We recently enjoyed a lengthy conversation with pastor, author and British person Mark Meynell. We discussed a range of issues relating to the intersection of Christian faith and political engagement, including a heavy focus on cynicism (which is the subject of his new book, A Wilderness of Mirrors: Trusting Again in a Cynical World). Because the interview was long and scheduling content during the summer months is sometimes difficult, we’ll be sharing highlights from it over the course of the next few weeks. During this first part, we asked Mark to share a bit about his general background and what he has learned over the years about the spiritual struggles that come with working in or caring about politics.
Talk a little bit about your ministry background.
I’ve been ordained in the Church of England—the episcopalian church—for 20 years and I’ve been doing various church ministries for 25 years. After doing my apprenticeship as an assistant minister, my wife Rachel and I took our young children to East Africa, where I taught in a small seminary in Kampala, Uganda. I was teaching biblical studies there for about four years and ended up as acting principal.
One of the ideals of that college—very much a hallmark of it’s foundation—was to help people “cross the divide between Sunday and Monday.” What you see in a lot of African Christianity, which is very similar to what you see in a lot of Western Christianity, is a privatization of faith. That has had a lot of damaging consequences wherever it happens, I think.
We came back to the UK ten years ago. I joined the senior staff of All Souls Langham Place, right in the center of London, and am involved in preaching, discipling and running training courses. Our location shapes our ministry. We are literally two feet from the BBC—the world headquarters for the BBC is on our doorstep. There are literally thousands of journalists working in several different languages for the BBC world service.
There’s a very real awareness in our congregation of the wider world, and that shapes and affects us. It’s almost guaranteed that if there’s some trouble going on in somewhere in the world, there will be members of our congregation who are personally affected by it. As a pastor or as a church member, that profoundly affects how you handle and engage with the news. You cannot be introverted or parochial about it. When the Ebola crisis was happening, there were people in the congregation from West Africa very personally affected by what was going on.
Out of All Souls’ ministry around central London came the invitation to do some events for the Christian fellowship in the Treasury, which is the finance department of the British government. I did a few events there, and was invited to become the chaplain in an unpaid capacity. I have extraordinary opportunities to sit and chat with the people who work there.
How has working with and ministering to the people who work at Treasury changed your understanding of how power and politics works and how our faith relates to the power structures of the countries around us?
I think it’s a very useful thing for people in church ministry to spend time in the workplaces of the people in our congregations. For many people who work in ministry, it’s either been a very long time since they’ve been in a “normal” workplace—if they ever have at all.
When you do spend time there, you realize the challenges, the tensions, the opportunities that face anybody who wants to speak into that context. It’s not enough to simply make appeals from the pulpit about how to live out your faith and expect people to do this, that and the other thing in their workplaces without having a clue about what their workplace is like. You realize that things are much tougher (and some times much easier) than you perhaps thought.
Now, all of that said, one of the particularities of working in politics that I’ve seen is that the big decisions of the public square, and these small soundbites those decisions get reduced to, will have a profound impact on the individuals making them, who are just ordinary people doing jobs. Sometimes those people just want to sit and chat with someone who is in their world but is not actually connected to the political process or is not part of the system. They want to be able to relate to someone and chat about the big decisions and think about what implications this has for them. Sometimes Treasury people ask about ethical questions, “What happens if I do this or that?”, when they’ve got a tough decision to make. Sometimes they are just simply struggling with work/life balance.
One of our goals is to help people who are not living in DC or in state capitals better understand the needs of people working in government so that we can pray for them more effectively. What are some of the unique needs you’ve seen people working in Treasury experience? What are some needs that we all have that they feel particularly acutely?
I think the first thing is to be prepared to give the benefit of the doubt on an unpopular decision. I’ve met a lot of impressive people who are really trying to do the right thing—I’m not talking necessarily about people with the faith background, although there are definitely some—who are presented with damned-if-they-do/damned-if-they-don’t decisions. We’re talking about situations where they’ve got, maybe, three options, all of which are rubbish, each of which would have devastating impact on somebody, and where even the lack of a decision would mean devastating results. They face completely no-win situations and sometimes I have to tell people who are tempted to be impatient to put themselves in the decision-makers’ shoes. You’ve got a bad decision to make. It’s going to be bad. It’s going to upset somebody. Give them the benefit of the doubt that what they’re doing the best they could do the circumstances, by whatever criteria they have.
In light of all of that, I think one of the biggest issues—and it’s not surprising that an ancient Old Testament King prayed for this—is to have wisdom. People who work in government often need wisdom to make the most extraordinary difficult decisions. Even people who are our political opponents are not necessarily as venal or as corrupt as we might think they are in their decision-making. Even if other parts of their life are up the creek, their decision-making process is hopefully often honorable, and they need wisdom. I think that’s a very important thing to pray into these situations for, even for people you don’t like or wouldn’t vote for.
What other challenges stand in the way of us understanding and praying for people who work in government?
One of the real challenges on both sides of the Atlantic is that we are constrained by the culture of politics. The news cycle demands sound bites—summary statements that are politically slanted and easy to understand—on issues that are sometimes incredibly complex.
You take an average bill that goes through British Parliament, it might be 150 pages. Yet someone will give it a short, slanted name. There was a law going through British Parliament just before our general election that the opposition called “The Bedroom Tax,” which was a very, very clever and obviously slanted name for it. Any opportunity they had, they talked about The Bedroom Tax and made it sound really outrageous. The politics of the issue and the justice of the issue aside, that was a difficult debate but that kind of politicking helps nobody.
I’m not blaming any side. I think everyone plays the same game because you have to. But when we recognize that a bill might have 150 pages, it’s obviously not going to be possible to summarize it in three words. That fact alone should surely alert us to the reality of the need for nuance, the need for time, the need for listening—which are such alien concepts to most of us.
Somehow we need a means by which cross-party relationships can be fostered. I know from my work that there are Christians in all the main political parties in Britain who pray together. I’ve been to the various Christians In Parliament meetings and Christians In Government meetings. But that sense of trust in one another is something you cannot fabricate. There’s no five-point plan or six-week course. It’s about connecting to people and forming relationships. I think it’s one of the biggest issues of our time—it’s obviously the key issue in my book. But by and large, we are lacking that kind of thing.
Social media photos edited from images by Grey World and Patrick Jones under Creative Commons