It seems as though the English evangelical alliance is determined to ensure that the London Mayoral elections on 7th May are given an exclusive focus, entirely at the cost of the nation wide Police and Crime Commission elections taking place on the same day. At the end of February the evangelical alliance published one of its e-news newsletters, explaining how they intended to provide a hustings event for the Mayoralty, inviting only the ‘main’ political parties. I wrote to the alliance requesting that they include a broader range of candidates, specifically because with the PCC elections on the same day, and the fact that 1/3 of the PCCs are Independents, that a hustings event which excluded any Independent candidates would potentially sway Christians from considering a vote for an Independent PCC, let alone one of the Independent Mayoral candidates. My email was ignored, or at least did not get a reply. Three weeks later the next email newsletter emerged and once again there was no reference to the PCC elections and the reference to the Mayoralty was exclusively about the main parties. This time I wrote to Dave Landrum and Steve Clifford in the hope that they might respond. Dave did respond acknowledging my email and pointing out that their position was no different to 2012 when I had discussed this with Dave face to face. The elections in 2012 did not take place on the same day as each other, and prior to the 2012 Mayoral election, it was not clear how well Siobhan Benita, the only Independent candidate would do in the contest. In fact she received double the votes of UKIP and almost as many as both the Greens and Lib Dems, even though both of these candidates were involved in the hustings that year. When the PCC elections took place the Independent candidates all did very well, with a third of the areas returning an Independent candidate.
Today the alliance have published their latest newsletter and once again there is a focus on the London Mayoral elections, elections to the devolved assemblies but not a single reference to the PCC elections. The evangelical alliance does have references on its website to PCC elections, but all of these references relate to the 2012 elections when I was one of the candidates. It seems as though the alliance has no real interest in the 2016 elections, even though they were signatories to the ‘show up’ campaign in May 2015 which was intended to encourage Christians to get involved in politics. What a shame that their focus is so London centric and limited to established Political Parties! There is still time for this to change, but it is clear that my emails alone are not sufficient to persuade them to act differently. Perhaps others will have more success?
In May 2015 Christians in Politics ran a campaign called Show Up. According to the website “The Show Up campaign aims to encourage positive Christian engagement in the run up to, and beyond, the 2015 General Election.” Some 10 months later there have been several attempts by backbench politicians to raise issues that are contentious as far as the Government is concerned. At the end of October 2015 there was an attempt by Labour MP Julie Cooper to create a law that would give carers free parking at NHS hospitals. A week later on 6th November there was an attempt to create a law that would oblige the NHS to use drugs that are outside of their patent where they are suited to the patient. This would cut the costs of NHS treatment benefiting all of us. Finally today there was an attempt to reverse privatisation of the NHS. It is certain that all of these Bills contain elements that would be unacceptable to some of the 650 MPs who were elected in May 2015 when we were encouraged to show up and engage with the democratic process. However none of the 650 MPs were allowed to vote for or against the bills. This is because all three bills were ‘talked out’ by various MPs using a technique known as filibuster. On each of these occasions at least one of the MPs involved with these anti-democratic filibusters were members of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, one of the major contributors to the Christians in Politics group. Altogether at least two members of CCF were involved, they are Alistair Burt and David Nuttall. It seems bizarre for people so closely associated with a campaign that encouraged you and I to show up, to then use the Parliamentary time that you and I pay for to prevent our MPs from voting on our behalf. Perhaps Christians in Politics will reflect on this when they formulate their campaign for 2020!
The issue of Church growth is far too often reduced to that dreadful phrase ‘bums on seats’. Having been involved in Church Leadership over a number of years I am familiar with the reductionist approach taken at a number of conferences and meetings when church leaders get together. It is much rarer for people to compare strengths and weaknesses in the sense of a focus on the Arts, or education, on social engagement or church unity than it is for men (it is almost always men) to swap numbers and percentages, in a manner that suggests that size is almost everything and numerical growth no matter how small is vital. The tragedy is that whilst our Bible implies that a healthy community will regenerate itself, it does not specifically apply this to the size of congregations and indeed almost nothing is said about congregations of believers when compared to the needs of communities and the poor and dispossessed. However if one has the privilege of being part of a worshipping community that experiences sustained numerical growth it must be hard not to get excited, and such excitement can become infectious. The nature of humanity is that sometimes rather than this excitement and encouragement spreading in a dispersed manner, it acts as a magnet and draws the focus onto the one congregation which first experienced the growth.
