Can the Lib Dems learn from the Church?

One of the obligatory truths of being a university student is that you become nocturnal. Staying awake until the small hours of the morning and rising just in time to get to your next lecture, even if that lecture is in the afternoon. It was on one of these nocturnal sessions that led me to watch ‘The Battle for Christianity’, written and presented by Professor Robert Beckford currently Professor in theology at Canterbury Christ Church University. This documentary took a look at where the heartbeat of Christianity is today, debunking the myth that church is still uniformly done to the keys of an organ.

As a practicing Christian, I have often perched myself on an uncomfortable pew, listened to the preacher, sat back and thought to myself, ‘the church and the Lib Dems are incredibly similar.’ This thought has occurred to me far too many times for me not to share it. Using ‘The Battle for Christianity’ and my own experience within the Liberal Democrats, I will seek to explain how to church has changed over my (relatively short) lifetime and what the Lib Dems can learn from this.

Don’t change the message, change the method. Traditional church is on the decline, yet where there is an uptake in church going is where the method has changed, new ideas of worship and how to reach out to a younger congregation. A key example of this is Hillsong London a church that fills the Dominion Theatre, London four times over every Sunday. The Hillsong movement not only uses all the modern technologies to promote their faith, they have also built a movement that meets followers at whatever stage of living they are at. A common critique of local party activists that I hear time and time again, is that our activists are not representative of the general population, ‘too male and stale’, is they phase most often used. The first lesson the church can teach us is that if we are to gain a new ground of activist, changing the way we do activism is critical. Such as going for a cup of tea instead of a pint, starting off with group phone banks so that people start their activist lives is a safe and comfortable environment and building a community so that people want to catch up with friends as well as campaign for a cause or worship a deity. I have seen community built in the church and in movements like Team 2015, both had many similarities in structure and in passion for seeing change.

Don’t wait for a decree from above, start locally. The Lib Dems and the church both have a tradition of localism. One is centred around pot holes the other on food banks. On the refugee crisis, I saw both local parties and local churches collecting food and clothes for refugees. Whilst local parties and out campaign to fix many of the long-term issues faced by our communities, the church often sees itself as being able to offer a quick fix, where government fails to provide. So what can we learn? To answer that I would ask, is your local party plugged into the work of your local church community? Are you aware of the work they are doing? Not least because a report from the Evangelical Alliance in late 2010 found that 94% of Christian were certain or likely to vote in a general election (much higher than the national average) and 39% of Christians said they won’t be voting for the same party as they did in 2010.

There are many more links and comparisons I could draw between the Liberal Democrats and the church. However, looking at the word count, I fear those words will have to wait. If you or your local party wants to engage more with churches in your local community, Liberal Democrat Christian Forum and Christians In Politics have plenty of resources to get you started.

* Will Dyer is the PPC for Bethnal & Bow and a former London regional executive member

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22 Comments

  • Helen Tedcastle 26th Mar '16 - 2:27pm

    I agree that the programme’ The Battle for Christianity’ was excellent and debunks some of the myths put around in the media and elsewhere about the Church and it’s health in the UK.

    I disagree that direct links can be drawn between the Church and its outreach and a political party. Ultimately, the Church is not a party nor is it an NGO. Its aim is not simply about changing the medium or the slogans in order to recruit new activists, though there are superficial similarities certainly.

  • I can only speak from my experience of the Church of England, but I think we can learn that communication is not everything. We need content, too. The Church hierarchy talks endlessly about mission and parishes must have “Mission Action Plans” but this is often, it seems to me, at the expense of serious theology The theological literacy of some clergy is pretty poor and simplistic sermonising just will not cut it. Likewise, the delivery of endless numbers of leaflets without Liberal political content and the communication of the “Look Left, Look Right” nonsense from the General election will not cut it either. (Please note that I am not criticising Focus leaflets as such and I was delivering leaflets this morning.) We need to advocate and build support for Liberal values if we are to prosper politically and that requires attention to the content and not just the means and frequency of communication in any constituency strategy.

  • Four years ago I wrote a post here on a related theme. I covered a report from a think tank which claimed that (contrary to some public perceptions) religious people tended to be more progressive in their thinking, so should be a natural demographic for the Lib Dems.

    I was taken aback at the illiberal vitriol directed at me by some fellow party members. I think in many cases they hadn’t actually read the post but were just automatically reacting to anything about religion. Our party and its predecessors have a proud tradition of freedom of belief and freedom of worship, so I found it odd that my liberalism was being questioned simply because I have a religious faith.

    The responses so far to this thoughtful post suggest that we have moved beyond those knee jerk reactions. As a Christian I actually feel much more comfortable within the party now than a few years ago.

