I heard a discussion on the BBC Radio 4 Sunday programme today about the new Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, and his Christian faith.
You can listen or download it here
Tim was a colleague of mine at St Martin's College in Lancaster (now Uni of Cumbria) where he worked as a senior administrator in one of the faculties. He sometimes attended our midweek chapel worship when he was on campus, so we had a few conversations. I do remember him talking to me about his decision to go into politics. He's well-liked in his nearby constituency, and the testimony to that is that he held on to his seat in the midst of the demise of the Liberal Democrats at the last General Election.
As far as I am aware, Tim has never made any secret of his Christian faith. It's no surprise that being a Christian means you believe in God, and prayer is one of the fundamental activities. It would be quite weird, therefore, to exclude a whole area of one's life from ever being mentioned in one's own prayers. So it logically follows that a politician who is a practising Christian (or indeed of any other theistic faith) is going to bring their work into their prayers.
What's interesting is that this seemed to disconcert John Humphrys and Polly Toynbee. Polly Toynbee seemed to be saying today that he should avoid giving the impression of consulting God, and that thinking God is there is a private matter. What she didn't seem to understand was that it's not really feasible. Christian prayer is about bringing the whole of yourself to God with all your concerns, fears, hopes, dreams, brokenness, thanksgiving, etc. We don't recognise the notion that there are bits of ourselves we can't pray about.
NB It's worth noting that Tim Farron talked about prayer in response to a question on the subject from John Humphrys..
Of course, the fear that lies behind Polly Toynbee's concerns is that a politician with a religious faith might claim that God is 'on their side'. Many people in faith communities will recognise the issues that can arise if someone moves along the spectrum from saying they have prayed about something (which leaves open the answer, and retains some humility about the result) and saying that God has told them to do something. We sometimes see it in over-controlling church leaders, and it has had tragic results in politics and conflicts. I quite agree that such people are terrifying both for those with religious beliefs and those with none. However, that is not a fair description of MPs who have a faith and practise it. In fact, Christians In Parliament is a cross-party association, which indicates that the most active Christian MPs clearly don't think that God inhabits only their party, or is solely 'on their side'.
The whole discussion struck me as quite amusing this morning at our services today, as we prayed for those who govern and those who represent us. If the established church routinely prays for those who carry political responsibility, then I can't see why politicians shouldn't be free to pray for themselves without criticism.
No doubt Tim Farron will face much more scrutiny as he begins the unenviable task of reviving the fortunes of the Lib Dems. I hope the discussion moves on from where it is now, to the direction he wants to take party policy, and how he might make his party electable again. I don't envy him that job, and I reckon he will need all the prayers he can get.