One congregation that has experienced a significant level of growth in recent years is St Peters Church in Brighton. It began as a result of a meaningful number of people moving into Brighton from outside the city. It is believed that some of them still travel into the City each Sunday. These people moved into a building which was at that time attended by an unsustainably small group of worshippers who had been campaigning for several years to prevent the building from shutting. To these two groups were added a large number of people from many of the nearby congregations and also some whose first experience of Church was through the combined impact of this ‘new’ ministry. It is vital for all of these people to understand their shared heritage and understand the impact they have on city around them including other places of worship some of whom have released members to enable St Peters to be the success it currently is. This morning the usual congregation was joined by the most senior Anglican Bishop in our nation, The Archbishop of Canterbury, The Right Revd Justin Welby, an unusual experience for any local Parish Church. Prior to speaking to the Church Justin Welby tweeted at about 11am “At St Peter’s Brighton, empty & closed 6 years ago, full and thriving today, thanks to the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead” It is tragic that the Archbishop had jumped to this conclusion or been led to believe the story he was tweeting was the truth. It of course makes a wonderful metaphor for death and resurrection, but there had not been a death at all, although it was inevitable that without a major injection of energy, membership and finances that closure of the church would have occurred. Because of the social media influence of Justin Welby 60 other people retweeted his message during the day and another 151 people favourited the message. I may not have been the only person to point out the mistake in the message, however I have not yet seen a response to myself or anyone else from the Archbishop. Perhaps the closest we will get is a tweet at about 5pm from Nicky Gumbel, the Father of one of the members of staff at St Peters and one of the founders of the Holy Trinity Brompton parent Church. His tweet appears to be a corrected version of the Archbishops tweet “About to be closed 6 years ago @stpeters_church bursting at the seams this morning! #Jesusisalive! #churchisgrowing!” his tweet was retweeted by 82 people and favourited by 174.
The natural excitement that many of us experience when the Church grows must not lead to exaggeration or worse, particularly as those who dedicated their time and energy to keeping St Peters open over many years deserve to be honoured, not treated as though they simply passed away!
This year, 100 years since the beginning of the War to end all Wars and 96 years since the first Armistice is particularly poignant. One of the most interesting articles for me has just been published in the Guardian relaying a story of one devastated community. It is of great significance to me as this Summer I had the privilege of visiting the Islands of Harris and Lewis with my family. According to the article, Lewis ‘gave up’ more of their men folk than anywhere else in the UK or most of the Commonwealth. The greatest tragedy of all was the loss of life as a result of the HMY Iolaire (Gaelic for Eagle) which sank on 1st January 1919 leading to the death of 205 men from Harris and Lewis including 11 from North Tolsta. This town had only 100 homes and 41 of their men died during the war including those lost on the Iolaire. The ship was a mere 20ft from the Harbour in Stornaway when it was lost nearly 2 months after the Armistice. Lewis and Stornaway are places of great significance for other reasons as a result of the Ministry of Duncan Campbell 1898-1972. Campbell a Scottish Preacher is recognised by many as the Father of the Hebridean Revival and the Stornaway Convention in the early 1950’s.
The tragedy of the men lost in the Iolaire, months after they had finished fighting is mirrored in the story of the loss of the SS Mendi less than 2 years beforehand. On 21st February 1917 616 men from Pondo rural area of South Africa drowned on the Mendi after being struck by a British Mail Ship. These men like those from Harris and Lewis were drawn from a small number of communities and their loss led to a dreadful impact on the area concerned. This same area in subsequent years experienced a level of revival. As a result of this South African revival, members of my own Church travelled to the Transkei area in the mid 1990’s and have continued to forge links between Brighton & rural South Africa ever since. On one of the visits to the area, the story of the Mendi and the almost complete failure by our own nation to acknowledge these men and their loss of life to the communities from where they came was raised with church members. Following this the events described in this Independent article took place and a memorial was set up in the South Downs outside of Brighton & Hove, in the grounds of the Parish Church in Newtimber. The current Lord of the Manor in Newtimber is a descendant of the Governor of South African at the time that the men set sail from Cape Town.
Whereas the men from Lewis and Harris died after fighting on the Western front, the men from South Africa had not even arrived. They would in any case not have been allowed to fight. Their contribution to the war effort was to dig trenches for men like those from Lewis to fight in. The South Africans, unlike the Scots were not deemed to be worthy of fighting for the war effort, even though in their own communities they were noble warriors and princes. As we acknowledge the first World War, and those who died to help our nation, we should not ignore the tragic symmetry of these two ships and their precious cargoes. We should also not ignore the subsequent revivals in both the Hebrides and the Transkei.
