The Westminster Declaration, a statement drawn up by a number of conservative Christian groups ahead of the general election, has been criticised by leading Christian politicians, including the former chair of Christians in Politics, Alistair Burt.
Burt, an Evangelical Anglican who is seeking re-election as a Tory MP, said the Declaration gave the impression of “some elements of the Christian Church more as a lobby group than as people of faith”.
He was speaking yesterday evening (26 April) at a central London hustings event organised by Christians and Candidates 2010, an initiative linked with the Westminster Declaration.
Burt urged Christian voters not to place their vote based on whether or not a candidate had signed the statement. He said he didn't consider it “fair or appropriate to try to wrap up somebody's faith” in a general election document.
The Westminster Declaration is described by its organisers as a “declaration of Christian conscience”, but others fear that it has more to do with voicing the fears of socially conservative Christians who wish to retain Christian privileges in society.
Burt's concerns were shared by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Stephen Timms, a member of the Christian Socialist Movement. He said that it is “not a declaration I would sign” but said he could “certainly welcome a good deal of the content of it”.
Their comments at the hustings were challenged by the Christian Party leader, George Hargreaves, who said that all 71 of his party's candidates would sign the Westminster Declaration. His views were echoed by Alan Craig of the Christian People's Alliance.
The Declaration begins from the point of view of “protecting human life, protecting marriage and protecting freedom of conscience”. Although it refers briefly to issues such as poverty and unjust trade, its refusal to support any “act that involves intentionally taking human life” seems to be restricted to abortion and euthanasia, with no reference to war.
The Westminster Declaration has been backed by the former Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey.
The discussion during the hustings focused almost exclusively on abortion, marriage, homosexuality, Islam and alleged discrimination against Christians. At the beginning of the evening, Timms said he looked forward to discussing international development, but the issue was not mentioned again.
Hargreaves and Craig took a hard line on homosexuality, while Burt and Timms insisted that civil partnerships do not undermine marriage. Craig described the introduction of civil partnerships as “another milestone along this triumphalist gay agenda”.
He said, “I do object when it's suggested that my children should be taught at their state school that civil partnerships are somehow morally equivalent to a marriage”. He suggested this threatened the “safety of children”.
Hargreaves insisted that “Britain is a Christian country. That's a fact.” He added, “We have a sovereign queen, anointed as a Christian queen, and Parliament is appointed by their sovereign. Therefore, it is the Parliament of a Christian sovereign queen.”
Both Craig and Hargreaves later spoke of the importance of tolerance, when questioned about “discrimination” against Christians. Burt partially agreed with their assessment that there is an intolerance towards Christians in certain areas of life. He spoke of an “aggressive secularist position”. Timms was heckled as he insisted that “there is absolutely no secularising agenda” by the Labour government.
Timms also pointed out that the Equality Act, which a number of socially conservative Christians have campaigned against, makes it illegal to discriminate against Christians on the basis of their faith.
With regards to his own motivations, Timms insisted, “What I want above all is a government based on fairness, because that is what I believe Jesus is calling us to”.