‘Tell the truth this time’, church leaders tell MPs

31 October 2019

Prayers needed for respect and grace, says Scottish Primus

PA

A dog waits outside a polling station in St Philip’s and St James’ Scottish Episcopal Church, Edinburgh, during the General Election in June 2017

A dog waits outside a polling station in St Philip’s and St James’ Scottish Episcopal Church, Edinburgh, during the General Election in June 2017

THE General Election scheduled for 12 December has been welcomed by both Christians on the Left and the Conservative chair of Christians in Parliament.

After weeks of speculation and manoeuvring, the starting gun was fired on Tuesday when the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, announced that, with a no-deal Brexit off the table, his party would back an election, promising “the most ambitious and radical campaign for real change our country has ever seen”.

Later on Tuesday, however, the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, warned that “Parliamentary wrestling matches might get worse rather than better in the next Parliament, and politicians ought to be honest about that possibility.”

A majority of MPs voted for the Government’s Early Parliamentary General Election Bill on Tuesday, although Liberal Democrats and SNP representatives were among the more than 100 MPs who abstained. Parliament will be dissolved next Wednesday, as parties prepare for the first pre-Christmas General Election since 1923, which will pit the Government’s promise to push through the Prime Minister’s deal against Labour’s pledge to hold a second referendum.

The Liberal Democrat leader, Jo Swinson, said that it was “our best chance to elect a government to stop Brexit”. The Brexit party has promised a “clean-break Brexit”.

Stephen Beer, the political communications officer of Christians on the Left, said on Tuesday: “We clearly need an election, because we have a minority Government unable and unwilling to govern properly.

“The Government is also determined to avoid finding a cross-party consensus on Brexit. Our hope is that we see a Labour Government, with its commitment to giving people a choice between a Brexit deal in the national interest and remaining in the European Union.”

The election was also welcomed by Sir Gary Streeter, Conservative MP for South West Devon, who chairs Christians in Parliament.

“Our Parliament has got stuck and unable to find a way forward,” he said on Tuesday. “We need the people to give a fresh mandate to one side or the other.”

Bishop Baines offered a more cautious view. While an election “might give a new government a clearer mandate for action”, this depended on “the content of the election itself. It cannot just be about Brexit, as if it were a second referendum, but must be about the sort of UK we want to live in whatever happens with Brexit.

“The election might resolve nothing — what if the new Parliament reflects the division of the country as the current one has, and, MPs doing their job, continue to struggle with the politics? My guess is that there will then be a loud voice, again, for a referendum.”

The Archbishop of Wales, the Most Revd John Davies, said on Tuesday that there were “countless other issues which have become frankly obscured over three years”. He referred to a crisis in prisons, cuts to legal aid, child poverty, and climate change, “all of which will require significant investment by the Government into public services.”

He continued: “I really do hope we are not going to get promises made about significant tax cuts for people, because that funding, probably by and large will come from taxation”. The taxation of large companies should be grasped, he said.

In terms of the conduct of the campaign, “personal attacks on people’s integrity would be very unwelcome . . . What I hope for is honesty, integrity and decency.”

The Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, Dr Mark Strange, called on Wednesday for prayer for those standing for election, and their families, and for campaigning to be conducted “in a spirit of respect and grace with a view to bringing healing and reconciliation to the divisions we have seen in our society in recent times”.

In an interview with The Sunday Times this week, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that Britain had become “addicted to an abusive and binary approach to political decisions” in which Brexit rivals treated their opponents as “my total enemy”.

“There have been inflammatory words used on all sides, in Parliament and outside — ‘traitor’, ‘fascist’ . . . all kinds of really bad things have been said at the highest level in politics,” he said.

He repeated his warning that a no-deal Brexit would be “morally unacceptable” if it hurt the poor.

“The key issue in 2020 will be to try to bring reconciliation and healing to our bitterly divided land, but that can only happen once Brexit is resolved one way or the other,” Sir Gary said on Tuesday.

But Bishop Baines suggested that “parliamentary wrestling matches might get worse rather than better in the next parliament, and politicians ought to be honest about that possibility”.

Voters who would naturally vote Labour but would not vote for Jeremy Corbyn faced a “conundrum” he said. “An increased vote for the Lib Dems might not actually tell the story the party might deduce from the vote. Who knows what the Brexit party will do, or achieve?”

