Thursday, 8 October 2009

Conservative Party Conference, Manchester

It’s Manchester…and it’s raining! It was certainly a wet start to my visit to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. As a former student in this city I know all too well what the weather can be like here, and Tuesday afternoon brought back many fond memories of soggy cycle rides in to the University.

As with previous visits to the TUC and party conferences, I was visiting alongside colleagues from other denominations, this time Revd John Marsh, Moderator of the URC General Assembly, Revd Graham Sparkes of the Baptist Union, Tim Stone of the Salvation Army and David Bradwell and Rachel Lampard from our Joint Public Issues Team. I was also here in my BMA capacity, and it was good that the programme of meetings and fringe events allowed me to fulfil both roles without any difficulty.

We shared in an inspirational Conference service on Tuesday evening in the splendid Manchester Town Hall. The theme was how churches were “Transforming Manchester” and highlighted the dynamic way a young and lively Church was engaging in this community and the wider world.

On Wednesday we met prospective parliamentary candidates and MPs who all echoed the importance of Christians both engaging in political decision making and being willing to respond to the opportunities faith groups may have with a new administration.

Shaun Bailey hopes to be a London MP after the next election. He became a Christian 5 years ago and is enthusiastic about the powerful role churches could have both during the election and afterwards. He particularly emphasised the importance of supporting and encouraging marriage and questioned why churches charged any couple other than the minimum cost that wanted to marry in their building rather than seeing this as a mission opportunity.

Caroline Spelman is the Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. We talked about the emphasis the Methodist Church has recently placed on supporting Christians who work in business. She reflected that whilst churches have a good track record running schools, they are sometimes “behind the curve” when it comes to bidding to provide other community services alongside other third sector groups. She believed there would be far more opportunities to do so if a future Conservative government were to decentralise services in the way they plan.

David Lidington has a shadow foreign office brief and we travelled the globe with him, discussing Afghanistan, Christian persecution in Pakistan, limiting nuclear arms proliferation, reforming the UN and the situation in Fiji.

The Conservative Christian Fellowship has grown in the last 10 years and now has increased influence within the Party. Elizabeth Berridge, CCF Director, told us how they encourage Conservative policy makers to remember the important role churches can and do play within communities. She observed that Christians were better at complaining than being willing to take positions of responsibility and become decision makers for their communities. This was something CCF was trying to change.

David Burrowes, shadow Minister for Justice, founded CCF in 1990 as a student and he attended the 3rd of the series of Citizens for Sanctuary meetings which have been held at each of the major party conferences. Whilst he wasn’t able to sign up to the campaign he did recognise the importance of the issues raised and committed to working further with this campaign group.

Visiting the TUC and party conferences has been interesting and enjoyable. It's also been very worthwhile, demonstrating both the Churches support for Christians in politics and the relevance of involving the Church in political debate and policy development.

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