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Interview: Gareth Wallace, executive director, Conservative Christian Fellowship

27 January 2017

‘Politicians need to listen to what voters are concerned about’


The CCF [Conservative Christian Fellowship] was begun over 25 years ago, at Exeter University, by two students: David Burrowes, now an MP, and Tim Montgomerie, now a Times journalist. It’s the link organisation between the Conservative Party and the Christian world.


We act as a bridge between charities, churches, Christians, and the Conservative Party — from parliamentarians to councillors to volunteers. We also provide fellowship for Christians within the party, and host prayer events and encourage friendships between Christian politicians.


The Labour Party has Christians on the Left, led by Andy Flannagan; and there’s the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum, led by Sarah Dickson. When we work together, we fly under the banner Christians in Politics. We regularly speak together at Christian conferences, and we tour the UK, encouraging the next generation of Christian MPs.


My days are naturally varied: everything from walking up a Welsh hill delivering leaflets on behalf of a CCF member candidate at election time to hosting charities in Parliament as they meet Christian MPs. We’re also passionate about supporting MPs in the pressures of the job at Westminster; so there’s a pastoral side to the role, too. We’re a supporter-supported organisation; so a lot of my time is spent speaking about our work with potential donors and members.


I enjoy the huge privilege of hosting prayer meetings for Christians who work in politics, and encouraging people to engage with MPs. I enjoy being a bridge to the Christian world and helping to make connections between denominations, charities, and their elected representatives and Government.


I don’t enjoy so much the long days and nights working, sometimes travelling the length of the country campaigning, and weekend working to win elections, but this is all part of political-party life.


This job really does seem to be the perfect fit for my interests. I grew up the son of a Methodist minister in Northern Ireland, and I’ve spent most of my career lobbying government on behalf of Christian charities. I’m passionate about Christians’ being good public servants who are prepared to stand for elected office and serve their community and their country; and I’m committed to working ecumenically across the denominations.


I remember attending the Christian Endeavour meetings that my parents ran in their Methodist church in Northern Ireland. I made a Christian commitment at the age of four after one of those. Of course, the rubber hits the road when you go to secondary school and university, and you have to work out what you believe for yourself.


As I speak with my grandmother and parents, I see the leaders today which have been born out of their generation; so I look now at my peers, and also my godchildren, and I’m led to my mantra: “Who will lead my country when I’m old?” This is what drives me to challenge church leaders to think about mentoring and encouraging future Christian MPs, and challenging younger Christians to see politics as a calling and as a duty of service.


I grew up in the Troubles, when bombings and shootings took place daily. My parents weren’t particularly political, though Unionists and “small-c” conservatives, and quite a lot of my family who lived north and south of the border were small-businesspeople with a middle- or upper-working-class mind-view. I had no obvious link with the Conservative Party; but seeing soldiers on the street, and police fully armed, made me think, as a child: “This is my country, and for whatever political cause, people were acting illegally and wrongly.”


Whatever mistakes were made on each of the different sides, the peace process was more positive than I could ever have imagined. I was a political nerd as a teenager in the ’90s, and took part in a lot of debate in my student cohort. None of us could have predicted that the Stormont institutions would last for so many years. It’s almost reassuring to see the recent political crisis about a “normal” political problem.


I moved to London to study politics, and worked for William Hague in Parliament, and in the Home Office as an intern. I worked with Steve Chalke, with Oasis Trust, and then the Evangelical Alliance, and then with the public-affairs team of the Salvation Army. I was trying to push myself out of my comfort zone with every change. Maybe this is my Protestant inheritance: if you’re having too much fun, it can’t be right.


My childhood was comfortable, but a minister doesn’t get paid much at all, and the Methodist chapel communities in rural Northern Ireland aren’t affluent. The stark urban poverty I saw when I worked with the Salvation Army was entirely different. The early message I got was that, if you work hard, you can get out of difficulties. The Left’s challenge to the idea of “deserving and undeserving poor” is something I’d accept now.


People have crises through no fault of their own, and that’s the reason Conservatives continue to support the welfare state. But there’s an underlying fiscal reality, which my upbringing emphasised, about the importance of not incurring debts which your grandchildren will have to pay off. That is an extremely tough thing to have to say when you’re confronted with terrible need. We have to seek to support people better with the means that we have.


I’m not a huge fan of nationalism, and, being an Irish person living in London, I find England very tolerant and open.


Members of the CCF are passionate on both sides of the Brexit debate, but there are clear concerns about narrowing of politics. Maybe we’re entering a new political epoch. Are we going to make it an international success, or make it more narrow, and think more selfishly?


I’d draw only the lesson of humility in politics: politicians need to listen to what voters are concerned about and try to guide through a manifesto that can relate to them. That’s the struggle that Jeremy Corbyn has at the moment. He’s clearly staying true to his deeply held Socialist principles, but he seems unable to offer policies to voters which engage with their concerns.


A political party must inevitably dilute its purest form of itself, but how do you do that, and sound like you’re listening and principled, but not forsake your beliefs?


Some are critical of centrist politics, but most people want a bit more stability now. People also realise that parties are reaching similar policies, but from different vantage points. I think extreme attitudes of the Left are as concerning as extreme attitudes of the Right.


Centrist Conservatism tends to caution, and conserving what’s best in the current situation. Its root is starting with individuals’ achieving their full potential, and encouraging them to enable other people to achieve their full potential, to serve the public, to set up a charity: “Building society together,” as the former Chief Rabbi said. The centre-Left says you should do that, but emphasises this in conjunction with the State.


There are certainly Conservatives who emphasise the market: “fiscal conservatives”. And then there are others within the party who emphasise traditional values: “social conservatives”. And there are plenty of party members who manage to hold both those views together. Many Christian Conservatives emphasise the role of personal responsibility, both for individual success and the duty of helping society.


Desmond Tutu is reputed to have asked: “If God’s will cannot be done in politics, then whose will is being done?” We don’t live in a values vacuum. Secularism in politics ostensibly comes from a well-meaning place, but it isn’t value-neutral.


It isn’t right to impose religious values on others. However, personal values — be they religious or secular — influence individual politicians in their actions. Faith-based values have as much right to be debated in the public square as any others.


Power is a gift from God. We are all mortal, and we serve for a season. Leaders need constantly to remind themselves “I am a temporary custodian, and I hold power in trust to serve the powerless.”


My favourite sound has to be the exhaust of my uncle’s 1969 MGB roadster. It’s a beautiful classic sports car that puts a smile on my face every time I see it. In a similar vein, I like attending airshows; the sound of a Spitfire’s Merlin engine always makes me stop and wonder.


I’m an avid reader of military history books, and learning about Christians who are persecuted for their faith. I like to learn about courage and commitment against the odds. Currently beside my bed is Pete Greig’s new book on prayer, as well as Jonathan Dimbleby’s new The Battle of the Atlantic.


It inspires me to think that, if a crisis should come, apparently ordinary people like you or me, who might not have the potential for great acts of moral and physical courage, might play a part in the teamwork it takes to save a nation in time of conflict; and it takes the whole church body to build true fellowship.


What last made me angry was hearing about man’s inhumanity to man, as I watched the movie Silence.


My parents, my uncles, and my nana have been the greatest influences on my life. My nana and my mum are humble, gentle, and very self-disciplined, and my dad’s service as a minister meant accepting moves whenever the Church demanded.


My godchildren give me hope for the future, and my faith that God truly has the whole world in his hands.


I pray for political courage, that our leaders in Church and in politics are brave.


If Jesus was otherwise detained, I’d choose to be locked in a church with Brother Andrew and Winston Churchill.


Gareth Wallace was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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