The one thing he sought from the campaign was honesty. “Honesty from politicians will bring an integrity of language and behaviour, as it will have to be rooted in humility rather than hubris,” he said. “I am not holding my breath, and I look forward to the election campaign with considerable misgivings. The media need to scrutinise promises and call out lies.”

“This is only the beginning of Brexit, not the end. But, while all attention is focused on the Westminster theatre the vital issues of homelessness, poverty, housing, treatment of migrants, education and international security float under the country’s collective radar. Post-January we desperately need to set a moral direction for the future ethos of Britain. The churches will have a prophetic as well as pastoral role in articulating all this.”

Among the MPs who have announced that they will not be standing again are prominent Christians, including Alistair Burt, Conservative MP for North East Bedfordshire; Dame Caroline Spelman, Conservative MP for Meriden, and Second Church Estates Commissioner; Jeremy LeFroy, Conservative MP for Stafford; and Stephen Pound, Labour MP for Ealing North, and Shadow Minister for Northern Ireland.

On Wednesday, the outgoing Speaker, John Bercow, announced that the Revd Tricia Hillas, Canon Pastor of St Paul’s Cathedral, is to be the next Speaker’s Chaplain. Born in Kuala Lumpur to an Indian mother and a British father, she has been a social worker, specialising in supporting individuals and families diagnosed with HIV and AIDS.

In the House of Lords on Wednesday the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, said that he had “much sympathy” for calls to give the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds, suggesting that a Bill could be introduced by the next government. He also had sympathy with giving EU nationals the vote, but felt that “rushing it now would be inappropriate”.

“Whether a general election is the best way to take us out of our current impasse is certainly debatable,” he said. “I hope and pray that, somehow, an election will break this impasse. If, however, the outcome were a House of Commons without a clear majority for a way forward, those newly-elected MPs will have to consider very carefully how they handle such a situation differently from the history of these past months. They must not repeat it, if that is what occurs. We cannot afford a repeat of such a period.”

Now that the date of the election has been confirmed, churches have begun to prepare to serve as polling stations.

The Priest-in-Charge of St John the Baptist and St Edmund, Felixstowe, the Revd Andrew Dotchin, explained on Tuesday: “The Electoral Officer arrives the night before with all the signage, and on the day there is an early unlock and a late locking.

“For a community junkie such as myself, I often put myself on these duties so that I can support the work of the officials and encourage them in what can either be a long and busy or long and boring day.”

Polling officers were often on the end of a large amount of “electoral grumpiness”, so a supply of free doughnuts was paramount, he said. In previous years, he had encouraged party representatives outside the stations to be polite and “not too pushy with voters”.

“Having seen the extension of the franchise in South Africa, I am firmly in favour of voter education, and have been conducting a personal voter-registration drive since the summer,” he said. “With our Mothers’ Union branch, we will be ensuring that all who want to vote make it to a polling station, and also encouraging worshippers to check with neighbours that they submit a postal vote if they cannot attend the poll itself.”

Christmas was “the season of peace and good will to all”, Mr Beer said on Tuesday. “Christmas is also about hope. This country needs an election conducted in the spirit of peace, good will, and hope.”

 

THE Brexit debate’s demand that people choose between the local and universal was “a bit like asking Christians to decide whether Christ was human or divine”, the Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, argues, in a new booklet, Looking beyond Brexit (SPCK).

Suggesting that lessons can be learned from the post-Reformation era, he argues that bringing the nation back together will “inevitably involve recognising elements of value and truth in both the Remain and the Leave positions,” concluding that “both sides have a point.”

The debate was “about the value of the local as opposed to the universal”, he argues. But while “every healthy society needs a careful balance of these two impulses”, the referendum “forced us to choose between the two . . . a bit like asking Christians to decide whether Christ was human or divine, and forcing them to choose between the two options”.

”We cannot afford to lose what makes Britain distinct and unique and quirkily itself,” he writes. “Neither can we pull up the drawbridge and become fortress Britain against the world, drifting into cultural superiority and racial pride.”

The challenge of Brexit is ultimately a spiritual one”, he concludes. Love is “not a limited commodity . . . If we love our family but not our neighbours, our friends but not our enemies, then we remain spiritually adolescent, refusing to grow up.”

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