British Prime Minister Tony Blair today attended his last Labour conference church service as leader - and heard a searching sermon about the priority of eliminating injustice and slavery in the word today.
The PM joined hundreds of local worshippers and conference delegates at St Annís Church, Manchester, for the traditional morning service and read the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Labour Party chair, Hazel Blears MP, also gave a reading.
Mr Blairís personal Christian faith, first publicly discussed in an interview with Matthew d'Ancona in 1996, has been a matter of political controversy over the years ñ with his one-time media supremo Alastair Campbell once being defensively impelled to declare, ëWe donít do Godí.
Worshippers heard the guest preacher in Manchester, the Rev Dr Kate Coleman, President of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, say that despite legislation passed almost 200 years ago, millions still suffer from impoverishment, discrimination, and slavery today.
ìWhen the issue is slavery, it is definitely not the thought that counts,î declared Dr Coleman, urging worshippers to further action and citing ongoing discrimination in the UK.
The Baptist leader added: ìWhen nearly 200 years after the official end of the slave trade there are still nearly 130,000 race hate incidents every year, we must still be in search of freedom.î
Looking further afield, Dr Coleman cited figures of 20 million in bonded labour around the world, 179 caught up in trafficking and child labour ñ more than were trapped by the transatlantic slave trade 200 years ago. ìHistory has done more than simply repeat itself, it has imploded on itself.î
However, quoting the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, she encouraged her listeners to act to remove these injustices.
After the service, Cherie Blair, Secretary of State for Social Exclusion Hilary Armstrong, and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Stephen Timms, met with local faith group leaders in a reception after the service. Faith leaders from a variety of religions talked about the roles government can play in promoting better understanding between people holding different worldviews.
ìThe service was a good start to a busy week,î said Bev Thomas, chair of the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM). ìConference delegates received a warm welcome from the congregation.î
The service is the first conference event organised by CSM this year. CSM is part of the Labour movement, affiliated to the Party. It is holding a seminar debating slavery in the 21st Century with culture minister David Lammy, and an event on social justice with Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative Party leader.
The slavery debate is sure to excite further comment, as it is being sponsored by Nestle, whose practices in the developing world have attracted an ongoing boycott from many churches and global development activists.
Other CSM events at this yearís Labour conference include a meeting on business and development with Alistair Darling, the Trade and Industry Secretary, and a prayer breakfast to discuss asylum issues with Home Office minister Liam Byrne.
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