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Church disagree on clergy involvement in representational politics

BY TANEISHA LEWIS Sunday Observer staff reporter editorial@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, September 02, 2007    

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The local religious community is divided on the issue of whether fraternity members should actively participate in representational politics, but collectively agree that a mix of the two could divide any church if not handled carefully.

At least three religious leaders - Bishop Dennis Messias, Deacon Ronald Thwaites and Reverend Stanley Redwood - will tomorrow be among those candidates seeking a seat in Parliament when Jamaicans go to the polls.

Bishop Messias, who is in charge of a Revival church, will be vying for the St Andrew Southern seat on a Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) ticket, while Ronald Thwaites, a Catholic deacon, will be contesting the Kingston Central seat for the People's National Party (PNP). Reverend Stanley Redwood is the PNP candidate for South East St Elizabeth. The former Moravian minister, founded the New Holland Church in that parish.

Some traditional churches such as the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) and the Moravian church have strict policies against their pastors becoming involved in representational politics, while some non-denominational churches allow their pastors to dabble in representational politics as long as they can manage both responsibilities efficiently.

"Whereas some churches' theology does not make way for Christians to be actively involved in political affairs, others have a different biblical and theological perspective," Reverend Gary Harriott, General Secretary of the Jamaica Council of Churches (JCC), which represents 10 congregations, told the Sunday Observer.

"These believe that obedience to the mission of Christ for a better, more ordered and humane world demands their intentional engagement in socio-political affairs, " Harriot added.

For example, Harriot said, Jesus "vocalised his concerns regarding the socio-political affairs of his time, which made him an enemy to the powers that be".

According to Harriott, "there is the need for a new moral order, and, therefore, Christians (Clergy and laity) have something to offer in this regard. In fact, our history has seen a number of church leaders, clergy and laity, involved in political affairs".

However, he warned that members of the clergy who are considering representational or partisan political activities in Jamaica should consider the possible implications.

"In our context, politics is very divisive. It can be very dirty, and one has to wrestle with what it will mean to become an active participant. In any given congregation in Jamaica you are likely to have persons from differing political persuasions. The divisiveness of our politics automatically renders you an "enemy" to the other side," Hariott said. "Anything you say or do is likely to be seen through political lenses."

Pastoral care and professionalism, he added, can be challenging for a pastor who has his or her personal political preference, much more, for a pastor who may publicly advocate a political partisan position.

The JCC general secretary added, however, that every church sets it own policies as far as this issue is concerned.

The SDA church, for its part, has strict rules against its clergy's involvement in politics. Nigel Coke, communications director for the church's umbrella group in the West Indies - the West Indies Union of Seventh-day Adventists - told the Sunday Observer that the church's policy is simply this, one is either a pastor or a politician.

"When it comes to being a pastor, it is a full-time job and to be in politics is a full-time job and you can't have two full-time jobs. Your job as a pastor is to win souls for God not to win over anyone for man," Coke said. "The Adventist church is about the mission of God and any pastor that is called by God that is what he is called to do," he added.

The Moravian Church's stance concurs. Paul Gardner, president of the Provincial Elder's Council (PEC), said the Moravian Church's rules are just as rigorous as it relates to pastors getting involved in representational politics.

"The constitution of the church forbids ministers to be in representational politics," he said, adding that Redwood is one such pastor who had to choose between the Moravian Church and politics. "Reverend Redwood, from the last time he entered politics, has not been in active ministry at the Moravian Church. He is not answerable to the Moravian Church in the strictest sense of the word."

Nevertheless, Gardner said he has appealed to the PEC to repeal this policy, however, it was defeated.

Similarly, the Catholic Church made its position clear when it suspended Thwaites from preaching during his participation in politics. Archbishop Lawrence Burke explained that the move was to avoid divisiveness in the church.

On the other hand, Reverend Al Miller, pastor for Fellowship Tabernacle, a non-denominational and executive member of the Full Gospel churches said the onus is on the pastor to decide whether he can handle both arenas since the nature of representational politics can be demanding. He, too, warned that if not treated wisely, such a decision could cause divisiveness in the Jamaica society.

"The nature of politics as representing the people's interest and caring for the welfare of people is not inconsistent with the pastoral responsibility or function," Miller said. "Part of that has to do with governance and policies that are the policies and laws and you want to help to ensure that the policies and programmes that are enacted are in the best interest of the people and they ought to bring their Christian faith, which is committed to fundamental principles of love, truth and justice to the (political) arena."

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