Fifty years ago today, peace protesters disrupted a Labour Party conference church service as pro-war politicians read out Bible passages about peace.
Sitting in the Conservative Party conference church service this evening, I started to think that the greatest thing I would be likely to protest about was an excess of blandness.
Until, that is, the preacher neared the end of his sermon. Andrew Davies is a Pentecostal minister, a Conservative Party member and a theologian at Birmingham University. In a sermon about Christian engagement in society, he eventually came to talk about the work of Christian charities.
He pointed out that the Trussell Trust had given out 1,109,309 emergency food parcels in 2015-16. This figure was displayed on a PowerPoint slide projected at an enormous size on the wall behind him. He then quoted the figure that the Cinnamon Network (a far more right-wing group than the Trussell Trust) had supposedly contributed to the British economy.
After these examples of Christian service, he said:
“Isn’t that fantastic?”
I sat up in my seat, feeling slightly sick. No, Andrew, it isn’t fantastic. It’s outrageous. It’s disgusting that anybody needs an emergency food parcel, let alone over a million people in one of the richest countries in the world.
It is one thing to praise charities for helping people who have been thrown into poverty. It is another thing to do so after causing the poverty in question.
Tory policies have caused the rise in food poverty. Praising those who alleviate it is like beating someone up and then saying that the person who gave them first aid has done a great job.
Earlier, I had stood outside the church with other members of Christians for Economic Justice (CEJ) as the Conservative conference delegates arrived at the service. We had handed out leaflets pointing out the contrast between Jesus’ example of siding with the poor and Tory support for the interests of the wealthy.
The leaflets – drafted by my friend Nicola Sleapwood, a Christian disability activist living in Birmingham – pointed out that the number of Trussell Trust food parcels in 2015-16 was more than eighteen times higher than in 2010-11. The same figure – 1,109,309 – was given.
Yet less than an hour later I sat in the service, saw this number flashed up on the screen and heard this situation described as “fantastic”.
The service was organised by the Conservative Christian Fellowship. There were some parts it that I would have readily agreed with – were it not for the implication that the views and values expressed were compatible with support for the Conservative Party. Andrew Davies deserves some credit for going out of his way to distinguish Christendom from the Kingdom of God.
Prior to that, there was a lot of vague and shallow talk about the importance of engaging with society and politics. Throughout the service, “politics” was taken to mean the narrow world of Westminster and Whitehall politics. To be fair, Caroline Spellman said, “Life is politics”. But she then went onto to talk of people “going into politics”. In reality, we are all “in politics” simply by being living human beings who are part of communities and societies.
A video was shown by the charity Global Vision, drawing attention to the horror of violence against girls and women around the world. The Tory delegates, whose party’s cuts have closed down rape crisis centres, applauded and nodded their approval.
I am not for a minute claiming to be a better Christian than any of the Tories there. I will have to answer to God as much as they will. I am frequently selfish, I often fail to love my neighbour and I am complicit in all sorts of injustices in the society in which I live.
However, I do maintain that solidarity with the poor and marginalised is not incidental to Jesus’ message but runs unavoidably through it. To seek to follow Jesus without recognising this is to build a house on sand.
Many of the people at the service were friendly, polite and – I’m sure – compassionate. I dare say they care for their families and friends. They may volunteer for charities and pray about the world’s problems. But if we are to follow the encouragement to engage in politics, we cannot have one set of values in everyday life and another in the polling station.
I am sometimes asked, “Can a Christian be a Conservative?”. Of course a Christian can be a Conservative. The question is whether they should be. However well-meaning individual Tory Christians may be, the Tory Party as a whole works to protect the interests of the super-rich. It has been doing so very well for 300 years.
The Conservative Party is for the rich in the same way that a potato peeler is for peeling potatoes. You can try to use it for something else, but it very rarely works.