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11 Mar 2009 : Column 112WH—continued

2.56 pm

John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing this debate, which I know has been raised in the main Chamber as well. As he said, some would say that Christianity is both personal and private. I, too, would have to disagree with that. Christianity is certainly personal but it cannot be private.

I thought that it might be appropriate to hear what Jesus himself said in Matthew 5:16:

The reason that I wanted to use that verse and actually read it out of a Bible is because after my recent election, I was presented with this Bible by the Gideons, who do extremely worthwhile work throughout the country.

Elsewhere, the Bible says that we should always be prepared to give an account for the hope that is in us, but that leaves us with a question: if Jesus wanted us to be up front and public about our faith, how did he see faith and public life relating, and how would he expect the Church to relate to society?

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus said:

From such passages, it seems that Jesus expected the Church to be a minority group in society. Historically, it has tended to be stronger and to grow more when it has been under pressure. A clear recent example of that is the Church in China. One could argue that, in the world today, the Church is weakest in Europe, where it has generally been accepted by society and has been close to the state. I shall not go so far as to say that I want the Church to be persecuted, even though in the long term that might benefit it, but those of us who follow the Christian faith do not fear being persecuted or imprisoned.

For many years up to the Reformation and since, it was assumed by many that the Church and the state should go hand in hand. At the time of the Reformation,
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both main parties, and the likes of Luther, Calvin and so on, assumed that that would continue to be the case. At that time, the relatively small group of Anabaptists who originated in Switzerland, south Germany and the Netherlands held out for a stricter separation of Church and state. They were persecuted for their efforts by both the Protestants and the Catholics, but it is to them that I look today for an example of what we should be doing.

In many ways, it was a mistake for the Church to link up with the state at the time of Constantine. I very much enjoyed the speech by the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson), although she used the term “Christian country”. I would dispute whether such a thing is actually possible, and whether there should ever be Christian countries.

Sir Alan Beith: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that the lineal descendants of the dissident religious groups that he describes are the Amish in the United States of America, who recently experienced a terrible school shooting, which the hon. Gentleman may remember. When the shooting happened, among the volunteer firemen who came to the scene were members of the Amish community. They have preserved a separate relationship but, even to their way of thinking, must sometimes engage with the state to a limited extent. They are remarkable people.

John Mason: Yes. We could have a long theological debate. The Amish, the Mennonites and others have taken a more distinct view, but I want to be involved in the life of the Church and of the state. There is a danger that parts of the Church are becoming too separate from society, but it is not the Church as a whole but individual believers who should engage in society.

The state’s role should be to treat all people equally, whatever faith they have, or lack. The state should not favour Christianity over other faiths, but secular humanism should not be favoured over those who have faith, and nor should any other faith be favoured over Christianity. The briefing for the debate contains examples of places where Christians are discriminated against, and it could be argued that, because Christianity has enjoyed a favoured place for centuries, it should balance that out by suffering a bit. I confess that there may be some validity in that, because the Church has abused its position in many countries, including this one. However, we must surely want to move to a position whereby the state is even-handed.

Some in the Churches want to return to the old days, with Christianity as the state religion. Others fear that it is no longer possible to have a strong Christian faith in public life. Faith became quite a major issue during my by-election last July, and it was encouraging to find that a number of people realised that it was still possible to be open about one’s Christian faith and, first, to be selected by a mainstream party, a category in which I include my party, and, secondly, to be elected by the public.

Since arriving at Westminster, I have been interested in the vestiges of Christianity around the place. For example, there is Prayers at the start of each sitting. Is that a good thing? I have mixed feelings about it. Some attend only to book their seat for whatever business comes next, and I fear that the prayers themselves give a dry and dusty view of Christianity. However, I decided
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on the spur of the moment to have a prayer at the opening of my constituency office in January. My pastor turned up unexpectedly, and I suddenly thought that I would ask him to pray. The reaction was interesting. One unbelieving friend walked out and argued that it was totally inappropriate, while the guy from the local newspaper thought that it was appropriate. So there we are.

Where should those of us with a Christian faith look for a model of how faith fits into society? Some look to Israel in the Old Testament or even to European society in recent centuries, where the state and the Church were strongly interlinked. However, for those who know the Bible, I suggest that a better model might be Daniel, and others such as Joseph and Mordecai, when God’s person was in a fairly hostile environment. Daniel stood out as a light in a dark place, and we as Christians should do the same. We are not Christian believers because we are born in England, Scotland or any other country, any more than somebody born in a coal mine is a piece of coal; every one of us has to make our own personal decision about faith. All I ask from society and the state is that they treat us even-handedly.

3.3 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I apologise to the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for being late for the start of the debate; I was away with a Select Committee, as I think he knows. I shall be brief, because I want to make only two points.

I welcome the debate. As a Christian, I think that it is important that one tells people of one’s faith, because people should register it. I have always found that Christians like to know that one is a Christian, and that people of other faiths and of no faith respect it, too. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I have been attacked. Sadly, it has happened recently, but that is because the battle between secularism and Christianity has created heightened expectations among the latter, and we as Christians must address that.

