What can the church learn from the seven MP split from Labour?

Once again it is hard times in the Labour Party. In scenes reminiscent of the early 80s, when the Gang of Four broke away to launch the Council for Social Democracy (the forerunner to the SDP), seven Labour MPs resigned and have decided to sit as a new independent group in parliament.

Chuka Umunna, one of the breakaway MPs, stated on Twitter:

Interestingly, his values and principles don’t extend to holding a by-election to see whether the people that voted to elect a Labour MP on their particular manifesto pledges are still happy to be represented by an independent who now rejects the manifesto on which he campaigned. Some have already pointed out the irony that Umunna, an advocate of a second referendum on Brexit, is happy to leave his party – which he cannot reform in line with his views – but happily insists we ought to stay in the EU which is beyond reformation.

Then, on the day the breakaways launched their precursor to a new party, one of the core team – Angela Smith – decided to garble this nonsense live on air:

Again, there is great irony in a group of people leaving a party over apparent racism (and there is a problem with antisemitism that needs addressing) only to make casually racist remarks live on air on the first morning they were making this announcement.

Interestingly, I know a few folks who have worked for some of these guys. With the notable exception of Luciana Berger – who is evidently leaving for the reasons stated – several of these MPs had been planning to break away for a while. Whilst the ostensible reasons given are Brexit and antisemitism, some of them were discussing plans to break away back in 2015, before either thing was on the agenda. Several Unions, along with certain Labour MPs and activists, have pointed out that they bore with the party during the Blair era in which their views were roundly ignored but the so-called ‘moderates’ cannot bear to do the same. Apparently staying to effect reform only needs to happen when it suits the so-called moderates.

The Labour leader has, in response, stated the following:

He pointed out that these MPs were elected on a Labour manifesto and were elected to carry out those policies. He equally noted that the idea they were not being listened to was simply untrue (around 4:58). The case, he argued, was that they had been heard but the party didn’t agree. Policies had been discussed and developed together, the MPs who left the party had not taken up the opportunities to be consulted and were making a case that was heard but rejected.

Now, I have no idea whether that is true or not. I was not present at any of those consultations and I am not an MP. So, I have no clue whether that is true or not, whether MPs have been listened to or they haven’t. But I was minded to think about how these sorts of issues often play out in the church and whether we can learn anything from these Labour Party travails.

Firstly – and I hope this gives some succour to my Anglican friends – the world who deride your inability to agree among yourselves are themselves evidently unable to agree. Those who mock your disputes, even pointing to the reformation as a great tragedy, are themselves so often embroiled in divisions of their own. Many of those who insist on the need to ‘stay together’ and ‘work for unity’ are often those who happily jump ship themselves when things don’t go their way. Those quick to point the finger of hypocrisy at the church are often those who show that their form of togetherness evidently stems from the my-way-or-the-highway school of unity. Those who insist you must stay and work for reform are often happy to leave when their core principles are undermined.

I am not saying what is right or wrong here. I think there are times to stay and work for reform. I also think there are times when things have so departed from faithfulness to core values that one is best to jump ship lest they be lost with the sinking vessel. Working out when either of things apply requires a lot of wisdom indeed. But the point here is that those who call continuously for reform and unity at all costs are often those who, faced with the same choices over things that they deeply cherish, choose to abandon ship. Being guided by the hypocrisy of the world on these matters because they may choose to throw around the label ‘hypocrite’ is not a solid basis for any principled stand.

Second, just as somebody who is leaving a party on a point of principle and has departed from the manifesto on which they were elected should allow the people to determine whether they are still happy to be represented by such a one, so a minister who has changed doctrine as a matter of principle ought to allow his church to determine whether they are still happy to be led by such a one. It is simply no good to allow doctrinal drift and then to insist, because your church appointed you with a different set of doctrinal views, that they are forever stuck with you regardless of how far you move away from your original position. I appreciate that this seems a much stronger point of principle on my preferred congregational polity. But if you claim your doctrinal shift is a matter of principle, then that principle should extend to allowing your church (or whoever you submit to on such matters) to decide whether they’re still happy for you to lead them.

