This is the text of the talk by Baroness Maeve Sherlock at the Fulcrum Pivot Point held on February 2nd 2015 at Portcullis House, Westminster. You can find the other address, by Caroline Spelman MP here.
Why should Christians get involved in politics? I was very tempted simply to show a brilliant little video ‘Show Up’ made by Christians in Politics which I saw on the Christians on the Left website. It starts by quoting Colossians 1:
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
And when it says in him all things were created, it means all things – schools and trees and families and people and all things. It concludes:
We will see God’s will be done and his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. The question is: will we be part of making it happen? Show Up. Jesus did.
In other words, there is no way to separate out God and politics. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to talk about the two together. Giles Fraser once memorably said ‘…most politicians who speak of God look about as comfortable as my dad does break-dancing.’
And I was speaking a couple of years ago at a symposium about an excellent book by the theologian Luke Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics, and making the case incidentally for Christians to be engaged in politics. And someone in the audience tweeted rather crossly that I simply didn’t understand the level of antipathy against politics held by most Christians. So is it true that church and politics don’t mix?
Well, I guess it depends on what you think politics is. And, perhaps more importantly, what you think the church is. I first met Bishop Graham Kings in 2005 when I walked into a church called St Mary Islington in North London where he was vicar. I wasn’t a churchgoer at that point and it was all very new to me. One of the first things that struck me was what a mixed bunch they were: young and old, black and white, male and female, rich and poor. I sat at the back and a guy came in and sat next to me, clutching a Starbucks cup, and wearing a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. Meanwhile, the older Caribbean woman on my other side was dressed more smartly than I was on the day I was introduced to the House of Lords. London is a really mixed place, but there are too few places where those people actually mix. Church is one of them.
When I am in Westminster I go sometimes to St Martin-in-the-Fields. Dick Sheppard, the vicar of St Martin’s during the First World War, used the church to give refuge to soldiers on their way to France. He saw it as what he called “the church of the ever open door”, and its doors have remained open ever since. It offers ministry to homeless people both directly and through the Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields, which cares for around 7,500 individuals each year. St Martin’s was involved in the anti-apartheid movement and the founding of many charitable and campaigning bodies, including Amnesty International, Shelter and the Big Issue. It is an inclusive, welcoming church to this day, a place where people of different faiths regularly pray together. The first time I attended morning prayer at St Martin-in-the-Fields and heard the sounds of people who had spent the night all across the streets of London coming inside the church as we prayed at the centre of it, I realised how rarely our lives intersect in a great city like this—but they do in church.
Those images came back to me when Luke Bretherton talked about his idea that the early church was an original of what’s known today as a ‘Third space’ – that it was an extra, unusual space outside the main units by which society was organised. In those days there was the oikos (the family or household) and the polis (the city-state/civic space). The church was something radically different: a space where the rules didn’t apply, where rich and poor, men and women, slaves and free could mix and where all had a worth beyond what society allowed, based on being ‘in Christ’. Seen like this, the church positions us to relate to others in a new way, and in more than one setting. We are not here just to focus on what our own household needs, but nor are we only interested in making sure the state gives us what we need. The church is called to look both ways, to minister to individuals but also to be attentive to the cultural values and priorities of the people when they are organised in public life. By valuing people because they are made by and loved by God, the church should be able to hear voices that society traditionally ignores. But to hear them is one thing; to do something about what they say is another. And that is where politics comes in.
Theologians have been arguing for the last 2,000 years about how the church and the state should relate to each other. Theologically, the big argument centres around whether political authority is part of God’s created order or a response to the Fall. What view you take depends on whether you favour Aquinas and Calvin or Augustine and Luther. (If you want to know more, you could do worse than start with a book of essays called God and Government, edited by Nick Spencer and Jonathan Chaplin). But it is enough for our purposes today to say most theologians would agree that order is good and chaos is bad. Indeed, many of the biblical references to the importance of respecting authority (such as in Romans 13) almost certainly related to the need in the dangerous and chaotic world of the early church for order to flourish in order that the gospel might be spread. Although we are in very different world today, the state is still the means by which order is maintained. I believe the role of Christians in relation to politics is to seek to ensure that the order serves the interests of all people, especially the vulnerable, and particularly those whose voices are rarely heard.