A couple of weeks ago there was an emergency at the Palace of Westminster, although you could be forgiven for not knowing much about this, very little emerged from most of our news sources, and few MPs could even be bothered to turn up for the debate. As a result of this ‘emergency’ a new piece of legislation has been rushed through both houses of Parliament, gaining the Royal Assent needed to make the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers (DRIP) Bill an Act of Parliament. The full details of the Act are still emerging, the draft Bill was only published last Thursday, just over a week ago. It is a real testament to the capacity of Parliament that they found the time and space to achieve to squeeze the Bill into the last few days of their Summer term. According to ones perspective the new Act is either replacing existing legislation that the European Court of Justice has judged illegal with something similar that will not fall foul of Brussels, or the Government has replaced one set of spying controls with a much wider set of state powers so MI6 and the Police can find out who we are communicating to and when. There are of course various positions in-between these two extremes!
My own view at this stage is that the details of the legislation are overshadowed by the abuse of Parliamentary process which our elected representatives agreed to in their ‘rush’ to achieve what one can hope they see as worthy objectives. Although the draft Bill was published as a piece of emergency legislation on Thursday 10th July, in fact the news that the EU ruling would limit the powers of our security services was declared on 8th April. A full 12 weeks before this ‘emergency’. Most of the small number of MPs who have opposed this legislation, MPs from all parties, were concerned that the Government had introduced this legislation in the last week of Parliaments work programme and that there has been no attempt to extend the sitting of Parliament to deal with this ‘emergency’ in a timely and proportionate manner. The reason for the delay was explained by one coalition MP “The Liberal Democrats and I take this issue very seriously. Part of the reason why there has been a delay since the April ruling is because the Liberal Democrats wanted to ensure that this legislation included the necessary extra safeguards to protect the privacy of our citizens, and because the decision in April was so complex, we wanted to make sure to get it right.” While this all sounds very credible, the problem is that this activity took place between the coalition parties behind closed doors so there has been no opportunity for other MPs, let alone the public at large to understand the intentions and for normal Parliamentary scrutiny to take place. Even more bizarrely the Labour front bench also took part in behind closed doors ‘pre-scrutiny’ which has led to the draft Bill being published as pre-approved by the opposition. According to David Davis MP (Conservative) “Parliament has three roles: to scrutinise legislation, to prevent unintended consequences and to defend the freedom and liberty of our constituents. The motion undermines all three and we should oppose it.” The purpose of Parliament is to scrutinise and limit the power of the executive of the Government and in this case it is hard to see how scrutiny has been achieved in the case of DRIP.
The title of this blog intentionally poses a provocative question. The Bill passed three times through the House of Lords in its passage and their Lordships apparently did not even vote on it, implying that all of them including the 26 Bishops did not oppose its words or object to the process sufficiently to delay the Bill beyond the 2 days set aside for their ‘scrutiny’. I was interested in this apparent passive acceptance, and so sent a tweet to @ChurchState the people who tweet on behalf of these 26 prelates. I asked what their view was and their reply was “@IanChisnall No. There’s no ‘CofE view’ on the legislation, and it’d be more accurate to say that the same’s true with the Lords Spiritual.” My concern is that here are 26 men who have access to the processes and the reasoning behind this emergency legislation, that they have allowed it to pass unchallenged yet they have no ‘view’ regarding it. In my opinion the way the legislation has been forced through Parliament is an appalling abuse of power, and it appears to be a substantial extension to powers that could impact all of us. Some believe it to be vital to retain our national security intact. None of us have their Lordships access to legal advice and they don’t have a view. I don’t believe that an informed democrat can possibly have no view about DRIP. So my question is why do 26 Bishops have a seat in the House of Lords if none of them has a view on something as important or as damaging as this terrible piece of democratic vandalism.
Whatever your views about 26 Bishops, if you don’t already have a view about DRIP, can I recommend two blogs. The first presents DRIP from a benign point of view, it is written by John Leech MP. Alternatively you could ask your own MP why they support the Act, unless your MP, like mine is one of only 30 to vote against it. However beware most MPs send out standard letters that are word for word identical to what their neighbours are using. For a negative perspective please check out this open letter. This legislation will either protect us from terrorists, or else lead to our society becoming subject to oppressive scrutiny that the MPs have chosen to exclude themselves from, or I suppose it could achieve both objectives!
