I can’t resign from a political party; I never joined one. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I felt I could preach the Gospel more effectively without people thinking I was being party political. Nevertheless, over the years, plenty have discerned in my sermons views that resonated more with the Labour Party than any other. That was only to be expected. I happen to believe that social justice, a fair distribution of wealth and equal opportunities are central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I also grew up on a National Coal Board Estate and in a household where it would be heresy to cast a vote in an election for a candidate from any party other than Labour.

In 1971, at the age of 10, my school teacher set his new form a questionnaire. Only much later did I realise it was a clever means by which he could get to know each character in the class. One of the questions was inevitably ‘what would you like to do when you grow up?’ I had no hesitation, because I meant it: ‘to be a Labour MP.’ Years later Mr Pilsbury told me it was the most ambitious response he had received in decades of teaching.

It was only when I sensed a call to ordained ministry in the Methodist Church at the age of 21 that I finally gave up any hope of ever fulfilling my childhood dream; I was to give my life to Christ and his Church. Formal allegiance to a political party would, in my mind, only have been a burden, an obstacle to speaking from the pulpit of good news to the poor, liberation from social oppression and welcoming the marginalised into the centre. Other ministers saw things differently, and still do, and I would never criticise a minister for joining a party, whichever party, unless it was communist or fascist, but this was my reasoned view.

For almost 40 years since I took that decision my pencil in the voting booth has seemingly always gravitated towards the Labour candidate. Only on a few rare occasions, when the only realistic winner could have been either Lib Dem or Conservative, was my cross placed strategically, so to speak.

For the last two years I have really struggled to know what to do at a polling station. At the last General Election I very reluctantly voted for the Labour candidate, not because I had anything against her personally, I didn’t know her, but because I feared a Corbyn-led Government. Had I have known then how close he would come to becoming Prime Minister I may have struggled even more with placing my cross where I did. Since then I have seen my worst fears come true: the far left that was expelled in the late 80’s from the Party, or at the very least side-lined, has now taken control of many constituencies, the National Executive and much of the Front Bench. The entryists and activists, and even some leading politicians, have brought with them views that are repugnant to me.

It has often been said that the Labour Party owes as much to Methodism as it does to Marx. Well according to Methodist Standing orders racism is a denial of the Gospel. Racists, claiming to be anti-Zionists, are spewing their filth without proper condemnation. Words of condemnation alone are insufficient, it is action that is required. The problem is that the hatred is so deep, and the ignorance so great, that I cannot see a way forward for the Labour Party other than a complete collapse or schism. There are simply too many activists who hold views I find to be abhorrent for me to have any confidence in this issue being resolved any time soon, if ever.

When the leader of the party fails to speak with a racially abused parliamentary colleague for almost two years, despite several of her assailants being convicted of hate crimes against her, three of whom receiving custodial sentences, then we know something of the magnitude of the problem. Last September my Labour MP, who refused to meet me, a constituent, face to face, but instead chose to telephone me unexpectedly, told me that the party had moved on since the summer of revelations regarding antisemitism; she claimed that the party was dealing with it. I asked her to check with Luciana Berger to see if she felt the same, to which the MP responded that that was Luciana’s problem not hers. Such indifference to the most virulent hatred directed at a colleague caused me to despair. The MPs refusal to meet with me, a constituent, added to my frustration.

I have no idea how the newly-formed Independent Group will fare in the weeks and months ahead, much will depend on whether Corbyn and his loyal supporters in Parliament allow for a vote on a Second Referendum. Many point to the short-lived fortunes of the SDP and the collapse of the Liberal Democrats in more recent years as evidence that the country is not likely to support a centrist party. In any case, first past the post means that the odds are stacked against any new party being successful at the polls. But the new movement will win if it causes the two main parties to draw back from their respective rush to populism and extremism. At the moment that seems unlikely, but I have hope, without it I would lose much of my reason for being. In any case, these are very different times to the 1980’s when the SDP was formed, who knows what will happen. Deal or no deal, Second Referendum or not, leave or remain, whatever the outcome the result will be the same: a deeply divided Britain, perhaps more so than at any other time in our history since the Civil War according to Simon Schama; I agree with him. Which is why I take heart at the smiles, joy and relief on the faces of those 11 members of the Independent Group after a press conference a few days ago – it just shows that those who once sat on opposing sides of the Commons Chamber can now sit together, putting past party allegiance behind them to work for the common good. Which is why, almost 40 years after I chose to not join a political party, I now pledge my support to the Independent Group.

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As if long expected, tears did not fall.

Instead, on distant dreams eyes so focused,

and memories conjured up an angel’s song.

 

Like you would a wayward child,

so stubborn, yet full of care,

a tender hand caressed some splintered wood.

And what was, what might have been,

and what may yet become,

in art and story, rhyme and verse,

a narrative of grief, like none before.

Yet forever, your sorrow is our own;

it speaks of life’s dark shadows

and deepest of deepest joys:

the unknown, the unseen,

all that become plain for all to be.

Thanks then be to you, O Madonna,

oh yes, oh yes, hail

O Mother of God, sorrow’s great sister.

 

The Eastern churches have a tradition that Mary’s conception was a great surprise for Anna and Joachim. They were elderly and childless until Mary came along. Joachim was a priest in the temple and, as a thanksgiving for his and Anna’s unexpected gift, Mary was dedicated at the Temple and served there as a Temple virgin. Legend has it that she could have worked with the other young women on embroidery, the priests’ vestments or even the Temple curtain. This would have been in exchange for lessons in the Torah.

St. Anne’s Church in Jerusalem is said to have been built over the childhood home of Mary. It is situated in an area of the Temple precincts, next to the Pool of Bethesda. This, of course, is where later Jesus is said to have cured a man of a long illness. Whether all this is historically accurate or not it has stood the test of time for the Christian Orthodox communities.

It is recorded that the Temple curtain tore in two at the death of Jesus as a sign of the barrier between us and God being finally broken so that we can all enter God’s presence. Previously it had only been the High Priest could enter. It is fascinating to think that the curtain Mary worked on years before being destroyed may also indicate her torn heart at the death of her son. The child she had nurtured and the man she had worried over was to be brought down from a cross and placed in a hastily arranged stranger’s tomb.

The woman in the icon, the Solemn Madonna, is an Ethiopian woman I encountered at the end of the Via Dolorosa. Just next to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional sites of Golgotha and the resurrection tomb, the woman rested and caressed the cross that had been carried along the ancient paths. Her eyes were cast down for much of the time; but then she lifted them up and her gaze seemed far off, it was as if she had been transported to a different time. Whether she was at a different place, or the same, I could not tell. Was she contemplating the final walk of Jesus to Calvary? Or was it some experience in her life at home that she was seeking to drink in the last strength of Christ in all his weakness? Either way, how she held and lent on the cross indicated a woman of an immensely resilient faith.