The knives are out in Westminster as campaigning reaches fever pitch in the run up to the General Election.After all,if Peter Mandelson,the mastermind behind Labour’s 1997 election landslide can be unceremoniously separated from power,then who is safe? Arguably six men who meet to pray for each other once a fortnight.All MPs,they feel themselves to be protected and supported by their mutual prayers.
They are known as the G6:two Conservatives,two members of the Labour party,a Liberal Democrat and an Ulster Unionist. There are many Christian groupings within Parliament,for these men,this group is the strongest,most personal,most uplifting. But at the election,they will be hoping that they win,rather than their rivals.Will they let their Christianity slip fduring the campaign,and if not,how does their faith influence their politics?We talked to three of the G6 to find out.
Stephen Timms Treasury Minister
Stephen Timms became a Christian when he was 16 through attending Crusaders in his home town of Farnborough.It was an introduction to both the faith and politics. “I belonged to a Gospel Hall,”he says, “and I vividly remember when one of the elders said to me,‘It ’s the election tomorrow and you will be voting Conservative ’.” He laughs.. “It was assumed that if you were a Christian,then you voted Conservative.” It ’s no surprise then,that when he went into politics;Stephen Timms struggled with his conscience.Was this really what he was meant to be doing? “You see,I think when I joined the Labour Party in 1979,I had this view that I was going to find myself facing some ghastly moral dilemma where the Party would tell me to do one thing and my conscience would tell me to do something different. “I was genuinely worried for a long time about that.“I can honestly say that throughout the whole time up until the end of [my time at ]Newham Council I never had that experience.” But has he faced any “ghastly moral dilemmas ”since being in power?“When debating Sunday Trading I did mull that over quite a lot.The main stuff had been done and there was a move to expand it,” he says.“I voted against it.I had to think through the faith perspective.” Generally though,he says he is “very privileged ”to be in government.He clearly enjoys representing the people who elected him. He sites the economy,international debt,overcoming child poverty and regeneration as major issues facing the Christian electorate in the upcoming election,but is not convinced that there is “a separate Church agenda ”. He is delighted to see the Church being concerned about politics and the outworking of faith in social care. “In rural areas,”he says,the Churches are often “the only visible creative institution that ’s present and effective. “If you look back five to 10 years ago, everybody thought the Church was finished and that it ’s people didn ’t make any difference.That seems to have changed. There ’s a growing sense that there are some interesting things going on that are coming out of the life of the local churches.” Would the Government give the Churches a tax break if re-elected,or make it easier for them to obtain funding for social issues? “I am sure there would be new policies on this,”he says.“In our recent Action Plan we said that there needs to be a new pragmatism on the part of government about funding faith-based organisations, recognising that these institutions are very often the best channels for reaching bits of communities that therwise will not be touched.Therefore,they need to be used. “For us,what ’s important is having a relationship,a partnership with faith- based organisations and making the best of what they can contribute.” He believes that the Church,too,wants to enter this relationship.
After all,he says, wasn ’t the Jubilee 2000 Campaign a Church-led initiative? “I don ’t agree that politics and faith can ’t mix,” he says.“What I find so heartening is a growing awareness of the political implications of what we believe.For example,Christians have always been interested in what happens in the Third World.It ’s a political interest. “In reality,if you believe that everyone is equal,that does have political implications.People in churches are reassessing that and asking why we take so much in debt repayments.How does that square with what I believe? “For a long time,evangelicalism was understandably defensive about the faith because it was under attack from people outside and so a lot of energy went into preserving the faith. “My sense now is that a lot of those bat- tles have just finished.Those who believe are confident about the faith and have more energy for the implications of what they believe.” How will he cope in the run-up to the General Election?Prayer is the key,he says.“It ’s important for me to meet with a group of Christians every Sunday morning at the Plaistow Christian Fellowship and talk about my work and pray about it. “That ’s been an important part of surviving,an important part of my work here,” he smiles..
Gary Streeter MP (Conservative)
For Gary Streeter,the next election is full of issues that are important t Christians.“There are issues about the future of the country,whether we want to be living in a post-modernist age or whether Judeo- Christian values can still shape our country,” he says.. “Christians need to think very carefully about sending to Westminster men and women with Christian values.It is impor- tant that Christians vote for candidates with faith,who are prepared to continue to try and shape the country according to Christian principles. “This is what the Conservative Party will be offering,” he adds.. “We have turned our back on our Judeo- Christian heritage over the last 30 years and look what a mess we are in,” he says..