Like others, including the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason), I pay due regard to the Christian charities that go places where no other group will go. In my constituency, Marah, which runs a homeless charity, works not only with people who have no home, obviously, but with people who are alcohol or drug dependent, or have other social problems. I have real respect for Marah, because the group does such work day in, day out, and in the most difficult circumstances.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Before the hon. Gentleman moves on to his second, and probably unrelated, point, will he take this opportunity to pay tribute to the quite outstanding international humanitarian and advocacy work undertaken by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, with which he and I are both personally very familiar? If he is inclined to do so, will he also pay tribute to that beacon of hope in an often difficult world, the organisation’s south Asia advocacy officer, Ben Rogers, who is a quite remarkable human being?

Mr. Drew: I will. Even though we do not agree politically, we both respect Ben and all he does, and I thank my hon. Friend—in this respect—for highlighting what that wonderful organisation does in all parts of
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the world. We must recognise that aspect, too, because we are talking about Christianity in public life not just in this country, but in the wider sphere.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is not directly responsible for the role of religious buildings in communities, because that has been parked with the Treasury. However, it is worth mentioning their role because it affects communities. We underestimate the fact that a religious building is often the single most important building in many communities. All hon. Members know that we have been arm-wrestling the Treasury for some time on the subject of Anglican churches. I respect the fact that that does not include other denominations, such as Catholicism and non-conformism, or other religions, but we have been trying to arm-wrestle money, or at least tax exemptions, to secure recognition that in many of our communities such buildings are crucial institutions.

Religious buildings are often the last to receive any form of public support, which is quite wrong when they undertake huge amounts of community work. I am quite happy to have the condition laid down that if they receive public money, they should be available to the public. That is what Christian institutions should do anyway; they should reach out to people of all faiths and none, but we cannot allow those cornerstone buildings of our communities to be funded almost literally on a wing and a prayer. Many of them are enormously important in terms of their architectural heritage and their whole being—the way in which communities relate to them and use them—so I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will chase that up with the Treasury and clarify the issue.

There are three different bids on the table: the Treasury’s own analysis, one from the Church of England, and one from English Heritage. I hope that a few heads will be banged together and that we achieve some clarity, because we cannot have Christianity in public life unless we have a place to go to witness it and to talk to people, regardless of whether we do so for a religious purpose. I hope that my hon. Friend will take that as a nudge to talk to the Treasury, as we too often lose such buildings not because other people take them on but because they fall down. They have to be turned into mausoleums, but they are really important buildings, so I hope that my hon. Friend will take on the issue, and that those buildings will become a real edifice for the way in which Christianity functions in our society.

3.9 pm

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for securing this debate and for his tremendous contribution to the life of the Christian community in the Palace of Westminster day in, day out. He is an example to many of us.

What is the purpose—the point—of Christian involvement in the public square? What do we seek to achieve? The first thing to say is that we do not seek to achieve a theocracy through such engagement. We tried that in the 1650s, and it was a bit of a disaster. We do not want that. Someone once said that the Church is at its worst when it has power, but at its best
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when it has influence, and I agree. The object is not to take over, but to influence decisions made in the public square according to the principles from scripture that the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason) read out so effectively earlier.

At least one hon. Member sitting at these tables will agree that Christians do not have a monopoly on compassion or integrity—the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) did not expect me to say that. Many secular people demonstrate such qualities in abundance; in fact, when I reflect on my 16 years in the House as a fairly overt Christian, I am reminded that some of the most difficult and judgmental people we have to deal with in our constituencies can be Christians, although that is beginning to change. It is important that we, as believers, demonstrate our faith in the way in which we act and speak, because we sometimes let ourselves down.

I believe passionately in believers engaging in public life through the political system, if that is their calling, but the Christian faith is so much bigger than any one party or ideology and cannot be hijacked by any one side and used to poke others in the eye. We need believers in every party, and the Bible is supportive of all the ideologies reflected in this room.

Perhaps my most important point is that the unique thing about Christianity—the reason why it equips us to engage in public life—is that it is not about a book or a doctrine, but about a living person; it is about a journey or a walk with Jesus Christ, not about a set of rules. It cannot become old-fashioned or stuck in the past, because the person we seek to follow is alive and just as involved in and aware of current events as he was 2,000 years ago. Again, I have to say that the Church has not always reflected the fact that we come to a person, not a book or a set of dusty rules, but we are getting a little better at that, too.

I come now to my main point, although I will be brief because others want to speak, and I am particularly keen to hear the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed), who speaks eloquently on this subject—no pressure there then, Andy. As has been said, one reason why we should engage in politics is that our faith is the faith of “Love your neighbour”, the faith of the good Samaritan and the faith of understanding that every individual is unique and created by God, and therefore special and not to be put on one side or brushed under the carpet as a statistic.

