A church called Jesus House was in the news in the UK this week. Two high profile politicians – the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition visited the church which belongs to the Redeemed Christian Church of God denomination.
Both leaders were there to encourage the church’s work in hosting a COVID vaccine centre and for doing valuable community work for vulnerable people particularly impacted by the pandemic.
The church has a majority of black members and it has been working hard to encourage its local community – many of whom are black or south Asian – to have the vaccine. The UK is doing a great job rolling out the vaccine but there are wide disparities in take-up between white, south Asian and black communities. A study by one NHS Trust (reported in the British Medical Journal showed that whilst 71% of white healthcare workers had their vaccination, only 58.5% of South Asian and 37% of black healthcare workers had done so.
Data shows that black people and those in deprived areas are much more likely to say No to vaccination of all types eg. influenza. According to a number of surveys, these communities are not anti-vaxxers. They are genuinely uncertain about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. Research shows that good public health messages can persuade them that vaccines are safe and that they do work.
So, it was a sensible political and public health decision by both PM Boris Johnson and Labour leader Keir Starmer to visit Jesus House to support the vaccination centre in their church building and to thank them for sending out a positive message about vaccination.
Visiting Jesus House, in a very mixed inner-city location, was a great way to promote the benefits of the vaccine. It is the biggest congregation of the Redeemed Christian Church of God denomination in the UK, and has considerable reach into many black families.
But somehow, it went wrong.
LGBTQ+ lobbyists went mad that Johnson and Starmer visited a church that promotes marriage as being only between a man and woman and that they see as being homophobic. One paper accused the church of performing exorcisms on gay people and of using ‘conversion therapy’ – claims strongly denied by the church’s leadership in Christian posts but not carried in mainstream media.
Gay groups said they were offended by Sir Keir Starmer’s visit to the church.
I find this furore disturbing. If I am a vegan, should I feel offended by a politician visiting a dairy farm? If I am a woman, or black, do I demand that politicians never attend rugby matches, because rugby crowds have been accused of racism and boorish attitudes to women?
Christians from most backgrounds as well as Moslems and most Jewish believers would promote marriage as being between men and women and would oppose sex outside marriage. Many years ago, when the marriage equality bill was being debated, the leading pastor of Jesus House Agu Irukwu signed a letter to the Daily Telegraph arguing that equality laws would force his church to “accept and even promote the idea that homosexuality is equal to heterosexuality”.
This may sound intolerant to some of you, including some Christians and people who don’t have a faith background, but it is not homophobia. I could find no evidence in any news feed of the church performing exorcisms, but damage is done simply throwing an emotive accusation out there, without allowing rebuttal.
The Duchess of Cornwall, wife of Prince Charles, visited the London Islamic Cultural Society’s mosque earlier this week to thank them for supporting child refugees. It was a very similar diplomatic exercise to that carried out by Johnson and Starmer. Media comments concentrated on her ‘stylishly appropriate headgear and footwear’ and the fact that she fitted in to Islamic cultural norms.
LGBTQ+ groups had nothing to say about this visit – that the royal family might be promoting homophobic views by attending the mosque. But majority Islamic views are identical to most Christians on this question.
Three days after his visit to Jesus House, Keir Starmer apologised for the ‘hurt’ he had caused to LGBTQ+ groups. His apology was featured widely by those on the right looking for ways to criticise Starmer’s leadership and by those on the left who thought it was too little, too late.
Boris Johnson’s staff took a different approach and simply said the visit was about COVID vaccinations, and that he was totally supportive of equal rights for gays. The trouble died away in the press.
I visited Jesus House church in Brent Cross, north London, in 2010, because they were a major supporter of an anti-poverty campaign called Micah Challenge. It was a wonderful day – fabulous music, enthusiastic support for ending poverty, and lots of evidence of local community action to help people who were doing it tough. The church has a domestic abuse hotline, and the Araunah Hotline is offering practical assistance to vulnerable people during lockdown. This help is never conditional on who people are or what they believe.
There are many people I disagree with on certain issues, but I hope I can still appreciate their qualities of generosity or kindness and vice versa, even if they read the Daily Mail, or eat red meat, or watch cheap reality TV or ….
It is easy to say we are offended by things we don’t agree with but in fact, such new “puritanical” attitudes are just as dangerous as old intolerances that labelled any woman who was odd, as a witch. It leads to Sir Keir Starmer stumbling a Sorry for an action that needed no apology at all.
I applaud the generous community work being done by Jesus House and the London mosque. They are simply being good neighbours. Full stop.