Doesn ’t that mean that 18 years of Conservatism turned the country ’s back on God in a bid to show that Mrs Thatcher was right when she said,“there is no such thing as society ”? “We all know that Mrs Thatcher didn ’t mean ‘there is no such thing as society ’,” he says.“The whole of the Western society increasingly turned its back on God.” Now,he says,under William Hague,the Tories are keen to return to Judeo- Christian values.There are no issues over which he falls out with his Party.“There isn ’t a policy,but I can point you towards an attitude that has been part of the Conservative Party in the past,that economic issues are all that mattered. “I found that unattractive and I am very glad that it is becoming history.It undermines the importance of working with the most vulnerable in our society.” He is fully behind the Faithworks Campaign,which Christianity+Renewal co-sponsor.This aims to create a level playing field for Churches and Christian organisations seeking funding from local authorities. “This is the issue –the State can ’t do everything. It is not caring for the most vulnerable very well –I cite drug addicts, homeless people,kids who are in local authority care,the elderly.
“There are already hundreds and thousands [of Christians ]doing a wonderful job with many of these groups.Largely, we have found that they are motivated by their religious faith. “We are exploring ways to remove discrimination and encourage them to advance.We want to remove some of the obstacles,some of the red tape.We want to require local authorities and the Lottery not to discriminate [on the grounds of religious faith ]. “Many churches are waging a campaign.The message to all Christians is that we have a responsibility to contribute to our communities,to stand up and fight for and speak out for the things that matter to us.” Streeter came to Westminster as “a successful lawyer ”,who,at the age of 30, spent a day fasting and praying “to discover what God wanted me to do. “I ’m not interested in what I want to do. I believe that when I die I have to give an account to Him.
I said to my wife,‘I feel God is calling me into politics ’.I ’m in politics because God has called me to it.” Westminster is,according to Gary Streeter,“a hard place for Christians ”. “We meet regularly to pray.We need each other and a strong sense of calling,as we would give up in a month otherwise.The challenge of trying to stand up for Christian values is very hard.” So what would he say to those who believe that Christians shouldn ’t be in politics?“I understand,but I passionately disagree.We are called to be salt and light in society.Faith is not meant to be private. “When you see the impact of bad politics and corruption,you see how crucial it is that we should be there [in politics ] fighting for truth and justice.If God doesn ’t want it,why did He call me into it?”
Stephen Webb MP (Liberal Democrat)
Stephen Webb settles down over a cup of Earl Grey tea and confesses to being the “least Party political ”of the three G6 members.He has no party line to sell,he claims.What he does have is a passion to represent the underprivileged and disadvantaged.This is why he moved into politics,having worked for nine years at the Institute of Fiscal Studies where he “did a whole load of stuff on poverty ”.“I was tired of being on the fringes.I wanted to change things,” he says. Much of his time is still spent outside Westminster,meeting people where they live and work to establish what the issues are for them.Christians should not choose how to vote from a “list of one or two issues ”he says.Rather,voting is about “compassion for the outcast which embraces all sorts of things. “For me,what was remarkable about Jesus was that he loved his enemies.So what will a political party do for people who are on the margins globally,nationally and locally?In many ways,when one stands before the throne of judgement, the question won ’t be ‘How did you vote on Section 28?’it will be ‘Did you love your neighbour?’And that ’s about caring for the outcast and the alien. Consequently,he believes that politics is the natural home of the Christian –a place where they can effect change. “I am sure this is a vocation,”he says.“I always say to people ‘What ’s the alternative to Christians being involved in politics?Are you going to hand over power to people that you don ’t agree with?’ “It ’s a vocation because I can do good for individuals.I try to be as accessible as I can.I just want people to feel that I ’m there for them.People in terrible straits apologise for bothering me,but that ’s what I ’m there for. “It ’s the articulate who write to their MPs and so I try to get out and about and people start to say that they feel they have an approachable MP.My vocation and my belief is in reaching the people on the fringes,but I could do more.
The difficulty,”he says ruefully,“is balancing that with having two children under five.I have single colleagues who never stop.” Marriage is therefore a key issue to him personally,but not one about which he feels Parliament should legislate strongly. And he drew the ire of some fellow parliamentarians recently for voting against the Party whip on homosexuality.He abstained on the vote to lower the age of consent for gays. “I didn ’t want to lower the age of consent because I would like to see sexual activity of all sorts delayed.When you are dealing with young people,the State has more of a role in telling people what to do, and lets adults get on with it. “I didn ’t want to support the lowering of the age,but when I heard the language that was being used by those who were against it,it sounded quite bigoted and I didn ’t want to align myself with that view either.” Does he feel pressure to vote against his principles?“The moral issues are free votes.Embryology was a free vote and we had Lib Dems on both sides,” he says. “You join a party because it broadly shares your outlook,so nine times out of ten,it [a moral dilemma ] doesn ’t happen.” For all three MPs the mutual support they receive in the G6 prayer group and through the prayers of their churches,is vital in doing their job.It is just a job,they say,but equally,it is a vocation,a calling from God and nothing is going to stop them fulfilling that calling.