Belfast Telegraph

Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg's opinions on abortion and same-sex marriage may not be to everyone's taste... but should our politicians be denied the right to express views informed by their religious faith?

We ask Westminster figures about the subject of their Christianity and Parliament.

Judith Cole: As anti-abortion comments made this week by English MP and devout Catholic Jacob Rees-Mogg sent various so-called social progressives into a tizzy, the long-standing Christian rituals at the House of Commons continued as normal.

Without fanfare, MPs rose for prayers each day before proceedings began. Some met for Bible study, to sing hymns together, or listen to a speaker. Services were conducted with reassuring reliability in the neighbouring church.

True, it seems that being a Christian in today's society is becoming increasingly difficult. If one expresses a view that has been clearly defined in the Bible, but is contrary to the popular opinion of the day, they are decried as "fundamentalist", which is meant as a scathing criticism.

However, Christian traditions at the Houses of Parliament have carried on regardless and remain largely unchanged since the 16th century.

Sittings in both the House of Commons and House of Lords begin with prayers, which are Christian and contain nothing of other faiths. This practice is said to have started in around 1558; in days gone by, members knelt to pray while wearing a sword, however, because of the difficulty this posed, they were then allowed to stand to pray facing the wall behind them.

The Speaker's Chaplain, Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin, usually reads the prayers, which contain appeals for God's guidance for the Queen, Government and MPs, that "they never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals, but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind".

North Down Independent MP Lady Sylvia Hermon appreciates the support provided by the Speaker's Chaplain and the time of prayer, which is a cherished moment of calm before the day's business begins.

"The Speaker's Chaplain is always available to any of us who might wish to talk about faith issues, or indeed any other concerns," says Lady Hermon. "She is a great listener and does a superb job.

"Every day the House sits, we begin proceedings with three minutes of prayers, which are private to members. They take place in the chamber itself, before the formal business of the House starts. Rose normally leads our prayers and I find the space in those three minutes really calming in an otherwise hectic day."

Lady Hermon says that other sources of support exist for those with a practising faith.

“There are Church of England services in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft located in Westminster Hall, only a few minutes walk from the House of Commons itself,” she says. “Various Christian groups are also organised by a number of MPs and are very welcoming and supportive to members and staff.”

These are overseen by Christians in Parliament, an organisation that supports MPs and staff by weekly Bible study and prayer meetings, services in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft and individual support. Various events are organised as well as briefings, which “seek to bring Biblical reflection to contemporary political discussions”.

One event to be held next week is ‘A Celebration of the Power of Singing in the Christian Faith’ at which Northern Irish singer-songwriters Keith and Kristyn Getty are due to perform hymns old and new.

Tuesday lunchtime chapel services lasting half an hour are held at which hymns are sung and an invited speaker gives a talk; Holy Communion and Catholic Mass are on Wednesdays; and there are MPs’ and Peers’ Bible Study groups and a women’s monthly fellowship group.

Andrea Leadsom MP, Leader of the House of Commons, who stood against Theresa May for the leadership of the Conservative Party, has spoken of her faith and how helpful she finds attending these Bible study meetings with colleagues.

“I am a very committed Christian,” she said last year during the race to succeed David Cameron. “I think my values and everything I do is driven by that. It’s very important to me. I actually study the Bible in Parliament with a group of colleagues ... there’s the cross-party Christians in Parliament group and there are various Bible studies groups, which I find incredibly helpful.”

Lagan Valley MP since 1997, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is vice-chairman of Christians in Parliament.

“The Christians in Parliament group draws its members from both the House of Commons and House of Lords, and we have a strong relationship with the Speaker’s Chaplain, the Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin, who is there to provide support on a daily basis to MPs, so there is a strong Christian presence in Parliament,” he says.

He agrees that it is becoming harder to express Christian views, but argues that a strongly held faith is at the very heart of those views.

“I would say with regret that in more recent years it has become increasingly difficult to talk openly about your Christian faith in Parliament because some members frown upon it and yet a Christian who is a member of Parliament is obviously influenced by their faith. You cannot have a faith and believe strongly in what that faith stands for and not have that influence the way you think, the way you act and the way you relate to others.

