The recent resource “Love Your Neighbour – Think Pray Vote” caught the imagination of many local churches and groups. Phil Jump reflects on where the church might go next. . .
“You should have booked a bigger room – didn’t you know that we would all be angry at the outcome of the election?” This, I am told, is how one delegate at the Baptist Assembly responded, when she discovered that we simply could not find any more space for the much higher than expected turnout at the Public Issues Market Place session.
I am not naïve enough to believe that this is how everyone who packed into the room felt about the General Election that had happened a few days previously; I would be surprised if just about every shade of political opinion was not represented by those who attended. And yet the common concern was – how do we continue to live as faithful followers of Jesus in the emerging political landscape?
In this brief article, I will try to capture some of the thoughts and ideas that were offered and shared by those who came together.
Keep Thinking, Keep Praying
There has been a good deal of positive feedback to the Joint Public Issues Team resource “Love Your Neighbour – think, pray, vote” which was put together to help people engage with the campaign issues. One key message is to continue to explore and pursue the four core principles of truth, justice, peace and wellbeing around which it centred.
These have already formed the substance of a letter sent by our denominational leaders to the Prime Minister in the wake of his re-election. The study and reflection materials remain relevant, and can help local churches determine what will be important for their communities as various policy initiatives emerge.
Engage with your new MP
Irrespective of your, or their political allegiances, your recently elected Member of Parliament is the representative of your whole community. In some cases they will be new to this role, in others they will be well-established in it. This would be a good moment to write to them as a congregation, congratulating them on their victory, wishing them well and assuring them of your prayers. You might also ensure that you do take time regularly in your church services to pray for them and other local leaders.
Try to write your letter in a way that does not require an immediate reply; share something of our broader concerns for the wellbeing of society, and also perhaps some matters of local concern. This is not about “button-holing” or challenging them on specific areas of disagreement, but rather commending to them some core values that you believe matter to people of goodwill in your community, align with our vision of God’s Kingdom and that you would hope would be reflected by any public servant.
You might also include a paragraph sharing something about your church, its activities within the community and the sort of people who attend it. You may also wish to invite your MP to an appropriate event at the church, where they have opportunity to find out more about you, the work that you do and your vision for the community that you serve. Whatever else the Church is, you are a group of local constituents, seeking to play a positive role in the life of your community, and it would be unusual for an elected politician not to have an interest in this.
Be a people of peace
The recent election seems to have significantly polarised political opinion in our nations, with some very clear geographic trends emerging. The election campaign was at times quite divisive and fuelled by national narratives, many people will continue to feel unrepresented and potentially disenfranchised.
As has already been noted, there will be no less diversity of political viewpoint within our churches, and a key role we can have is to display that while these differences can and do prevail, we also share a common identity as a community of God’s people. The local church can be an example to its community, and also actively work for community cohesion.
Particularly, by being engaged in the life of its community, and fostering positive relationships with those who hold public office, the local church can give a voice to those whose stories and circumstances might not otherwise be shared.
Stay in touch with those who represent you
As well as writing to your MP on appointment, stay in touch with him or her throughout this Parliament. Invite the m to key events in your church, and support them when you can. Your church hall might even be a useful place for them to hold surgeries or as a base to engage with the wider community. Find out if they hold any specific office or role within the Parliament, and consider how your own concerns and priorities might relate to this.
They are also a member of a national Parliament, so will be engaging in debates and votes on matters of national and international significance. It is important for them to be aware in such circumstances of the feelings and priorities of the people they represent. The Joint Public Issues Team and other agencies often produce briefing sheets on key issues as they emerge – you might use these to help inform any representations you might wish to make. Remember that your Member of Parliament is more likely to take notice of you when you disagree, if you also contact them when you feel able to support them – so don’t miss opportunities to affirm the good things that they are doing.
Many agencies now produce standard letters and emails that you can send to your MP on specific matters. While these can be useful, particularly in expressing the scale of local concern, public officials do recognise that these can be quite easily (and at times thoughtlessly) reproduced. A bespoke letter is likely to make a greater impact, but try to keep it succinct and to the point. Where you are writing as a church, remind them that this is a communal response from a group of their constituents. When a national issue has particular local relevance or impact, it is important to highlight this too.
Remember that the work of Parliament is not just restricted to the debating chamber; many local and regional MP’s serve on commons select committees, and will be particularly responsive to concerns you raise that are relevant to this role, It might be useful to research which of your local MP’s serve in such capacities. Remember too that many opposition MP’s are involved with select committees, so they are not without a voice on key issues.
Stay aware as a church
There does seem to be a growing engagement of local church in public issues. Not only is this important in our prophetic role, but it also has a missional dimension. Local people will find the church more relevant, if it is seen to be engaging in and speaking about the things that matter to them. Keep including prayers for those in public office, nationally and locally within your services, and without inappropriately politicising them, seek to offer a Biblical perspective on key issues that are in the public domain. Again there are a number of resources published by the Joint Public Issues Team, or highlighted on our website, that can help with this.
The task of leading and developing good communities does not belong to national politicians alone. While a good number of Christians do serve as MPs, many others are involved in local and parish councils, or serve as school governors, magistrates and other public offices. Congregational members can be encouraged to consider this for themselves, and to affirm those from their number who do serve in these capacities. Not only does this make a vital contribution to civil society, but it demonstrates local churches to be active and engaged partners, who need to be taken seriously.
The Revd Phil Jump is Regional Minister Team Leader of the North Western Baptist Association