All too often we get doctrinal drift from ministers and then a staunch refusal to ask the church whether they are OK with it. Churches should be mindful of this tendency and write into any contracts of employment – or statement of office – some essential points of doctrinal purity on which shift positions will not be tolerated. But if you suddenly become a progressive affirming minister on principle, having been appointed as an Evangelical one, it says something about your principles if you won’t permit your church to determine whether they are happy with such a doctrinal shift. My church has tied its red lines to the FIEC doctrinal basis and supporting statements. If I suddenly decide – on Biblical principle – that I hold a view other than these, my principle doesn’t count for much if I can’t bring myself to stand before the church, admit it, defend it and ask if the church are still with me as a result.

Third, if you do feel the need to take a stand on any given issue – no matter what it is or however many of your congregants are behind you – try not to undermine your stand on the very day you make it. Just as leaving a political party over alleged racism is not helped by making casually racist comments as you do, so undermining your doctrinal points of principle by making heterodox statements as you do so isn’t going to help your cause either. If you determine that it is vitally important for your church to move from open to closed communion (or vice versa), it would probably help if the day you make that announcement in your Evangelical church you don’t cite transubstantiation as a reason why its important.

Fourth, note the difference between being listened to and your ideas being accepted. It is a common criticism in churches, ‘the pastor didn’t listen’ or ‘the elders didn’t hear me.’ But, of course, that is not always true at all. Very often, the pastor and elders have heard you. Quite often, they may have spent an awful lot of time with you. What you may mean is that, despite having spent a long time listening to your concerns and showing you the scriptures, they are of the view that your position isn’t correct. That is not the same thing. It is also a big part of leadership; determining when people’s concerns and ideas are legitimate and ought to be enacted and when they aren’t and ought to be avoided. If we are inclined to leave the church every time our ideas are rejected or, having been heard at length, our concerns are shown to be unbiblical, we are going to be leaving an awful lot of churches.

Fifth, avail yourself of the opportunities to effect change. The Labour leadership (rightly or wrongly) claimed that they had ample opportunity for discussion and engagement of policy but those who left never availed themselves of them. Like that, in churches, we are often faced with opportunities to effect change. It could be change in the church direction through members’ meetings or it could be change in ourselves as we seek to be formed by the Word through sermons, studies and the like. But so often our dissatisfaction at not being heard (as we perceive it) stems from an unwillingness to avail ourselves of the opportunities to be heard. Likewise, our dissatisfaction at the church’s ability to serve this or that faction often comes after we haven’t availed ourselves of the opportunities to be built up in the things that are available for us.

It is a common enough phenomenon. People complain of not enough teaching whilst not attending the teaching that is presently available. People complain of not enough fellowship whilst refusing to engage in any fellowship. People complain of not enough forms of outreach and evangelism whilst not joining in any of the existing mission opportunities. We may have great ideas for these things, but we can’t critique what we don’t attend. We may have views on the best ways to do these things, but we can’t judge whether they would indeed be an improvement if we haven’t seen how they actually run in practice. Most importantly, we can’t expect to be heard when we don’t utilise the existing opportunities. It is a source of great frustration for a great many leaders to be told there’s not enough teaching by people who don’t turn up for sermons and study groups, or there’s not enough fellowship by those who come late and leave early, or there’s not enough evangelism by those who won’t share the gospel. These sorts of criticisms only hold when we avail ourselves of existing opportunities to engage and find that they aren’t adequate.

Sixth, and finally, if your church does split be aware that these things have probably been in the offing a lot longer than people make out and the reasons given probably not the underlying reasons. The seven who left Labour have offered their reasons for leaving but there are several sources suggesting these things were in the planning long before those reasons were live issues. This means that their plan to leave existed long before anybody knew they were going to leave and their given reasons are evidently not the actual reasons. So, in the church, when people are on the pathway to an acrimonious split, often (though admittedly not always) these things have been longer in the planning than may be admitted.

We had a split at our church a while ago. Without going into the gory details, a small group went and started a church down the road having taken some folks from another local church too. Interestingly, as I watched their launch service, they noted that the idea for the church had been in the planning for several years. That would have included most of the time I was working to try and find a resolution to the issues with them. Their efforts to do so were apparently entirely disingenuous as their plans to set up the church down the road had been made long before they left our church. Similarly, few folks left behind in our church ever got to the bottom of what the issues really were. ‘Leadership issues’ were frequently cited but when we asked specific questions about what that meant we never got a clear answer and a continually moving target. The plan to leave predated our knowledge of anyone leaving and the given reasons were evidently not the actual reasons. Averting acrimonious splits requires early intervention and an ability to discern underlying issues that are often unstated altogether.