We're used to seeing politics on a grand scale as the Westminster drama plays out endlessly on our radios and TV screens. The lobbyists and think-tanks target the national scene. But politics is local, too – and a new initiative from a Christian councillor in South Gloucestershire aims to connect Christians with those who represent them on their doorsteps.
The Christians in Politics Councillors Prayer Network is the brainchild of Helen Harrison, former mayor of Thornbury. It's billed as 'a great way for those across all parties and denominations to connect, to share experiences, to talk about the issues they face and to strengthen one another in prayer'.
Starting out as a quarterly prayer breakfast gathering in South Gloucestershire, the network has now grown to include a bi-monthly prayer email sent to councillors nationwide – and Christians in Politics wants it to grow even more.
It began when Helen became mayor of Thornbury in 2016 and decided to reach out to people of faith who held council-related roles in the county. She decided to host a prayer breakfast for Christians serving in local politics, and the response led her to start a quarterly prayer breakfast attended by a mix of councillors and council staff. The experience, she tells Christian Today, proved to me that there is a need and desire for prayer and mutual faith-led support for Christians in local politics'.
This is not least because it can be a very challenging role.
'Some of the decisions that councillors have to make can be quite contentious, especially if they appear to favour one section of the community more than another,' she says. 'So that can be hard, and my prayer at those times is always for wisdom, to find the way forward that is the right way, and not just the easy way, or the way that suits the most vocal residents.
'Being gracious in front of angry and dissenting residents can be hard, especially when you know that the essence of their argument is flawed. So responding calmly and carefully has to be the order of the day in those situations, even when that's not what I feel like doing.
'Like many towns we are being subject to a lots of housing developments, and of course there has been a lot of anger against the council for that as we are seen to be the ones that are letting it all happen. Those situations have again required wisdom, grace, and a willingness to repeat many times the explanations that undo the false myths and set the record straight regarding what we as a town council can do, and what is beyond our control and remit.'
Politics – whether at a national or local level – can be a high-stress, confrontational business. Is it still possible for political adversaries to lay their differences aside and pray together?
'Obviously not everyone agrees on everything, and the different stances of the different parties can get in the way. But at the end of the day we are all seeking to serve our community together, and in general there is more that joins us than divides us,' Helen says. 'I think as Christians we have the privilege of knowing that party politics isn't the be all and end all – we serve a higher God, and can come together across the parties in prayer and unity to seek ways to fulfil what is on his heart.'
And she's passionate about seeing more Christians getting involved in politics. ' Politics is the arena where the decisions for our country are made, and if there is no real Christian voice speaking into that arena, then how can God's values be articulated into it? Without Christians speaking into the debates, the range of arguments and perspectives will be lopsided, and could give space for more radical and one-sided views taking centre stage.
It doesn't mean becoming an MP, or giving up the day job even. Becoming a local councillor, like I am, is a voluntary role, that can be fitted around paid employment. But it is such a positive way to serve the community, to be at the heart of what is going on, and to be involved in a positive way in decisions that are being made, that I really would encourage people to consider how they can get more involved.'
And she urges prayer for politicians, who have huge responsibilities and need great wisdom. The sort of decisions they have to take, she says, are complex and 'far less black-and-white than folks on the outside might think they are – so prayers for clarity and discernment are needed, as well as courage to take what can be really tough decisions'.
They are also only human, needing to juggle their work and public roles and their family and private lives: 'They are just as likely to be trying to cope with an elderly relative, or an illness in the family, or missing out on bedtime with young children, as anyone else. So prayers for them as individuals, and for their families, are always good to have,' she says.
For more information about Christians in Politics and the Councillors Prayer Network click here or email Benita Hussain at firstname.lastname@example.org.