No, Prime Minister!
Can we really change the minds of our MPs and influence government policy? Yes, we can, says Karen Jardine
How often have you sat over a cup of coffee with friends putting the world to rights?
Perhaps you’ve heard about a new government initiative on the evening news that you know will have a negative impact on your local area? Maybe you need funding for a project you’re involved with? Or perhaps there is a burning issue for which you have a possible solution, if only you knew the right people to approach.
Called as Christian people to be salt and light in the world, how do we even begin to make our voice heard?
You have probably sent postcards to the Prime Minister about cancelling third world debt or even signed on-line petitions for causes you really care about, but when it comes to the idea of lobbying – meeting politicians and others in positions of authority face to face – we hesitate.
Perhaps it’s the sharp-suited portrayal of lobbyists in popular television programmes such as the West Wing, or stories in the press like the recent controversy over the lobbying activities of members of the House of Lords which makes us think that we have neither the power nor the means to change legislation or sway the opinions of decision makers.
For me, as Public Affairs Officer for Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland, lobbying is part of what I do on a regular basis. Meeting MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly - basically the elected members to the Northern Ireland Assembly) at Stormont is an important part of what I do, as is talking to policy staff in the political parties and to the civil servants working hard behind the scenes.
But before you dismiss lobbying as something only for paid professionals, let me remind you of these words from Romans:
“So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life - your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life - and place it before God as an offering . . . Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God.” (Romans 12:1 The Message)
God places many different concerns and passions on our hearts through our everyday, ordinary life. And for Jennifer Hogg, a churchwarden and mother of two from Guildford, Surrey, it was seeing a full spread advert in her local newspaper, the Surrey Advertiser, that spurred her into action.
“Something for everyone in inspirational surroundings” was the headline that caught her eye in February 2002. On closer inspection, she realised the advert was for a nine-floor casino to be built right in the middle of her local parish.
Horrified, she phoned clergy to ask permission to give a notice about it the following Sunday. From there began a journey lasting over five years, which started with a churches’ petition to the planners expressing objections to the proposed casino and led to the Council chamber with Jennifer making her case against the plans for the proposed casino. Eventually, the Council vetoed casinos outright.
But it did not stop there. Ultimately it led to the Houses of Parliament, giving evidence to a committee of MPs and Peers considering the Gambling Bill on the failings of the planning and licensing processes regarding casinos, even meeting Government ministers.
Reflecting on her lobbying adventure, Jennifer considers prayer to be a top priority. She says:
“Regular intercessory prayer with other people is so important, not least for checking you are in line with God’s will. There may be many possible ways to tackle an issue and we need to hear what God is wanting done in each instance.
“For me, prayer was also vital to keep me rooted in a community and make sure that I wasn’t acting as a lone ranger. Tackling issues like gambling is part of our spiritual battle, and prayer does help recharge one’s spiritual batteries. I’m not saying you need to form an inter-church committee. A small group of committed friends may do just as well!”
Jennifer also realised that she didn’t have to do it on her own. Raising awareness in local churches helped to gain their support. She also contacted the Evangelical Alliance for what she describes as “urgent help”! Advice from the Public Affairs team at the Alliance helped her to see off an aggressive barrister at the public inquiry into the casino in her town.
Another key aspect for Jennifer was to liaise carefully with local professionals involved with the issue. She says:
“Properly understanding where they – politicians, councillors, and staff – are coming from and the limitations they face has to be a priority. It is unfair of Christians to beat up officials who are only doing their job! We can pointedly pursue an issue without ruining personal relations or regarding people as an enemy.”
This is something with which Olwyn Mark, Senior Programme Developer at Love for Life - a charity founded on a Christian model of values delivering relationship and sexuality education programmes to schools across Northern Ireland - agrees:
“Often we are so keen for people to hear us and understand our point of view that we can forget the need to think about an issue from the other person’s perspective. We need to take time to understand them. Working with others in relationship means we can voice our concerns more effectively.
“Recently we successfully lobbied government officials to include references to marriage and abstinence, which were missing in a new proposed sexual health strategy for Northern Ireland. For us it was about challenging the values that were underpinning the strategy. We might not always get everything we ask for, but in order for Government policies to be reflective of wider society they need to hear our opinions too.”
And letting others hear our opinions isn’t simply a matter of supplying biblical verses to present our case. Building your case on biblical principles which are also backed up by evidence from secular research can have powerful results. As Jennifer says:
“The Bible actually says very little about gambling. But as I researched it, I discovered a few biblical principles, including a failure to hope in God, a failure to love our neighbour, poor use of resources and failure to earn an honest living.
“Secular research also points to the negative impact of gambling and it is widely acknowledged that the poor gamble proportionately more of their income than others.”
This is a view shared by Olwyn:
“Careful research and clear presentation of the issues you want to raise is vital. What can also make an impact is to present alternatives. We are often very good at telling others what we don’t like, without coming up with any ideas of how things can be done differently.”
So if we take our ordinary, everyday life and place it before God as an offering, endeavouring to bring Christian values into all that we do, who knows where it might lead? For Jennifer it was Westminster, but that was never her intention from the outset. What concerns has God placed on your heart? Will you allow him to use you?
* Evangelical Alliance is involved with a range of organisations lobbying government. For more information or advice, visit www.eauk.org/publictheology
Get in the know
If you’d like to be more active on social justice issues, but lack time, visit www.justicemail.co.uk Created by a number of Anglican churches, Justice Mail offers to send you brief information, including a link to a site where you can send an e-mail message. Suggestions for action are sent every week or two and you are free to respond to whichever interests or concerns you.
Issues are selected from current campaigns of major social justice organisations such as Oxfam, World Development Movement, Christian Aid, Church Action on Poverty, Jubilee Debt Campaign and Amnesty.
There are three administration centres, one at All Saints parish church in Kings Heath in Birmingham, one in the Church of the Martyrs in Leicester and the third at St Andrew’s Church in Great Cornard in Sudbury, Suffolk. Organisers say they hope to create other local groups.
Although one of their aims is to increase awareness of social justice issues in local churches, they say they are open to all people both religious and secular, who share their hopes for a fairer world.