“The church is not an NGO with lots of old buildings. It is the Church of God, rejoicing in the realities of cultural diversity in a way never known before: global, cross-bearing, confident and welcoming. The Church holds for the world the treasure of reconciliation, and offers it as a gift freely given out of its own experience of struggling with the reality of it, of being reconciled ourselves through the sovereign love of God in Jesus Christ. The global Church is above all God’s church, for all its failings, and in passionate devotion to him will offer the treasure He puts in our hands, unconditionally, always pointing in worship, deed and word to Jesus Christ.
Justin Welby was on fine form as he addressed the annual National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast (NPPB) on Tuesday at the Houses of Parliament, expressing his thoughts on a whole range of areas relating to the Christian faith and the role of the Church in the world. It was the Gospel spoken with conviction and without any embarrassment or compromise.
The NPPB continues to strengthen in stature year-on-year. Now 30 years old, its popularity was demonstrated by the attendance of both David Cameron and Ed Miliband amongst the 700-strong gathering, which included 80 MPs and 40 Peers, Bishops, diplomats, business people and church leaders. It was the first time an Archbishop of Canterbury had given the main address and first since Margaret Thatcher that a Prime Minister had attended. It was also the first occasion that both the Prime Minister and leader of the opposition had been present together.
Stephen Timms MP, the chair of the NPPB, was delighted to see such strong support from the two leaders:
“I think it reflects a growing recognition right at the top of Parliament that the Christian faith has a very, very important part to play in the life of our nation. We had 700 join us today. We could have sold many times that number of tickets… I think that reflects that churches and church based groups are taking on more and more in their communities, serving the community in a whole variety of ways and members of Parliament if asked, ‘What are the really hopeful things happening in your area?’ – many of them would point to initiatives being taken forward by churches.”
Despite his atheist beliefs, Ed Miiband’s response was overwhelmingly positive
David Cameron had more to say:
“I believe very deeply that we should be confident in Britain about our status as a Christian country,” he said.
“So I think it is absolutely right that our Parliament should express this confidence through this annual prayer breakfast.
“Greater confidence in our Christianity can also inspire a stronger belief in our work as politicians to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives – and it should inspire our support for churches and faith organisations in the vital work they do in our society and around the world.”
Who knows how much Cameron and Miliband’s appearances have to do with the fact that we have a General Election on the horizon. Even if that was their only motivation (which is highly doubtful), it says something crucial; Christianity and a desire to engage with Christians is important to them. If they saw the NPPB as irrelevant, why would they have been there? Perhaps it was the draw of hearing Justin Welby speak? If that was the case, it demonstrates the level of influence he, on behalf of the Church of England and Christians across the country, now has.
Respect for the Christian faith in Parliament, having reached an all-time low during the last ten years, is now experiencing something of a revival. Churches have done a great deal to improve their standing through their extensive work serving their communities with little if any state support. There is also a growing appreciation that Christianity is a force for good that this country should be thankful for. David Cameron wrote and spoke about this at length over Easter and hasn’t backed down since, despite strong opposition from some secular voices. Ed Miliband too, despite his atheism has recorded a personal video thanking Christians for all that they do for this country (and then asking them to join Christians on the Left). Openly praising those who follow the Christian faith is no longer seen as bad for your electoral prospects.
God has been on the agenda in Parliament repeatedly over the last few days. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams was at the Foreign Office also on Tuesday talking to diplomats about the increasingly important issue of the role of religion in foreign policy.
Last week the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for International Freedom of Religion or Belief launched its impressive new website, Freedom Declared. Justin Welby in his NPPB address talked at length about the suffering and persecution that the Church is experiencing around the world. Freedom Declared highlights this religious persecution that predominantly affects Christians along with those of other faiths and none, telling stories and explaining the full extent of this abuse. It also has a strong focus on taking action, equipping individuals to contact their MP or act on specific cases, for example writing to the government of Sudan on behalf of imprisoned Christian Meriam Ibrahim. The majority of the members of the APPG and its stakeholders, which include Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Release International and Open Doors, are Christians and Christian organisations who are working to ensure that violations against the Human Right to the freedom to practice one’s religion or belief are not ignored by this government and others.
Finally on Monday the Conservative Christian Fellowship hosted its monthly Prayers for the Nation in St Mary’s Undercroft chapel at the Houses of Parliament. Their speaker was Howard Dodd, Chairman of the Prison Fellowship telling of the amazing work with offenders that Christians are doing up and down the country. It included a testimony from an ex-inmate who had given his life to Jesus whilst inside and had seen his life and outlook totally transform for the better as a result. I attended the meeting and it was undoubtedly one of the most powerful prayer meetings I have been to with those attending crying out to God to heal this nation and guide our country’s leaders. And all of this took place just a few metres away from the House of Commons.
If you visit the Houses of Parliament you will see inscribed into the stone floor of the central lobby the words from Psalm 127 written in Latin; ‘Unless the Lord builds the house its builders labour in vain.’ It was laid there deliberately and for a reason.
There is once again a growing appreciation that the Christian faith has an important place within the walls of Westminster. Doing God is becoming increasingly accepted and valued even by those with no religious convictions and long may that continue to be the case.