But that is not an act of charity. One of the things the early church knew, because the Bible told them so but also because they learned it by experience, is that they needed each other. And that is just as true of us today. There is clear evidence that wellbeing of individuals cannot be divorced from the wellbeing of those around them. The importance of our interdependence cannot be overstated. As Miroslav Volf notes in his new book, to love God and love our neighbour results not only in our own joy, but in compassionately seeking the well-being and well-living of others.
That is what politics should be about. And that is why Christians should be involved. But what does it mean for a Christian to be involved in politics? To listen to the voices of the marginalised? Go to any city in Britain and wander into a church and the chances are it will be involved with a local foodbank. I live in Durham and my ordinary local Anglican church certainly is. Members of our church contribute food but many also volunteer, organise the warehouse, staff distribution points, talk to clients and hear their stories. Often heartbreaking stories. But there comes a point where helping the individuals isn’t enough. It causes people to ask why so many people need to come to a foodbank? So I have had churchgoers asking if I know that working people are using the foodbank, or asking why it takes so long to process claims for disability benefits. They are already making the connection from feeding the hungry to asking why they need to? And that is politics. And I am reminded of a phrase I used in my maiden speech in the Lords by the late Dom Camara, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist".
Now, I don’t pretend there are simple answers to these kinds of questions. But I do know that if we don’t ask them, nothing is going to change. And up and down the country, in foodbanks, on the streets, in youth clubs, in prisons, in family centres, Christians are hearing the voice of the marginalised. The question is: what are they doing with what they hear? Sometimes problems can’t be solved individually, they can only be solved collectively and that’s where politics comes into its own. All the key decisions affecting our daily lives are political; all decisions have a value base
So how do you change things? Well, you can become a politician and change them yourselves. I would strongly encourage Christians to consider standing for elected office. But if not that, then they can campaign. I spent years in the voluntary sector combining helping individuals with campaigning to change the world for them. I find campaigning fascinating, and I love looking at what works. Some time ago, I read the minutes of the early meetings of a campaign group set up to change the law in Britain. At the first meeting, they only did 4 things:
- They decided that the current law was bad and that the committee’s main aim was to persuade other people of that fact, mostly by producing publications
- They decided who could be on the committee and that the Quorum would be three members –
- They chose one of the group to be Treasurer but then said he couldn’t spend any money unless the whole committee said he could
- And they agreed to announce what they had decided and ask other people to join and send money.
Then they adjourned and went to the pub. Actually I don’t know if they went to the pub but they did adjourn. It didn’t exactly feel like a dramatic start. But these were the minutes of the first meeting on 22 May 1787 of the London Abolition Committee whose aim was to make the slave trade illegal. I sat in the British Library holding those minutes, amazed that I could read the original record book. And the meetings sounded rather dull. At the second meeting they carefully recorded exactly how much money they’d raised: one hundred and thirty six Pounds, ten Shillings, if you’re interested, which is actually not bad given it was only 2 days since the last meeting. (It makes me suspect that they probably tapped up their friends and their family, as you do when you start a fundraising campaign today.) The committee also decided to spend some of the money on printing 2000 copies of a pamphlet setting out their arguments against the slave trade. The next few meetings are all focused on gathering evidence of how cruel the slave trade is, and trying to spread it as widely as possible, especially to people with influence. The campaign went on to have elements in parliament and in the country as a whole. And year by year, the campaign gathered steam, both in parliament and all over the country until eventually on 1 May 1807 the law abolishing the slave trade took effect.
William Wilberforce became the champion for the campaign in parliament and it’s very clear that his decision to press the anti-slavery cause stemmed directly from his conversion. Wilberforce wasn’t so religious when he first went into politics but in 1784-85 he went travelling all round Europe with a Christian minister called Isaac Milner. As they toured, he began to ask Milner what the gospel was all about and after a lot of talking and another European jaunt – it was a kind of a cross between a gap year and an Alpha course - Wilberforce had a conversion experience and pledged his life to Christ. And it was because he saw that all humans were made in God’s image that it could not possibly be right for some humans to enslave others and treat them so inhumanely.