“I like to think that the Christian influence at Parliament is as much about how we conduct ourselves in debate and our interaction with other MPs as it is about expressing the core values that are at the heart of Christianity. If you look at the ministry of Jesus it was very much about how he conducted himself as much as what he said.”

However, despite the increasing opposition to Christianity, Sir Jeffrey explains that Parliament still holds to traditional practices, including prayers before proceedings that he says are well attended by MPs.

“The Christian tradition is still strong in Parliament and that is symbolised by daily prayers before the House of Commons begins its proceedings,” he says. “It is important that that tradition continues, not because we want to impose our Christianity on others but because we believe the values espoused by Christianity are worth upholding.

“If it’s a Wednesday before Prime Minister’s Questions, there would be a lot of MPs there, at other times maybe not so many, but you would always have anywhere between 75 and 100 MPs in the chamber for prayers.”

Sir Jeffrey, a Presbyterian, recalls when he first arrived at Westminster making friends with MPs from other political parties through their shared Christian faith.

“As a new member of Parliament I immediately made friends with MPs from across the party political divide and one of the great benefits of our Christian fellowship is that it transcends party politics and some of my closest friends in Parliament are members of other political parties who I have met through Christian fellowship. I believe that far from being a divisive thing, actually Christianity can help to draw people together and reach out across political divides.”

Sir Jeffrey believes that Jacob Rees-Mogg was unfairly criticised for expressing views arising from his strong faith. The North East Somerset MP, who said that abortion is wrong in every circumstance, was accused by columnist Suzanne Moore of “appalling bigotry. He is a Catholic and this kind of fundamentalism is always anti-women, but for some reason we are to respect it. I don’t. It has no place in public life”.

However, opponents say that this opinion is contrary to liberals’ purported belief in the importance of living in a society in which free speech is celebrated.

The Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin said on Newsnight on Wednesday that Britain was becoming “intolerant of Christianity”.

Sir Jeffrey adds: “I think that the criticism of Jacob Rees-Mogg for expressing views that are linked to his faith demonstrates that perhaps some who describe themselves as liberal in their thinking and who talk often about the need for inclusivity maybe ought to recognise that people of faith also have a right to be heard and need to be included if the principle of inclusivity is to be meaningful.

 “Jacob’s office is very close to mine in the House of Commons and I meet him regularly in the corridor — he is one of the nicest people you could meet in Parliament — he’s a real gentleman and someone who’s easy to converse with.

“I think he has been unfairly criticised. If we are to be meaningful about an inclusive society that has to allow space for Jacob Rees-Mogg and his perspective — it is a viewpoint supported by millions of Christians across the United Kingdom and that voice is not going to be snuffed out.”

The former SDLP MP Margaret Ritchie, who describes her own stance on abortion as pro-life, says that Mr Rees-Mogg should not have been attacked for his views.

“I think there needs to be respect for a person’s viewpoint,” she says. “Whether you agree with it or not, what matters is if you believe in a democracy and freedom of speech.

“I don’t know if William Rees-Hogg has been unfairly treated, but whether your viewpoint is conservative, middle of the road or liberal you shouldn’t be vilified for that.”

This view has been shared by representatives of various denominations here.

Canon Ian Ellis, former editor of the Church of Ireland Gazette, says that Jacob-Rees Mogg should be free to express his views, and that people in public life “should not have any fear of doing so”.

He adds: “The Church of Ireland places value on the right to life of an unborn baby and the life of the mother. However, the Church also recognises that in circumstances of strict and undeniable medical necessity, the care that the medical professionals need to give may result in the termination of her pregnancy.”

While Jacob Rees-Mogg said that abortion was wrong in any situation, the Rev Roy Cooper, spokesman for the Methodist Church, said that certain circumstances may give cause for consideration: “We agree with Jacob-Rees Mogg and others like him who base their views on a faith perspective and have a right to do so.

“However, we feel that while the Methodist Church would never agree to abortion on demand, it would be right to intervene in cases of rape, and incest and when the life of the mother would be endangered if intervention was prohibited.”

And a spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Down and Connor said that Mr Rees-Mogg’s comments “should be respected even if those views are contrary to the sincerely held views of others”.

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