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Interview: Maeve Sherlock, Shadow Faith Minister

28 June 2024

‘I got into politics because I wanted to change the world; I saw poverty around me’

UK Parliament

Faith matters hugely in our society. When asked, more than half of our population still identifies with a faith. For many, faith is their primary identity: it is the driver of their own values, and the thing that binds communities together — and this is recognised in Parliament.

My role is to lead for the Labour Party on matters to do with faith and belief.
As Shadow Faith Minister, I meet representatives of different faiths to learn about the joys and challenges in their communities, and to discuss how government could help them, or work with them or learn from them.

MPs of many different faiths serve as Labour Faith Champions,
and my political colleagues who aren’t people of faith still respect the depths of commitment to service and to social justice which they see in faith communities, and recognise the beliefs that drive them.

My time is more flexible right now because of the election;
so, in the past week, I spent time in a synagogue at Shavuot, visited a Hindu Temple and a mosque, went to a community kitchen and a homelessness charity, and spoke at some churches about why Christians should do politics.

I often return to Colossians 1, with its reminder that that all things are held together in and under Christ. “All things” must include how our world is ordered — and that’s all politics is. Politicians are just people who look around and think the world is not well ordered, and want to do something about it. Christians may have different views about what needs to be done, but we should try to ensure that the world is ordered better, and particularly for the vulnerable and those whose voices are rarely heard.

I got into politics because I wanted to change the world.
That sounds a bit dramatic now, but, as a student in the 1980s, I saw poverty and desperation around me, and just thought, there must be a better way to order things. I’ve learned over time that change is brought about by many people in many different ways.

Change is never the work of a single person or a single age.
When I became a Christian, I realised that it wasn’t just up to me to save the world, that someone else had got there first. . .The change starts in me. We love because God first loved us.

I try not to have heroes,
because we all turn out to have feet of clay. But I love to see people passionate to change the world, or at least their corner of it, in their own way — from Charles Dickens to Elizabeth Fry to Archbishop Tutu. And I meet world-changers everywhere: Di, who set up the Community Fridge in Southwark; Nikki, who pioneered the ReFuse café in County Durham; Imran, who’s been a lifelong campaigner; Brother John, whose whole life is focused on loving God and serving others; countless people who love and serve and advocate for their neighbours.

If I could change one thing overnight?
I’d like every child to grow up feeling safe, being nurtured, and knowing themselves loved. So much flows from that: the child is there in the adult.

I spent most of my working life in the voluntary sector.
In 2000, I was heading a charity working with single parents when the Chancellor Gordon Brown asked me to come and work for him, advising on how the Government could tackle the high levels of child poverty. I supported his work improving social security, reforming employment programmes, and creating local Sure Start projects. It was exciting: helping to change a corner of the world for a time.

In 2010, Gordon nominated me to go into the House of Lords.
By then, Labour was in Opposition; so I spent the first few years watching all that we had built up being taken down as austerity policies bit. That was hard. The worst day in government beats the best day in opposition, because you need power to change things, but it is a privilege to be given a voice in this space; so I use it as best I can. It’s a space for evidence-based, collaborative revision of legislation — even legislation we don’t agree with.

I used to think that nothing could surprise me in politics,
but the past few years have cured me of that notion. I think I’d rather have a few years without any major surprises. A friend sent me a card with a blessing saying: “May you live in less interesting times”. Amen to that.

Throughout its history, the Church has had to steer a path between the twin risks of incorporation and isolation.
The Church of England is in an unusual position because, of course, Establishment predates the idea of there being a clear distinction between Church and State. The roots of our Church and State are deeply intertwined in ways that have shaped our national story and self-understanding. The challenge for the Church is to live that out well in each generation.

History tells us that most societies have groups that are unpopular.
The particular groups may change over time and place, but I suspect the human tendency to have them will remain. I have found that what tends to bring about change is when people get to know individuals from a group. Relationships are the key.

I was born to Irish Catholic parents who had moved to England, where my father worked building motorways and runways.
I lived in London for many years, but went to Durham in 2006 for a year to study some theology, and never left. I now have to be in London from Monday to Thursday, when Parliament is sitting, but as soon as my week’s work is done, I jump on the train home to Durham.

I never really took to religion.
That lasted until I was firmly middle-aged, when I found my way into an Anglican church in London one Sunday. Then everything changed. I was ordained in 2018. (A friend said: “You always have to take things too far, Maeve. . .”) I now minister at St Nic’s, Durham, as well as in London, and it’s both a real joy and an utter privilege.

Coming to faith did affect my politics.
Being middle-aged, I already had a full set of opinions on pretty much everything. Becoming a Christian forced me to back to first principles. I read the Bible, and went on to study theology to understand more about this strange new world I now found myself in. That included learning about how the Church engaged with issues of life and death, poverty and justice over the centuries. Before I came to faith, I visited church projects doing amazing work with those on the margins of our society, and that had an impact, too.

Injustice makes me angry.
And my own stupidity.

All kinds of things make me happy.
God. The sea. Cooking for the people I love. Durham winning the cricket.

I love the sound of the sea,
preferably at Alnmouth Beach. Also the sound of laughter.

I am optimistic that we can change things for the better.
I am inspired by all those who dare to dream that the world could be different. And by seeing how passionate so many young people are about the environment, or justice. But my deep hope lies in the knowledge that, because of what God has done in Jesus, one day all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

I pray for everything:
for the Church and the world, for the people I love, and those I should love better. For more sleep, and the ability to trust God more.

I’m tempted to grab the chance to be locked in a church for a few hours with President Bartlet
[The West Wing]: not a perfect politician, but a decent person trying to make the best choices available in a complex world that moves at breakneck speed. It would be fascinating. He’d have some great stories! But in the end, it would be my mother I’d choose. She died when I was a child, and I would love the chance to talk to her face to face. One day. . .

Baroness Sherlock (the Revd Maeve Sherlock) was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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