Following on from an earlier post, last night I went to the ‘Christian Hustings’ hosted by ‘Christians and Candidates’ with TractorGirl. Chairing the event was the former Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, and the Labour, Lib Dem, Tory and UKIP candidates were there. It was held on my home territory, in Elvet Methodist Church, and all the downstairs and about a third of the balcony was full of young people, a remarkable sight given I’m used to seeing a mostly empty church. The organisers had a clear agenda, to address what they considered to be vital issues for Christians, namely freedom of speech, homosexuality, the family, abortion, embryo research and euthanasia. As one can see from the links above, the view taken on these issues was mostly a conservative evangelical one, with which I often find myself being deeply uncomfortable.
I was not impressed with the UKIP candidate, Nigel Coghill-Marshall. He came out with some sexist gems like working women “have their Gucci handbags, now they want a child” and some of his other views were racist. TractorGirl tells me that he was articulate and thoughtful for a UKIP candidate, which is worrying.
The Conservative candidate, Nick Varley, is a twenty year-old local lad and I have to admit I was impressed by him. He talked sense and while I don’t share all his views, was impressed with his integrity, how he handled disagreeing with the vast majority of the audience and dealt with the Bishop’s questioning. He was against section 28, which is important, as I’ll explain later.
The Lib Dem candidate, Carol Woods, came across as very nervous and uncomfortable dealing with a religious group with whom she disagreed. I was uncomfortable with her statement that religion and politics should be kept separate in public life and her desire to see the bishops removed from the House of Lords. Having said that, the rest of what she said was good stuff and I liked her, even her focus was perhaps too ‘town not gown’ given the audience.
The Labour candidate, Roberta Blackman-Woods really impressed me. I admired her for sticking to her guns over the Equality Bill and other issues like abortion, and I felt that she cared about representing all of her constituents. She seemed a genuinely warm person and handled the disagreements with the Bishop and audience members well.
For the most part, the debate consisted of a grilling of the candidates by the Bishop, who was genuine, gracious and fair. While I struggle with the assumption that the conservative evangelical view is the biblical view, he did, in fairness, give me the opportunity to take the mic when TractorGirl and I were the only ones applauding Nick Varley’s disagreement with Section 28 in a church with about 400 people in it!
I felt it was really important to challenge the idea that there is only one Christian view on issues like human sexuality. Before the debate began, TractorGirl was nervous of introducing me to a fellow Streetlights person as her partner, and this confirmed to me the need to speak out, even though I must admit that given 95% of the audience disagreed with me I was terrified, and there were cameras there for some sort of Christian TV channel.
When given the unexpected opportunity, I explained that I am both a Christian and gay, that Section 28 was a bad thing because ‘no promotion of homosexuality’ was interpreted by my school to mean ‘no discussion of homosexuality’, which left me feeling that my sexual orientation was a dirty secret to keep hidden (not least to avoid being bullied any more than I already was – I was different enough already!), and that where I am is a painful place to be as one gets a hard time both from the gay community (who often assume conservative Christians are homophobic, which is mostly not the case) and from the Church (I’ve been told I’m going to hell several times and either insulted, humiliated or at best just blanked by people). The Bishop was very gracious in response to this, and we had a lovely chat afterwards. I collected another picture for my ‘Me with Bishops’ collection of photos (an odd hobby of mine), which I’ll post when TractorGirl gets it developed.
The evening has convinced me that I will vote for Roberta, despite my reservations about some aspects of Labour Party policy, which has moved so far to the right as to be vastly different from the ‘democratic, socialist party’ on my old membership card. I had been worried the candidates would be bullied into submission, but they all held their own and liberal Christians like me will hopefully have a representative who listens to their views as well as engaging with more conservative folks. I was upset a bit by the nasty looks some people I know from Christchurch gave me as I left, but I think I did the right thing in standing up for what I believe, while doing my best to respect others.
In response to a discussion on Facebook, I’ve got some book and website suggestions:
Rowan Williams, ‘The Body’s Grace’
Gene Robinson, ‘In The Eye of the Storm’
Michael Vasey, ‘Strangers and Friends’
Daniel Helminiak, ‘What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality’
Robin Scrogg, ‘The New Testament and Homosexuality’
Kim Frabricius, ‘Ten Propositions on the Church and Same-Sex Relationships’