At best, Christians can help the political world to see something we should have seen much earlier. But there are warning signs in this too: after all, when Wilberforce started you could still hear sermons preached in churches in making the Biblical case for slavery. I once heard a theologian talk about his work with the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, who had repeatedly produced theological justifications for apartheid. When asked how they could have got it so wrong, their answer was that that they had refused to listen to a wide enough range of voices, especially the voices of ‘outsiders’.
Finally, we were asked to identify up to 3 issues for the election. Here are mine:
First, for me what is at stake in the election is whether our economy and our society are organised for the benefit of all. If this financial crisis has taught us anything, it is to mistrust the economic assumptions that have prevailed since the 1980s, particularly the proposition that a rising tide will lift all boats & wealth will trickle down to all. Trickle-down has never really delivered for those on whom it was meant to trickle. And if the state finds itself unable to spend at the levels it did previously then we will need to address some of the problems at source rather than just mitigate them. That means making capitalism work for everyone by addressing failing markets and seeking to move Britain from a low-wage, low-skill economy into a higher-skill, higher wage economy.
Second, Society and Politics. There is now a serious disconnect between many people and politics, particularly national politics. That is a problem for the country, not just for politicians and I think it requires that all of us involved in politics take it seriously. I don’t have pat answers but I offer up 2 fronts on which I think we should be taking action.
First, political parties need to reform themselves to reconnect with people. I won’t presume to prescribe for other parties but Labour is taking steps to reform itself and be more accessible. Second, we need to look at where power lies and what kind of society best empowers local communities. It is our view that the best place to shape and deliver local services is as close to the user as possible and a Labour government would begin a process of doing just that. And we need to ensure that there are appropriate structures at a regional level. I live in Durham and we lost a lot when our Regional Development Agency, One North East, was abolished. At the basic level, institutions in a region – businesses, schools, churches - all need to talk to each other. And this is really connected to politics - people have more confidence in local than national politicians.
And as well as losing faith in politicians, polling shows that people in this recession are much less compassionate to those who are struggling than in the past. I am really concerned that the forces of individualism, atomisation and alienation are at work. And that is bad for all of us.
So, there is my challenge. I really do want to change the world. I want to build a different kind of economy, a different kind of society, less centralised, more democratic, run in the interests of everyone. A society where we care about poverty and inequality. One where compassion is valued. And where we understand that in the long run a society which is designed for the flourishing of all its people is one which benefits all of us.
That feels scary because changing the world is hard. It’s a long-term project and too often politics is a short term business. But Christians have been trying to change the world since Jesus came. And they did it for the same reasons Christians in public life do nowadays: reaching out in love because they were loved first by God. As Rowan Williams likes to put it, the proper stance of a Christian in the world is gratitude. It is also a huge relief to Christians to be part of the Church because we know that it’s not up to each of us to try to fix things on our own. Partly because in the most fundamental sense, God in Jesus has done that already, but also because it means it's not down to me to tackle all the injustices of the world alone but to us, all of us together, all of us over time.
I have met good people in parliament from all parties and none, good, decent people of all faiths and none who came into politics not for personal gain but because they wanted to try to make the world a better place. I am sure all of us have days when we really feel we made a difference. And we must all surely also have terrible days, if not weeks, when we wonder if we have achieved anything at all. I know I do. But so must those who came before us. So did William Wilberforce during the decades when he was campaigning to abolish the slave trade. But we have to keep going. The truth is we never really know what happens to all the seeds we sow. Many of them are right now being watered by others just as we end up watering seeds sown by others. The point is that we step out in faith and do our bit to change the world.
The Baroness Sherlock OBE is Labour Spokesperson for Work and Pensions, an Opposition Whip and member of the House of Lords since 2010. She has had varied career before entering frontline politics. Having been President of the National Union Of Students in the 80s, she went on to be the Chief Executive of the National Council for One Parent Families and then the British Refugee Council. She is an Honourary Fellow of St Chad’s College, Durham and studying for a doctorate herself. She’s an active member of her church.