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It's good that our religious leaders take time to pray for politicians, but they need to talk to them as well

Church leaders can influence society for the better through communication

By Nelson McCausland

Published 17/11/2016

Presbyterian Moderator Frank Sellar's lecture sparked some controversy in the media
Presbyterian Moderator Frank Sellar's lecture sparked some controversy in the media

Last week Presbyterian Moderator Frank Sellar visited north Belfast and then, on Thursday evening, he delivered the annual chaplaincy lecture at the Ulster University in York Street. The redevelopment of the York Street campus is a major investment in the city and it was, therefore, an appropriate venue.

His title was ‘A City of Hope, Leadership and Compassion’ and he explored issues which are important for Church and society. There is a Christian perspective on these matters and it is right that we should hear it.

Indeed, I am strongly of the view that, as people and politicians, we do not hear enough from Churches. In the public square today we hear many views on a wide range of issues, some more strident than others and some more compassionate than others.

Therefore, I am always surprised how little we hear from Churches in comparison to the incessant lobbying by many others.

The Bible refers to the uselessness of a trumpet with an uncertain sound (1 Corinthians 14:8) and sometimes that is the problem. But, on other occasions, the trumpet isn’t sounded at all.

There is an old saying that silence is golden, but sometimes silence is sinful.

Many of the great social reformers in British history were evangelical Christians, such as Lord Shaftesbury, Lord Cairns and William Wilberforce.

Five of the six Tolpuddle Martyrs, the first trade unionists in England, were Methodists, and three of them were lay preachers.

Ulster folk will also recall Amy Carmichael’s work in Belfast and in India on behalf of the poor, the abused and the downtrodden.

By both their words and their deeds, these Christians influenced society for the better and we can learn from them. On that I am sure the moderator will agree.

His address was, therefore, a great opportunity and he was speaking about important issues, such as the city, hope, leadership and compassion.

However, his main themes were drowned out by the controversy that followed his unwisely-worded comments on bonfires and “the sins of the fathers”.

It was just two paragraphs out of a speech that filled 15 pages, but within minutes the media had picked up on it. They weren’t interested in the rest of the address — just on the two paragraphs about bonfires.

By the next day he had clarified his position and explained what he was really trying to say, but that wasn’t what he said on the night. If only he had said at the beginning what he said afterwards.

I want to see Churches engage more with politicians — not just when there is a controversy about some moral or social issue and not just when they need help, as in the case of the Presbyterian Mutual Society.

We are there to listen at times of controversy and we will try to help in times of difficulty. But the conversations and the contact, across all denominations, should be ongoing.

I receive a lot of correspondence from all sorts of lobby groups on a regular basis, and yet in comparison I receive relatively little from Christian denominations.

Correspondence is important and so, too, is conversation. I would much rather converse with a moderator or any other Church leader face-to-face or over a cup of coffee rather than across the airwaves. That is true at a high level, but also at a local level.

So, could I make an appeal to Church leaders, whether moderators, bishops, or presidents: when you are visiting different communities and constituencies, to continue meeting with congregations, communities, police, health workers and all the other agencies you meet, but not to forget the politicians as well?

The Bible tells us to pray for those in government (1 Timothy 2:2) and meeting with them, as part of the community, will help to inform that prayer. It is good to pray for them, but it is also good to talk to them.

Don’t shun politicians or shy away from them. Share your thoughts and concerns with them.

I know that many of us will be glad to listen — even if at times we disagree.

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