This morning at 07.00 residents of Newark, a Parliamentary constituency near Nottingham in the English midlands will have breathed a sigh of relief and so to will thousands of people who have been under immense pressure to cover every single inch of the constituency with leaflets and handshakes and ensure that every feasible phone number is phoned. At 7am the polling stations opened and that is the end of the influencing, indoctrinating and browbeating. Never again will the residents of Newark receive so much attention and in all probability it will return to being a safe Conservative seat, even though it was a Conservative MP who let down his constituents so badly.
Watching twitter for the number of Conservative paid officials (including MPs who are supposed to be representing people all over the UK) along with volunteers (including Peers) who have visited Newark in the past few weeks shows just how much propping up is going on to get the outcome that the party knows is needed if the General Election plans are not to be damaged. On the Radio the prospective MP admitted that all Conservative MPs and Ministers had been instructed to visit the constituency 3 times during the campaign. All of the other parties have adopted a similar approach.
In the work I have been involved in over the last 20 years, the phrase Community Development is used to describe an approach which starts with local residents and their needs and abilities and introduces resources (financial, human and training in skills) in a manner that allows the residents to increase their confidence and competence at a pace which they can achieve sustainably. Over time the local residents are able to take over the running of the relevant organisations on their own behalf. Arguably this is the model built on the way in which Jesus engaged with people. He did not impose his ideas on people or overwhelm them, but rather drew out from them the created strength in the heart of each of them. This is the very opposite of the approach adopted by many large businesses and political organisations. They respond in the same way in which all of the major parties have responded to Newark, flooding the ‘problem’ with disproportionate levels of resources, irrespective of the true impact on the residents, because they can! It is how some of the worlds natural disasters have been addressed with donors flooding the area with people and goods, assuming that they know best. Yet in democracies elections are supposed to be fought on terms that are free and fair. It is supposed to be the ideas and the principles of the candidates that determine who people vote for, not the number of balloons that his supporters can hand out.
Today Jesus will not be voting and neither will I. However it is my contention that if we were to adopt the approach modelled by Jesus, that our Political Parties would not behave as they have for the last few weeks.
According to one of the on line dictionaries an alliance is “a merging of efforts or interests by persons, families, states, or organizations” Any organisation that wants to join an existing alliance must understand who they will be co-workers with and if they can subscribe to the shared objectives that the alliance has agreed to. By the same token once organisations are in an alliance, one would assume that they need to agree amongst themselves if some of them are pulling in a different direction to the others and ideally any parting of the ways should be agreed mutually. This would the be mark of a mature and robust set of relationships. It is stating the obvious to point out that Alliances are nearly always made up of organisations that are not agreed on everything together. Whilst there are some biblical sources for knowing how to respond when things go wrong within a Church, there are no Biblical sources for how to run an Alliance, even though the Bible contains many principles as to how we should treat each other. When things do go wrong within an Alliance, it is not unreasonable to expect that all of the members would be consulted to see how the group as a whole should respond.
This weeks decision by the Evangelical Alliance to go their separate ways from Oasis is one that is bound to create a great deal of heat beyond the Alliance itself. It may also generate some light. The discussions that the members were not invited to participate in before the decision will certainly take place subsequently and indeed this situation does raise a number of questions about who the Council and Board are accountable to. Any prospect of these discussions leading to a change in outcome would now be hard to achieve. In the unlikely event that large numbers of members were to ask the Council and Board to reconsider their decisions, there would almost certainly be a loss of face and indeed probably some resignations. In the more likely event that some of the more progressive members of the Evangelical Alliance, possibly after arguing for change, follow Oasis and then look for a new place to work together, this will inevitably weaken the breadth of the Alliance itself. It is hard to believe that this weeks announcement will strengthen the work of the Church in the UK.
I am currently a member of the Alliance through my local church and have historically been a personal member. I am fortunate enough to count a number of the EA staff as personal friends and also some of the folk at Oasis (past and present). I find it disturbing that there has been no attempt that I am aware of to involve the wider membership of the Alliance in this decision. Because of my personal friendships, I am certain that those involved have worked tirelessly behind closed doors to avoid making a bad decision. However there also needs to be a public dimension to the decision making, recognising we are affected by the decision. I accept that to achieve “a merging of efforts or interests by persons, families, states, or organizations” that occasionally difficult decisions must be taken. However the repercussions of this decision will go far further than the closed rooms in which the discussions took place. Even if the Alliance and Oasis could not agree to journey together any longer, they might have agreed between them a statement that would have helped the rest of us to shape the debate that is now beginning!