First class travel and the Christian difference

Does it matter whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer – or any other MP for that matter – travels in the first class carriage of a train?

George Osborne was recently engulfed in controversy when he reportedly entered a First Class carriage – but with only a Standard Class ticket. It was later suggested that he had planned all along to pay for the upgrade, and that a ministerial assistant travelling with him had gone to find a guard in order to do so. But a TV journalist on the same journey alleged that in fact there had been something of a minor bust-up between the assistant and a ticket inspector over the issue.

The controversy widened when The Sunday Telegraph suggested that 185 Members of Parliament had claimed for First Class rail travel in the past year. While not technically contrary to House of Commons guidelines – which do allow claiming for a First Class ticket “if it is less than the cost of a standard open fare” – many commentators felt that any such travel could simply reinforce public perceptions that MPs are generally out-of-touch.

Whatever the detailed rights and wrongs, it is hard to mount a real justification for the existence of different classes of rail travel other than profit. Presumably train operators might argue that the income to be reaped from such seating is ploughed back into the system by investment in better services.

But when MPs – already widely believed to have been lining their pockets in the expenses scandal a few years ago – travel in a way that is beyond the means of most ordinary voters, damaging perceptions can be reinforced.

Some years ago I found myself travelling in the same – Standard Class – railway compartment as the late Barbara Castle, the veteran Labour Party politician. As I remember, the fact that she was not in First Class attracted general approval from other passengers, one of whom offered to buy her a cup of tea.

Former Prime Minister John Major may have spoken years ago to no apparent effect of a “classless society”, but it is the Christian faith which offers a genuinely radical perspective on the idea. “My brothers and sisters,” writes James in his New Testament letter, “believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?”

He was merely working out in practice, of course, what the Apostle Paul said – that in Christ, we all have equal access to God, and hence “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”.

A friend who worships at a church in a Middle Eastern city told me that, as one of the few English-speaking congregations in the area, it attracts a wide diversity of people. She has sometimes seen impressive-looking limousines arrive, containing what she understands to be high-flying diplomats from international embassies. But, she went on, “when you look at the congregation, you really can’t tell who they are.”

In Christ, everyone is of equal value – and there aren’t (or at least shouldn’t be) any second-class travellers.

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