God in the System - Parliament
Arguably society is becoming more secular, but at the heart of government God is very much still part of the system.
“the government shall be upon his shoulders.” Isaiah 9:6
I became a Civil Servant for two reasons. The first was that I fell absolutely and utterly in love with the Palace of Westminster and wanted to find an excuse to spend as much time there as possible. The second was that as a law and history undergraduate I was fascinated with the question of who makes the law and how; I was excited by the opportunity to change and shape the rules that govern our society. For me God was very much part of that decision; I felt His calling to this life of public service and wanted to effect positive change for the public good.
I have heard it argued that society is becoming more secular and that the space for Christian influence is being squeezed; but I believe that our Christian heritage is still very much part of the system. There are so many opportunities for Christians to work in and influence the way that our policy is made.
In this blog I want to consider the story that the Palace of Westminster tells us about the role of God and faith in our system.
After the Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire in 1834, Charles Barry won the public competition to design the new building. The intention behind the design was that it would feel welcoming to the public. To achieve that aim Barry modelled the space on a Cathedral because this was the only building of a comparable scale that people would have experienced. The idea that Parliament was meant to feel welcoming, opening and familiar might be a surprise to us. Today when you enter the Houses of Parliament it can feel overwhelming and awe inspiring, but the references to our Christian heritage are literally built in. From the cross shaped floor plan that aligns the throne in the Lords with the Speaker’s Chair in the Commons, to the design of the chamber, every element echoes that of a church.
“One generation shall praise Your works to another and shall declare Your mighty acts” (Psalm 145:4). Parliament is a place where generations of Christians have prayed for our country and for its leaders and worked out their faith for God’s glory.
Before the fire, the House of Commons met in St. Stephen’s Chapel, with members sitting opposite each other in choir stalls and the speaker’s chair placed on the altar steps. The current chamber has kept this layout. Our predominantly two-party system developed as a result of the layout of the chapel, as members began to sit on the same side as those whose views were most similar to their own. When members nod or bow as they enter the chamber, this is in acknowledgement of the altar in the original building not to the speaker.
The Monarch has a central function in our constitution, and by extension so does the Church. The coronation is presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Monarch swears an oath to maintain the laws of God, profess the Gospel and uphold the role of the church. The motif of the Crown is repeated throughout the Parliament building to remind us that all the power comes from the Monarch; this reminds me that all the power comes from God. Indeed, the mace (symbol of the Monarch) has to be present in the House for business to proceed. The only exception is the State Opening of Parliament when the Monarch is present in person. At the beginning of a new Parliament most MPs still swear their oath of allegiance on the Bible.
Prayers mark the beginning of every day in Parliament, led by the Bishops in the Lords. In the Commons the Speaker’s Chaplain leads daily prayers, weekly communion services in the chapel, and is responsible for the pastoral care of Members of Parliament.
All these elements tell an important story. Our history is of a Christian country and allegiance to God and the Crown remain integral to our system. I’ve always found the physical reminders of this present in every aspect of Parliament encouraging and inspiring.
Christians should feel a sense of belonging and purpose as they enter Parliament for it is a place where our worship of God and expression of faith find physical form. Certainly, there are many Christians who work and take an active role in the life of both parliament and government and the vibrant networks that exist to support them. Our values of public service, honesty and integrity deserve to find a welcome home at the centre of our system. The aims of bringing hope to the poor, justice for the oppressed, healing for the sick are all translated into the work of government through public policy. (I will explore the theme of policy process a little further in a subsequent blog)
So to Christians who might feel unsure about pursuing a career in politics, law or the civil service I say this: be bold and confident, listen to the call that God has on your life and claim your place in the public sphere.