Shirin Aguiar puts some searching questions to Gareth Wallace, Director of the Conservative Christian Fellowship (CCF).
Before leading the CCF, Gareth Wallace was policy advisor for the Salvation Army. He also worked for the Evangelical Alliance and Oasis Trust. He has recently stood down as deputy chair (political) for Vauxhall Conservative Association, attends St Mark’s Battersea Rise in London and is a trustee of the South London Relief in Sickness Fund.
SA: How does your Christian faith affect your politics?
GW: That’s a good question. My Christian faith is central to who I am. I’m speaking to you from my parents’ home in Ireland; my dad’s a Methodist minister and I became a Christian at a very young age.
Through all my teenage years I was interested in politics but wanted my faith to be real and genuine. At university in London I got very involved in the Christian Union, as well as studying politics.
My career has included lobbying for different Christian charities. My whole life has been spent thinking about how to apply my faith to the political world. The joke at dinner parties is that you’re not supposed to mention religion or politics, but that’s what I do for a living!
In terms of how my faith has grown, I was probably a precocious, headstrong teenager, who knew what he wanted and wanted to change the world. Obviously, everyone should want to change the world, but you need to start with yourself! Having faith in Jesus reminds me that, while we are amazingly made by God, we are also capable of doing wrong. We have to be humble.
It’s not about preaching at people or telling them what policies God has told me to implement; it isn’t like that at all. It’s more about being humble as a person, learning as you go and applying godly principles to political life.
SA: Do you fellowship with other Christian MPs cross-party?
GW:. My goal is to encourage current MPs, and to mentor and encourage people who might want to become MPs in the future. So, yes, we hold prayer meetings inside Parliament for Christian MPs within the Conservative Party and I develop personal one-to-one relationships with MPs. We also work across parties with other Christian fellowships. When we do that, we call ourselves ‘Christians in Politics’. We also speak at churches and Christian conferences.
SA: As a Christian in politics, how do you see a multicultural society working out?
GW: There’s a good, loaded question. The church is multicultural, which is a good place to start. What amazes me about meeting lots of different churches from different national or ethnic backgrounds, especially around London, is seeing gospel truth and worship expressed in many different ways. We’re part of one body of believers around the world, and that’s the important thing.
People want to integrate around shared values and we’re proud in this country of having had strong Judeo-Christian principles that have influenced our laws. That’s a good place to unite around. People should be allowed to express cultural diversity, uniting around a common shared identity and a common set of values. Christianity can play a key role in that.
SA: Is maintaining your convictions in politics difficult?
GW: I’ve been Director of CCF for a year and involved in Conservative politics since I was a teenager. Some people would criticise this, saying, ‘How can you be a politician and a Christian?’ or ‘How can you be a Conservative and a Christian?’
I’m sure Christians in other walks of life get similar questions: ‘How can you have a business and be a Christian?’ ‘How can you be a soldier and be a Christian?’ There are dilemmas for any career path in applying principles. But, with politics, it’s public, so many people know and ask questions about it. I’m sure people in different career paths face moral dilemmas and challenges to their principles. But, in politics, things are out in the open and reported on, which, of course, is a good thing.
So maybe being in politics is not better or worse than anything else; it’s just that we all know about it — and this can make some Christians reluctant to be politicians. But that would be the wrong way of looking at it, because God knows our hearts and wants people to be excellent in what they do. Presumably, he wants people to represent him in every walk of life.
SA: Have you experienced any conflict between being in the Tory party and your convictions?
GW: I struggle to think of many. When I was with the Salvation Army lobbying over gambling law, some government ministers weren’t listening on that issue. The policy on gambling was one that Conservative inherited from Labour, and my Labour Christian friends might have had a similar problem over casinos, for example. But I believe reform is in the air.
There are certain matters, like life issues, where people have a conscience vote. There are also issues where they choose to abstain, and indeed some issues where Christian politicians choose to rebel against their party and vote against them — but they think very seriously before doing that.
Politicians can actually find these issues easier than others; they’re in politics because they want to be there. They’re standing on a party manifesto. Whereas, if you were, say, a civil servant having to implement government regulations, there would be a lot less freedom to express your faith in the workplace or object on conscience grounds.
SA: So what about ‘gay marriage’? That became law under David Cameron.
GW: Different members of the CCF held different views about this. Many objected strongly and Conservative MPs like David Burrowes spoke out against it. That was an example of people exercising their own conscience. Many in the CCF wouldn’t have supported the government.
SA: But what would you do if there was a fundamental clash between your party and your convictions?
GW: For example, over gambling, I would have probably struggled with that if I had been an MP. But my career then was as a lobbyist and my role talking behind the scenes. Just because something’s appeared in the news, it doesn’t mean you’ve influenced it. There’s a difference between publicity and influence.
Sometimes, especially for those in Cabinet, there’s a collective responsibility. So, unless something is against a core moral principle, you might decide you can express your concerns and object in private, but still hold to collective responsibility in implementing government policy that’s been decided. There’s need for much discernment and wisdom.
But, if the issue was something morally wrong, then people should object. I would be prepared to vote against in that case. But we must be careful; sometimes trying to build for and influence the future is more important than sticking over one issue.
SA: Would you say this applies to abortion? This is a huge issue for many Christians. There is talk of reducing the time limit for abortions.
GW: This is a hugely complex issue, where compassion and understanding has not always been shown. I would support a reduction in the time limit for abortion where it is demonstrable that human life is viable. On the specific point about it being a political moral dilemma, I think abortion is not as relevant an example, as it has always been given a free conscience vote and not been a party political issue. However, no government has whipped or forced their MPs to vote one way or another.
SA: Is CCF doing anything about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East?
GW: Absolutely. I’m passionate about the persecuted church and have been for many years. I was aware, as a child, of the work of Brother Andrew and Open Doors. I’m close to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Release International and Aid to the Church in Need. I’m also friends with the Egyptian Coptic Church in the UK.
Open Doors publish a World Watch list every year and, while what’s going on in the Middle East is tragic, this list has made MPs more concerned than ever. Last year, when the World Watch list was launched in Parliament, over 100 MPs and Peers attended. This is a big percentage of politicians taking the persecuted church more seriously than ever. Anything the CCF can do to encourage support for our brothers and sisters in need, I’m determined to do.
SA: Thank you for your insightful and illuminating answers. May God bless you and give you all needed wisdom.