    Must watch that programme …

  • Richard Underhill 26th Mar '16 - 6:45pm

    We are currently watching the beautiful chapel and listening to the beautiful singing for Easter from Kings college. We have also recorded the Christmas version of the programme, but why? oh why? do they intersperse the readings from the Bible with religiosity? What are they talking about? Why do they do it?
    Methodist Alan Beith contributed to a book about politics and religion. I am looking for my copy. There were also contributions from Labour and Conservative politicians.
    All the major religions have, at one time or another, come to the same key message “Do unto others as you would have them do to you”.
    Religion is one of the five main planks of the United Nations Refugee Convention and particularly topical now that IS / Daesh is wreaking havoc.
    Freedom of religion is a key value, but some religions deny it, as do some denominations within Christianity.

  • Richard Underhill 26th Mar '16 - 6:58pm

    Mary Reid 26th Mar ’16 – 6:41pm
    A recent opinion poll showed positive numbers for the current Pope, even from atheists.
    Yesterday I was canvassed by a Jehovah’s Witness while I was cleaning muddy shoes outside the kitchen steps. She will not be voting in the EU referendum because she does not believe that politicians can achieve anything, only God. She said that her husband is an Austrian who was captured in the invasion of the Channel Islands, conscripted into the army of the Third Reich and fought on the eastern front. he will be voting for the UK to leave the EU. I regret that I was unpersuasive.

  • Hi William. Thank you for your interesting article. I am not sure about the Lib Dems learning from the Church or indeed whether it is easy to be a member of a Party and a Church, or other faith group, because there will inevitably be conflicts and it can be hard to ‘square the circle’.

    I am a member of the LDCF and helped them out a bit before the last General Election as I wanted to do my bit, but there is always that doubt: can a person really “serve two masters”? I am not sure. And if you stick up for what your faith leads you to believe you can be in for quite a rough ride. I think it’s still worth it though – just about!

    Having said that I am actually not rejoining the Party at the moment because of the cannabis legalisation policy it has adopted. I cannot get my head around the idea that a Government would, even indirectly, be involved with supplying drugs to young people and raising taxes on the proceeds too.

  • George Kendall 26th Mar '16 - 7:13pm

    @William Dyer
    Thanks for the link to the BBC documentary. Very interesting and optimistic.
    As to whether the Lib Dems can learn from the church, I’m certain of it. I’ve always been struck at how much political parties could learn from the best side of church and, this may surprise some people, how the church could learn from politics at its best.

    @Mary Reid
    I remember that article.
    In fairness, as is often the case with comments under a LibDemVoice article, the illiberal vitriol only comes from a tiny minority, perhaps just two or three people. I’ve almost always felt the party has been tolerant of my religious views … it’s just a few comments on the internet that aren’t.

  • Matt (Bristol) 26th Mar '16 - 10:31pm

    My immediate response is that there is not a thing called ‘the church’ — there are many churches, and many groups of churches – Christianity has multiple institutional structures and multiple cultures, all responding to modernity differently (and in some cases not at all), and some of them tend to behave as if the others don’t or shouldn’t exist.

  • William Dyer 26th Mar '16 - 10:34pm

    Hi everyone, sorry for the delay in responding. I have spent most of the day campaigning with an international delegation in my native Tower Hamlets.

    @Helen, my point is that church has members that have an active interest in the way there organisation runs. That fundamental link between the leadership and its members, I believe, is worthy of note.

    @Paul Hunt, very good point, often church like the party have to balance ‘thinking’ (which often looks inwards) and ‘acting’ (which often looked outwards).

    @Mary, That was something that myself and many other have felt that, mainly at ‘hot points’. The main one that comes to mind is when Tim was elected leader. I am glad to say that that has lessened.

    @Richard, thankyou for those kind comments. Might I suggest you consider joining LDCF.

    @Judy, Your comment reminded me of a quote from the film ‘Amazing Grace’ about William Wilberforce. William Pitt says to Wilberforce “I have Wilber that you are considering a life for politics or for God, might I humbly suggest you can do both.”

    @George, my feeling exactly.

  • Matt (Bristol) 26th Mar '16 - 10:38pm

    This is more of a religious than a political point, but in response to the following observation:

    “Don’t change the message, change the method. Traditional church is on the decline, yet where there is an uptake in church going is where the method has changed, new ideas of worship and how to reach out to a younger congregation”

    … In my particular subculture of the Christian many-headed beast, we tend to feel that if you go to church to meet a bunch of people of the same age and cultural background as you (a la Hillsong) and no long run the risk of meeting older people who disagree with you, you may have actually changed the message by accident, because you changed the method.

    This is applicable to political parties also, I guess.

  • Simon Banks 27th Mar '16 - 9:42pm

    Matt has a point about “the church”. There is a Christian position that “the church” is the whole body of believers/worshippers, but clearly that’s a large number of organisations. One of the streams leading into Liberalism, I believe, was the 17th century theological position known as Brownism – that A church is any group of believers (so no one such group can claim exclusive authority).