We have heard that many charities throughout the past 200 or 300 years were founded by strong believers and we know that many charities operating in this country are Christian charities. I want to say something to the Minister. The Government and local government are getting better at engaging with faith communities and Christian charities; they are getting better at understanding that the faith motivation that makes such groups successful—that takes them the extra mile and means that they engage with hard-to-reach people and do the work that many other groups do not want to do—must not be squeezed out by Government or council contracts. Authorities want the results, but they do not like the way in which people achieve them.

I totally accept that it is crucial that public money is not used for evangelism, but we must be grown up about that. If Christian organisations get results because of the personal commitment, passion, power and faith
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of those involved, it is stupid to engage them to help the most vulnerable while denying them the means to do so by saying, “Ah, but you can’t do things that way any longer.” I hope that the Minister will reassure us that the Government are aware of that. Of course there are dangers, but I think that the Government are moving on the issue.

John Bercow: Like others, my hon. Friend is making an extremely thoughtful and interesting speech. I can well understand and empathise with the concern that he and my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire have expressed about the obstacles that are sometimes put in the way of faith-based groups that seek not to proselytise but to deliver results. However, does he accept that whatever his views about gay sexual practice, for example, it is a bit much for people to say, “As Christians, we are being discriminated by comparison with others”? All that people such as me and the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon would say is that Christian faith cannot trump an Act of Parliament dealing with human rights, which are universal.

Mr. Streeter: If my hon. Friend visits Christian projects in his constituency, as I am sure he does—indeed, I can take him to a few in south-west Devon if he would like to come with me one weekend—he will see that there has been movement on that issue in most Christian work over the past few years. Most Christian charities are open to all comers and want to serve everybody, irrespective of their background or the condition in which they find themselves. There has been a maturing in the Christian Church and the charitable movement in recent times, so my hon. Friend may be a little out of date.

My final point is that we are living through turbulent times. People often talk about getting through the recession and back to normality, but I do not want to go back to the normality that we had in 2007 and the immediately preceding years. I and others want a new normality—we do not want the debt overhang or the rampant materialism that drove us into our present difficult position. Christian principles of more sharing, more community engagement, more sustainability and less addiction to consumer principles and rampant materialism can help to guide us through this stormy period and into a better normality on the other side, rather than just taking us back to what we had in the past.

3.16 pm

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): It is a genuine pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter)—and I do call him my hon. Friend in this case.

I stand here as a Christian. In fact, my hon. Friend and I took part in a meeting this morning. A group of us regularly meet to pray and spend time together. I will not share any confidences, other than to say that my hon. Friend has come a long way, having read “Das Kapital” this week and recognised that Marx predicted the collapse of our international financial system 150 years ago. So there is always room for him on the Labour Benches.

I join my hon. Friend in some of the comments that he has made. I feel a bit like a Liberal because I want to criticise both wings in the current situation, although
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the danger of being in the middle is that one might get run over by both sides. There is a real problem for the Church. As Christians, we have to find the right role in the public square, but that public square changes over time, and we have not really kept up with those changes.

Just a few months ago, Theos produced a fantastic publication called “Neither Private nor Privileged”, and I want to read a quote from it that sums things up and helps us to see where we are. It is from a friend of mine, the American evangelist, Jim Wallace, who says:

There is no single model of how that would work. I agree with many hon. Members here in that I would like to see the disestablishment of the Church. It is unhealthy to be part of the state process; it is much healthier if we have a voice outwith the state and are allowed to proclaim and sometimes confront.

Jim Wallace is very clear about that. He was a close adviser of Obama’s in the lead-up to the election, but he felt it much better as a Christian leader to be slightly outside the political process as it moves forward so that he can challenge Obama and make him accountable to the many Christians who, through initiatives such as the Matthew 25 Network, have changed their allegiance. There was an idea that a right-wing evangelical alliance was part of the American psyche, and we probably sometimes associate that with the word “evangelical”, but things have shifted somewhat, and there is greater recognition of that in America.

Perhaps I can use Daniel’s time in a foreign land as a model for our public engagement. I have actually had four days of talking about this, because I spoke at spring harvest about the similarities between Daniel’s time in a foreign land and our position in the public square. Our situation is very similar. We are in a foreign land where much of the language that we use is difficult for people to understand. They have difficulty with the way in which we do church, the way in which we profess ourselves and, more often than not, the way in which we interact with this place. I am sure that if I asked hon. Members to put up their hands and say where their worst letters come from, they would say it was from our Christian brothers and sisters, who write to us in the most terse of terms. I can understand why many MPs, and other people, who do not have a faith, are very turned off by that. We are seen by people who do not have a faith as hypocritical, sometimes. I think that Yancey says it in his book on grace. A prostitute he talked to, to whom he suggested it would be a good idea if they went into the local church, said she felt bad enough about herself, and asked why on earth she would want to go in there to be made to feel even worse.

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