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With a small ‘p’ — but still politics

16 March 2018

It is about responding to the needs of the community, says Martin Gainsborough


The Norwich Soup Run, which is organised by churches in the city, serves dozens of people every night of the year

The Norwich Soup Run, which is organised by churches in the city, serves dozens of people every night of the year

IN A bad-tempered world of Brexit and President Trump, the thorny issue of the Church’s involvement in politics is much talked about. It is tempting to say that the Church should stay out of politics, but that is not an option, for all sorts of reasons.

There are better and worse ways, of course, for the Church to engage in politics. For instance, announcing from the pulpit that “the Christian position” is a Labour or Conservative one is unlikely to be helpful. Christians will reasonably, and in good conscience, disagree on the key issues of the day, and it is important to remember this.

But Jesus was crucified precisely because he upset the political and religious authorities of the day. The cross turns ideas of powerfulness and powerlessness on their head. Jesus is the one before whom all idols fall and shatter — and you cannot get more political than that.

But, while bishops might speak truth to power in the House of Lords, rising, it is to be hoped, above narrow party-political concerns, how do congregations “get involved’ in politics?


IN THIS post-secular age, when religion is both more prominent and more misunderstood, there are two pitfalls that churches can easily fall into. One kind of church is so keen to connect with the world that it bends too much to the times, and its Christian distinctiveness is lost. It is good at dialogue with people beyond its walls, but it is much less good at communicating the gospel.

Another kind of church is so focused on maintaining the “purity” of the Christian message that it acts and speaks in a way that outsiders find strange. It is definitely Christian, but no one can make head nor tail of what it is saying.

Neither approach is quite right: the challenge is to steer a path between these two extremes, and it is this that gives us a clue to what politics means for the local church.

In his Michael Ramsey Prize-winning book Christianity and Contemporary Politics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), Luke Bretherton speaks of the importance of churches’ simultaneously listening to scripture and to strangers, thereby avoiding the dilemma outlined above. He draws on Jeremiah 29, which says that Christians should “seek the welfare of the city” where God has sent them, praying to God on its behalf. In this way, he argues, we will learn what it is to be faithful disciples.

This is helpful. It gets us away from a situation where Christians set themselves against the world — where the world is there to be “overcome” rather than helped to flourish. And yet there remains the question what this means in practice for the local church.

For the local church, getting involved in politics is most likely to revolve around responding to need in the community. It is politics with small “p”, and it is the kind of thing that the local church is very good at.

But wherein lies the politics?

Imagine any kind of social-action project: for example, a lunch club for the elderly, a homeless drop-in, or English-language classes for refugees. Running all of these projects involves decisions which are necessarily political. Where does its funding come from? How does the project relate to statutory provision? Is it taking on services which have historically been delivered by the State but which it has now relinquished or contracted out?

How these questions are answered all involve judgements about politics. But, more than this, how any project is run — what its ethos is — goes a long way to explaining how the local church is political.

Stanley Hauerwas spoke of the Church as a “contrast model”, by which he meant that it seeks to model values, or ways of living, that are not of this world. For any given social-action project, it is crucial to be clear what these values and associated behaviours are.


SOME years ago, when I was the Vicar in an inner-city parish, we ran a drop-in for men with life-controlling addiction. It was often very challenging: there were behaviours that pushed us to our limits. But we asked ourselves what was distinctive about our project as a church project, as opposed to a secular or statutory one.

What we concluded was that our project was about the healing power of conversation, listening to people, and giving them time. We longed for people to live full lives, but we were not going to badger them about their habit. Others could do that. Moreover, when people broke the rules, or behaved badly, we resisted calls to ban them: God is not a ban-er, we said.

None of what we did caught the headlines, or was politics with a “capital P”, but it was political: we were modelling something not of this world but where we sought to be true to Christ. And, as the years went by, and as we listened, broke bread with people, and celebrated holy communion, lives were changed, and the church began to grow. To God be the glory!


Canon Martin Gainsborough is Professor of Development Politics at the University of Bristol, Canon Theologian at Bristol Cathedral, and a member of the General Synod.

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