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Why David Cameron should throw a party for the churches

CAMERON-AT-CHURCH Pink News story reports here that the Prime Minister is to hold a Number 10 reception "for the LGBT community ahead of London Pride".  (Tim also tweeted the news yesterday.)

Good. The gay lobby, to use shorthand, is important, and the Government must in any event show commitment to its own Equality policy. The decision's right.

And it set me thinking about the relationship between that lobby and the faith lobby (to use another bit of shorthand) - and the Party.

It's a mistake to think that the first two are always at odds.  Liberal Anglicans, for example, would largely agree with, say, Stonewall about homosexuality and the law.

None the less, there were strong disagreements, during my eight years in Parliament, between conservative Christians, in the one corner, and gay rights groups, in the other, over Section 28, the age of consent, gay adoption, and the Equality Act's sexual orientation regulations.

These disagreements tended to spill over into the lobbies of the House of Commons. It would be simplistic to claim that all Conservative MPs who voted against lowering the age of consent, for example, were primarily motivated by Christian conviction - but many were.

It goes almost without saying that the balance of opinion in the Party - and at its top - has changed startlingly in the last ten years.  In 2002, we were whipped to vote against gay adoption.  Only a few weeks ago, George Osborne met Peter Tatchell, and said that a Conservative Government would consider the case for gay marriage.  That's a lot of movement in less than ten years.  (By the way, there doesn't seem to be any reference to gay marriage in the Coalition Agreement.)

I know from recent frontbench experience - dealing with both lobbies as part of the Shadow DCLG team - that many conservative Christians are very uncomfortable with the shift.  I'm not thinking of the Roman Catholic Church: its election document was read in some quarters as pro-Conservative, largely because of its strong support for marriage.

Rather, I'm bearing in mind the view of many of the black churches. Lambeth Palace, too, noted David Cameron's interview here, in which he said that the Church of England "has to do some of the things that the Conservative Party has been through".

It would be a mistake to believe that if conservative Christians don't vote for the Conservative Party, they've no-where else to go.  They've plenty of other places to go. Lots of conservative black Christians clearly vote Labour (as do most Muslims). And there's always the option of joining a third of the electorate, and not voting at all.

Equalities policy isn't straightforward.  There are competing claims.  If you want to read an Anglican take on them, the Archbishop of Canterbury's can be found here (see the Presidential address).  Furthermore, there's a distinction between what the Coalition does, and what the Party does.  None the less, there are two Party points for the future, one on practice, one on policy.

First, has the Party done any polling on the effect of its shift, if any, on votes?  If not, why not - since, for example, more Christians go to church on Sunday than people attend football matches on Saturday?

Second - since polling ultimately matters less than conviction - shouldn't the Prime Minister demonstrate, and soon, the immeasurable contribution that the Churches and other faith communities make to Britain? And in any event, doesn't he need them - and the charities, voluntary organisations, clubs and societies which they inspire - to help deliver the Big Society?  Since the Government's committed to Equality, shouldn't it demonstrate that religious believers, too, are "absolutely equal"?

Downing Street doesn't comment on the Prime Minister's diary.  But I hope a reception's being organised for Bishops, clergy, and lay people as soon as possible.  And if it decides to do inter-faith, the invitation list should range even wider.

Paul Goodman


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