Stephen Timms MP: Interview on Faith and Politics 6 December 2016
Stephen Timms has always been known as an MP strongly in favour of the role and contribution of faith in British society. He is Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Faith and Society, he was appointed by Jeremy Corbyn as the Labour Party’s “Faith Envoy”, he is a member of Christians of the Left and has regularly spoken about how his own Christian faith has motivated his politics.
I spoke to him in the summer about religion, politics, and what the future of Britain might look like.
AA: You often go on record, speaking about the positive contribution of faith organisations to society. What role do you think they play in modern Britain?
Well, I think it is an increasingly important role. One of the very interesting things that’s happened in the last few years is the emergence of the foodbanks. If we had a discussion about what would happen if suddenly people couldn’t afford food, I’m not sure anyone would have envisaged that it would be the faith groups who would step forward, in particular through the Trussell Trust, a church-based food bank supported in some areas by Muslims and others.
So it has turned out to be uniquely the faith groups who have not only the motivation to do something, but the resources as well. And I think that tells us something significant about the reality about where the capacity for positive change in Britain today really resides.
It does seem to me that actually religious faith is the best source we have in Britain for the kind of values that can make politics work and can make society work. I don’t think it’s as well as understand as it should be, but I think it is increasingly clear that it is the reality of the world.
AA: So faith groups do what politics can’t?
The way I see the relationship is that faith groups are probably the best source of the kind of values that can make society work, make politics work. Stability, solidarity, patience, compassion, persistence, all of those things you need to make society work, and even more so, to make politics work.
Where are those values being instilled, formed, and created? It’s in the faith groups that we are seeing that happen. So for me, religious faith is a great starting point for politics and that is how I see the relationship. People coming from a faith perspective, a faith starting point, are being equipped for the kind of contribution that we need to make politics work in the future.
AA: Okay, but the flip-side is, how relevant in faith? The general argument is faith is in decline in modern Britain. London is often cited as the exception in academia, some described it as a “global city of faith”. Is this something you see happening as a politician serving in East London?
Well I think, the national attitude to religion, the popular attitude, is still dominated by the view that religion is in decline and there are still regular articles in newspapers about church decline. But as you say, in London that is not the case. Church attendance is rising in London, the Church of England is building its first new church building in London since the 1950s, and on top of that, we have very large mosques, temples, one just opened in my constituency last month.
So it is clear that in London, religious observance, participation and enthusiasm actually are on the rise not on the decline. And the question is, is London a sign of how things will be across the UK eventually? Or is London an isolated exception, a temporary blip, and then we will get back on the course of decline everywhere else seems to be on?
My view is the former. I think history suggests that what is happening in London tends to be a precursor across the UK.
And it’s now just London of course, there is religious growth happening elsewhere as well. But the picture on the whole, for the UK, is one of decline. But my expectation is that we will see what is happening in London elsewhere, that tends to be the case historically.
AA: If religion will be more a significant factor in public life in Britain – what should that relationship look like? The Woolf report on religion and belief, issued last year, suggests that there should be Imams and Rabbis alongside Bishops in the House of Lords. Is this the direction we should be heading?
I chair the All Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society, which is keen to draw attention to the positive contributions – largely unsung – that faith groups are making to their communities across the country.
My focus is on the sort of informal working out of this – I’d like to see lots fo people of religious faith – Sikhs, Muslims, Christians- getting stuck in by working and serving their local community, getting involved in politics, and taking up elected positions. I think that is a very promising prospect for politics in the United Kingdom for the future.
The question of who ends up in the House of Lords is a very different one, I notice Gordon Brown suggested an elected senate should replace the House of Lords – I think in the end we will have a largely, perhaps entirely, elected House of Lords. I think that is where we are likely to end up rather than having reserved places for different groups which the current arrangement might suggest would be appropriate.
AA: Your constituency, East Ham, is one of the most diverse in Britain, including a significant Muslim population. With discussions on immigration and diversity being increasingly prominent, what is it in an area like East Ham?
As you say, about 30% of my constituents are Muslim, and one of the things that interests me the Muslim community in my area is how further diverse that community is. There are Muslims from India, from Bangladesh, from Pakistan, from Africa, and from other parts of the world as well.
Muslims are a very large and very positive contributors to the life of our community, making a very big contribution to its cohesion. The mosques play a big part in that.
One of the things that strikes me in my area is the extent to which faith groups, and this is certainly true of the mosques, are giving people in very significant numbers the opportunity to belong.
You look at New Ham and it is very diverse in faith terms – and some people reflecting on a situation like that would assume it is bound to be a fragmented community. But on the whole, it is a pretty cohesive community, and the reason I think is because so many people belong. They belong to one faith group or another, and belonging to that, extends to having a sense of belonging to a wider community. As long as the thing they belong to is seen as part of the wider community – and then it’s on people like me to make sure that it is.
It is giving that opportunity to belong that is so important I think, in contemporary Britain, where a lot of people don’t feel they belong, they feel isolated and so on. And the strength of the faith groups in an area like mine, mean it is very cohesive, and it is largely down o the size and breadth of the participation to different faith groups in the area.
AA: Returning to your work with the All Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society, what does that entail?
What we are looking at in particular is the relationship between Local Authorities and faith groups in their area. And we would like to see a lot more examples then we have at the moment of Local Authorities commissioning services from faith based organisations who are wanting to provide services.
So we drew up something we call the Covenant for Engagement – half a dozen local authorities, including Birmingham which is the biggest Local Authority in Europe – have adopted that covenant now. It hopes to be a vehicle for building trust between faith groups on the one hand and local authorities on the other. I’m hoping that model will be adopted across the country as increasingly councils recognise the value and the potential that faith groups can make.
AA: Is there one particular issue faith based groups encounter when trying to work with Local Governments?
We have had a lot of discussions with faith groups – on a variety of topics, such welfare to work, children and young people, about oversees development. And a very common theme of those discussions was faith groups feeling they didn’t have a very good relationship with their Local Authority. The councils were suspicious of them, there was a fear that if they did give money to a faith based organisation to provide a service, then either that money be used to convert people instead of delivering the service, or the service would be delivered in a way that was biased and only for that particular group.
And the reality is, in so far as there is evidence about this that neither of those things happen in practice actually. There was a report from DEMOS three or so years ago that reflected and looked at this and made the point that actually religious faith it is in practice a very good basis for a modern ethos of pubic service – and that is what you get from these organisations when you deliver services on the ground.
But local authorities have a lot of anxiety and nervous about all this. And that is what our covenant is aiming to address.
To build confidence on both sides about the practicalities of working together.
AA: I wish you all the best in that work, thank you for taking time to speak to us.