Keir Starmer obviously regrets visiting Jesus House last week because of the furore it has caused in his own party. But he will likely come to regret his reaction even more.
The Labour leader posted a full apology for the Pentecostal church visit, saying: ‘I completely disagree with Jesus House’s beliefs on LGBT+ rights, which I was not aware of before my visit. I apologise for the hurt my visit caused and have taken down the video. It was a mistake and I accept that.’
The whole thing is, as Brendan O’Neill points out, rather awkward, given Starmer chose to visit this church during a key Christian festival and given non-mainstream views on homosexuality are a feature not just of many churches but many other religious groups. Is Starmer really planning only to visit liberal synagogues? Or LGBT-friendly mosques? Given this black majority church was considered worth a visit because it also functions as a vaccination centre for a demographic that has both a high rate of Covid deaths and vaccination hesitancy, should Starmer only visit vaccination centres hosted by religious groups with ‘acceptable’ views? The uncomfortable truth about engaging with people professing religious belief is that quite often you are going to come across people who have different beliefs to you.
Mind you, the uncomfortable thing about being in a party of more than one person is that quite often your own colleagues will disagree with you too. Rather pointedly, Labour MP Stephen Timms has this afternoon posted a tweet praising the church:
— Stephen Timms (@stephenctimms) April 6, 2021
I applaud the extraordinary work of @jesushouseuk, and of churches and other faith groups, in supporting our communities throughout the past year
Timms is a devout Christian who has always been open about his own beliefs — while also managing to serve a diverse constituency and not wear down colleagues with pompous suggestions he is somehow better than them. He is well-known in his party for being a gentle soul. He is also well-known for being a Christian. He voted against same-sex marriage, for instance. It is of course much easier for him to praise the church as a backbencher. But not that easy: since he posted that tweet, Timms has become the target of the same campaign that led to Starmer not just apologising but erasing the record of his visit by deleting the video.
If he is being consistent with this new approach of only associating himself with people whose religious beliefs are entirely acceptable to the liberal wing of his party, Starmer should sack Timms from his role as Labour’s faith envoy (to which he was appointed by one Jeremy Corbyn). But does he really want to do that? Does he also want to make Dawn Butler, the local MP who he visited the church with, apologise for being there too?
The implications of the way Starmer has handled this row are quite troubling. Firstly, he has suggested that he will quite readily change tack if enough people shout at him on social media and sign an angry letter — rather than because he really thinks something is right. Secondly, he seems to be accepting the liberal intolerance that is growing in politics, which pushes people away from one another. Liberal intolerance says it is better not to live alongside those with different beliefs, that there is nothing to be gained in accepting the way the world is, which is that some people have different views to you — not just the sort of quaint views involving going to Mass or having a statue of the Virgin Mary in your sitting room that we can indulgently smile at, but views on morality that jar and even sadden many others.
There is another approach to these sorts of situations (beyond the basic administrative question of having someone who organises your events who looks ahead and flags that the church you are visiting has a number of beliefs entirely in line with what you’d expect that particular church to have). It involves saying that you don’t agree with what they believe on everything — Starmer has also never said he believes that the only way to eternal life is through Christ, so he obviously has a number of disagreements with Jesus House — but that you think it is worth visiting and understanding their lives and applauding some of the things you do agree with, like their community action.
This approach is about living together. It is about having the courage of your convictions, knowing that you can walk into any religious building and leave thinking the same things about sexuality because you are not such a sheet in the wind that you absorb all the views of the last person you met. Starmer said rather powerfully during the leadership campaign: 'I know who I am'. His behaviour over the past few days has rather undermined that.