    I’m afraid I don’t see Judy’s point. If not serving two masters is that exclusive, how can a Christian be an employee, other than of a church? Any Liberal will belong to organisations – church, humanist society, political party, pressure group, trade union – and disagree with some policies; and to be an effective Christian you must get stuck in with non-Christians in a variety of organised activities. If the line taken by one organisation you belong to conflicts with the line taken by another, then a Christian will pray, think and do what (s)he thinks right – which may not be the official line of the church.

  • Simon Banks 27th Mar '16 - 9:43pm

    Oh – and is going for a cup of tea more modern than going for a pint???

  • @Judy Abel So you think the Government should prohibit the legal sale (and taxation) of highly damaging drugs like Alcohol and Tobacco?

  • Peter Watson 27th Mar '16 - 10:56pm

    @Paul Holmes”So you think the Government should prohibit the legal sale (and taxation) of highly damaging drugs like Alcohol and Tobacco?”
    I don’t think that Judy referred to alcohol and tobacco or the extension of prohibition, but if we are playing that game …
    So you believe that harder drugs than cannabis should be regulated and taxed?
    Or, so, if the “highly damaging drugs like Alcohol and Tobacco” were currently banned, you would you be campaigning for that damage to be more readily available and taxed?

  • @ Thanks very much Peter.
    @ Paul. Let’s stick to one thing at a time….but since you mention it, and in the context of this article, I can’t help thinking of Luke 11:11 when it comes to the drugs question:
    “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?” Are we really suggesting that to help young people, we will make drugs more easy for them to access? Is that what a parent or employer would do? Is that then, what you say the state should do? The state should be discouraging people from taking drugs which can alter their personality and lead to psychosis and addiction – even if it is [probably] only in a minority of cases.

    On smoking, I actually do think cigarettes should be banned because they do so much harm to people’s health, but it is one thing to ban a legal substance and another thing to legalise a banned one. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

    On alcohol, the Government does classify it as a drug, but my personal experience, for what that is worth, is that when people have one or two drinks there personality doesn’t change substantially (after that it is another matter). On the other hand, when many years ago I did a summer placement with Chicago Youth Centres, working with children from ghetto areas who were sent to Michigan for a week’s holiday, I did sense unpleasant personality changes in the counsellors who took cannabis. Their behaviour put me on edge. That is what I remember.

  • Peter Watson 29th Mar '16 - 1:23pm

    Mary Reid “Our party and its predecessors have a proud tradition of freedom of belief and freedom of worship, so I found it odd that my liberalism was being questioned simply because I have a religious faith.”
    Given the heat that religion (Christianity, anyway) usually generates in discussions between Lib Dems on this site, I was struck by a story reporting that the party benefits from a trust established by a devout Quaker and liberal (and chocolate maker!) (http://www.thenational.scot/politics/quaker-trust-used-as-honey-pot-by-lib-dems-to-get-cash-says-leading-member-of-faith.15632)

  • Paul Holmes 29th Mar '16 - 2:31pm

    Judy, some things are legal only because politicians have legalised them and other things are banned only because politicians have banned them. These things are not ‘a natural order’ that cannot be changed but a human choice. That choice can change.

    In the USA legal alcohol was made illegal in the Prohibition era (with disastrous consequences in terms of the rise of Organised Crime, criminalisation of ordinary people and indeed of health from ‘wood alcohol’) and then made legal again. Also in the USA, once home of ludicrous ‘health education’ films such as the 1960’s Reefer Madness, Cannabis has been recently legalised in 4 States so far -as it has been in various ways in Holland, Portugal and elsewhere.

  • I want to repeat my thanks to everyone who has commented on this thread. The discussion has been courteous, and disagreements have been handled in the best liberal tradition.

    Such a change from a few years ago.

  • Richard Underhill 29th Mar '16 - 3:54pm

    In the 2015 general election a tory campaigner said “get the barnacles off the boat”. This desire for simplicity is in accordance wit Occam’s Razor
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occam%27s_razor
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_Armstrong
    “In 1951 the Catholic Church officially pronounced the Big Bang model to be in accordance with the Bible.” ISBN 0-593-01518-5 Bantam Press 1988 Professor Stephen W. Hawking.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncertainty_principle
    Voting for the UK to leave would not only create damaging uncertainty in the UK, such as banks selling Sterling short in the currency markets, (again) it would destabilise the residual EU. Not being Marxists we cannot be deterministic about the outcomes.
    Put Occam’s Razor with the Uncertainty Principle and you can win the EU referendum.

  • Matt (Bristol) 29th Mar '16 - 4:41pm

    “Oh – and is going for a cup of tea more modern than going for a pint???”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_beer

    In this country, yes. But only if the 18th century is ‘modern’.

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