Evangelicals and No 10: ‘From finger-waggers to life-changers’

By Tim Wyatt

Two weeks ago, Boris Johnson gave the Rev Tim Hughes his daily Points of Light award for co-ordinating 65 churches across the UK to record a lockdown song of blessing. Mr Hughes has long been one of the most famous figures in the evangelical Christian world, but the Birmingham worship leader is little known outside the church.

The UK Blessing video he organised has been a viral hit among Britain’s Christians, having notched up 3.1 million views on YouTube. It is unclear how exactly it came to the prime minster’s attention, but connections between the growing UK evangelical movement and Downing Street are surprisingly healthy.

“Songs find their ways into the most unexpected of places,” a self-effacing Mr Hughes said. “It’s very special that the leader of our government, our country, was listening to this thing which I think beautifully communicates and demonstrates the heart of the church.”

But other evangelical leaders who have built up working relationships with a range of ministers and government departments said Mr Johnson’s endorsement of the viral video was not a complete surprise, given the sea-change in the past decade.

Previously many of Britain’s evangelicals, probably the fastest-growing portion of the UK church, viewed politicians with deep suspicion, and were in return held at arm’s length by government.

However, in the past decade or so, almost without realising, many evangelicals have fostered long-standing partnerships with Whitehall and Downing Street, transforming relations between the church and government.

Many charity and church leaders said the turning point came in 2010, when the coalition government took power. Conservative ministers were instinctively less mistrustful of evangelicals and there were more than a handful of Christians themselves among the Tory party’s new backbenchers and ministers. In addition, austerity measures meant there was a vacuum of social provision that faith-based organisations could fill with the government’s blessing.

Daniel Singleton, an evangelical church leader in east London, has become so trusted by government that his charity, FaithAction, is helping to organise the meetings about how to reopen places of worship after lockdown ends.

He said evangelical charities’ track record during austerity in successfully tackling social problems from food poverty to gang violence, gave the broader movement new credibility among ministers and civil servants.

Krish Kandiah, a well-connected writer, speaker and charity leader who was a senior figure in the Evangelical Alliance, said much the same. The church had stronger relationships with Downing Street and Whitehall because it now sought partnership on the basis of collaboration and what it could offer ministers, rather than entitlement.

“We are invited into No 10 and into these meetings not because we’re Christians, but because we have got something useful we can actually contribute,” he said. “That’s the post-Christendom mindset.”

He noted there was a growing number of advisers in and around No 10 who were “faith-literate and faith friendly” and speculated it was one of them who presumably first put the UK Blessing under Mr Johnson’s nose.

These advisers most notably include Jonathan Hellewell, a former aide to Prince Charles and to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was appointed by Theresa May as the first special adviser for faith communities and then kept on in the same role by Mr Johnson.

Mr Hellewell, a practising Christian, is well-regarded by church leaders across the denominations and also a useful bridge into the Conservative Party, where he once worked as David Cameron’s private secretary while in opposition.

Other evangelical-led charities which have spearheaded this change of mood include Christians Against Poverty (CAP), which runs one of the country’s largest and most successful debt counselling networks; the Trussell Trust, Britain’s biggest food bank charity; and XLP, which leads youth work among teenagers at risk of falling into gang violence.

Patrick Regan, the founder and former head of XLP, said personal relationships had been the key to his success at working with governments over 25 years. He first encountered Mr Johnson when he was mayor of London and has maintained the connection all the way to Downing Street.

“I think it has changed. There was a lot of mistrust,” he recalled. “The effective work of the church across the UK in the past 10 years, things like food banks, CAP, Mind and Soul . . . it’s incredible and the results they get are recognised. In my interactions I always say please measure us on our effectiveness rather than ticking the faith box.”

Mr Regan got his first break into national politics after he began working with Sir Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) think tank in the 2000s. Later, the director of the CSJ, Christian Guy, was hired by David Cameron as a special adviser and spent several years working at No 10 before returning to the charity sector.

He reflected that the church had changed in the eyes of government, from “finger-wagging” moralisers and moaners and a blocker on social progress, to some of the most effective, life-changing charity groups.

“When politicians look around the country or their constituencies it’s often the churches or the people of faith who are making the difference. I think that has thawed the relationship a bit, and made it a much more practical one which I think is a very good thing.”

Although many said there were plenty of Christians in the New Labour governments, including Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the party’s culture was more hostile to faith. Several people, unprompted, brought up Alastair Campbell’s “We don’t do God” dictum as exemplifying some of the attitudes.

Mr Guy said although Tories tended to be more relaxed about collaborating with evangelicals, the mood music had changed so much since 2010 he suspected even another Labour government would not mark a return to the mistrust of the past.

The deepening relationships were helped along by goodwill gestures, including Mr Cameron beginning to host Easter receptions at Downing Street, Mr Guy said. Alongside that was a growing political sophistication among evangelicals as well: “There has been an awakening in Christian circles at least that you’ve got to engage with government. It matters, it sets the tone, legislation counts, it’s a noble thing to go and do with your life.”

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Christian Guy said: “Obviously prime ministers and politicians tend to be quite nervous about talking about faith or fear some American experience, where it’s used for good or ill. I think in recent years there’s been a big shift in the way groups are seen by government, partly because the Christian church has gone from being very moralistic, very judgmental, critical and a blocker on social progress in the eyes of people in government.

“But now people are waking up to the church as a real source of hope and practical support for people on the margins of society. It’s gone from being the finger-waggers to the practical, life-changing charity groups. That’s changed the relationship between Christian leaders and Downing Street.

“There is now a natural bridge into political power for all faiths, in a way I’m sure there probably wasn’t even 10 years ago. I do think it’s a more natural space for Conservatives any way, but there has been an openness towards faith groups which has really opened up. First of all with the coalition, but since with majority Tory governments. Even if you had a Labour government now, I think that has gone. There is a sense that we need these groups, they’re making a really positive difference in our country.”

Krish Kandiah said: “There are a number of special advisers around No 10 and some of them are really faith-literate and faith-friendly. Jonathan Hellewell is great. He is aware and connected and part of mainstream churches. He’s definitely clued up, but he’s not alone — there are a number of them. A lot of the civil servants are the same people [as in previous administrations] so those relationships that have been built up continue on even if the political figures have changed at the top.

“The government is recognising the vital role faith ministers play and have stepped up in this time of great need. They are a great mobilising and communication network and also for civil society in serving the nation. Sometimes in general governments do work like that [having to tick the faith box] but I felt in general there’s been a real openness to a partnership. It seems genuine.

“What are we asking for, special attention? That’s not fair. But if we can say we have access to thousands of people who can help you to find loving homes for vulnerable children there is a reason for the government to listen to us. That’s the post-Christendom mindset. We shouldn’t necessarily be listened to because we’re Christians, we should be listened to because we’re good citizens trying to serve the common good.”

Daniel Singleton said: “I think there was a marked change in 2010. The coming of the coalition did a number of things. Having been around for a lot longer, it felt like there was a sudden bunch of well-spoken evangelical Christians, kind of HTB-esque [Holy Trinity Brompton], that suddenly hit my radar. We saw huge a growth in food banks and rather than seeking to get permission or constantly being scrutinised for professionalism . . . people got up and did stuff. That spoke very loudly.

“There is still an issue about what is the place of religion in the public square, but you can’t argue against the activity of what people do, which is good. Then there was a maturing, both of folk in the faith sector and of government, saying we’ve got to go about things differently. I wonder if there was a stronger influence from evangelical charismatic Christians in parts of the Conservative Party.”