ms Brinton said. But the media refused to accept that a true liberal could represent a party that did not collectively agree with some of his beliefs.
Ms Brinton compared the situation to the Church of England’s own divisions on the same issue of sexuality. “And yet we don’t say people [we disagree with] don’t have a right to be Anglicans,” she said.
She also accused some in the press of treating the Lib Dems differently, noting that politicians from parties such as the Conservatives, or even the Democratic Unionist Party, who probably agreed with Mr Farron on certain moral issues, were not quizzed relentlessly by journalists.
And the message for Evangelicals? If they share Lib Dem values they were still welcome as voters, members, or candidates, Ms Brinton insisted. “We are a broad church. We don’t believe anyone has the absolute right to stop somebody else [believing what they wish]. The difficulty that Tim faced was the extreme scrutiny that a leader is put under.”
In his resignation speech, Mr Farron distanced himself from Christians who wished to impose their faith on wider society, and said that, as a “liberal to his fingertips”, he wanted to defend the liberties of people who disagreed with him.
He concluded by speaking of how the Liberal Democrat party, which he had joined at the age of 16, was in his “blood”.
“I thoroughly love my party. Imagine how proud I am to lead this party. And then imagine what would lead me to voluntarily relinquish that honour. In the words of Isaac Watts, it would have to be something ‘so amazing, so divine, [it] demands my heart, my life, my all’.”
Writing The Daily Telegraph, Dr Sentamu said that the pre-election “hounding” of Mr Farron was not acceptable.
“In interview after interview we were given the impression that his private views on gay sex were in the forefront of the Lib Dem campaign. His tormentors should be ashamed of themselves.
“It is much to be regretted that he has now concluded that a leading role in politics is incompatible with his Christian faith.”
The Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, and the Bishop of Penrith, the Rt Revd Robert Freeman, whose dioceses includes Mr Farron’s constituency of Westmorland and Lonsdale, said in a joint statement that they were “saddened” by his resignation.
“We both know Tim Farron well, and recognise him to be a politician who is honourable, inspirational, and hard-working,” they said. “So we are saddened that he has felt moved to have to resign from his position as leader of the Liberal Democrats, as a result of the focus which has been placed on his faith in recent weeks.
“This decision transcends party politics, and directly speaks of the need for the political arena to have space for those people who profess and live out a faith in the love of Christ.”
The director of advocacy for the Evangelical Alliance, Dave Landrum, said that Mr Farron’s resignation raised the question whether “Christian beliefs are now unacceptable in public life.”
“During the election,” he said, “various Christian candidates were targeted for some pretty unsavoury media attention, political criticism, and activist protests. Their crime? They are Christians. Or, more precisely traditional, mainstream, theologically orthodox, practising Christians.”