How would you describe your personal religious identity?
Christian, and particularly a Methodist.
Is that the tradition you were born into? What made you stay/adopt it?
I was baptised into the Methodist church. It’s where my maternal family went to church. Stayed in through childhood and teenage years largely for social reasons, in so far as I was confirmed and decided that I was a Christian. But the decision to go the Methodist church rather than anywhere else was principally governed by social circumstances. There were a number of people around my age there. Then becoming involved as an organist gave me an extra reason to stay. From university days onwards my attachment to Methodism became more in the Wesleyan Arminian tradition. Having said that I spent a good proportion of my time worshiping elsewhere, not in the Methodist church but in college chapel, which was fairly high Anglo-Catholic, then for a few years as director of music at a more middle-of-the-road Anglican Church in Durham. But throughout that time I still thought of myself as a Methodist Christian, articulated principally as a theological decision. I describe myself firmly within the Wesleyan Arminian tradition, which is the characteristic, defining feature of Methodist doctrine. That appeals to me. I know within say the Church of England, the range of doctrine will encompass that but there are a lot of other view points as well. That Wesleyan/Arminian view makes sense to me.
Would you say that Great Britain is an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation to religion and belief?
I want to say yes. From my own personal perspective, I would say yes: I have never encountered any hostility or prejudice against being a practising Christian or Methodist. I am less persuaded that there is a general tolerance of religious faith beyond Christian. I hope for that. It concerns me, that the right wing …far right wing politics in recent years, has tended to oppose Islam and that is articulated in the popular press.
A qualified yes: Britain tries to present itself that way, and in an official sense it is. But in practice that tolerance is not always observed.
How easy is it for you to live in accordance with your own beliefs?
I don’t think that I face any challenges in terms of what I would articulate as the core of my faith.
How would say that Methodism regards Human Rights?
I think I would argue that Methodism’s Arminian roots challenge Methodist people to have an outlook that would actively advocate for human rights and freedoms. In terms of the contribution…historical opposition to slave trade, commitment to social justice.
Do you regard the Human Rights Act as a positive or problematic development?
When do you think that the State should intervene and limit religious freedom?
Where there is active incitement to cause harm or damage to another human being or property…is not an acceptable expression of any religious faith. At that stage it is entirely reasonable to intervene.
Do you regard living in Parliamentary democracy as a good thing?
It seems a reasonably good thing to me; I have no experience of living under any other system.
Do you believe that you have a personal duty to vote?
Yes, absolutely. If you want to express a view on how the country is run at any level, the only way you have a leg to stand on to do so is if you have taken part in the democratic process.
Do you think that some groups find it harder than others to participate? What are the barriers?
Having read a fair amount of coverage on the last election, I think that there are concerns about participation, especially of the younger generation in ex-industrial areas, which suggested some disengagement with the political process. Beyond that I wonder whether there is a disengagement thing amongst ethnic minority communities where English is not the general language, but I don’t know. I’m basing that on newspapers not my own experience.
Is it a problem that members of the House of Lords are not elected?
Yes, I think it probably is. I don’t have a solution. But it does trouble me that there are vast number of members of the House of Lords, some of whom don’t make a great contribution. How to solve it I don’t know; you wouldn’t want a system where there was potential for conflict between the Commons and the Lords because both were elected.
How do you feel about the Lords Spiritual?
I think representation of senior faith leaders in the House of Lords is a good thing. There are still a good number of people who have an active faith. As a Non-Conformist, I’m not especially concerned that that needs to be the historically defined Church of England bishops. But having people in there because of their standing in a faith community is a good thing.
Is it a good thing that some decisions affecting the UK as a whole are made by the devolved assemblies?
With the devolved assemblies…I often have more sympathy with some of the decisions of the devolved assemblies than I do with the British government. It can be problematic, in a certain sense one remains a British citizen, so in a certain sense it is unfair that you can, for example, get free prescriptions here but not there.
What does your faith say about the responsibilities which come with power?
I think it says that a person in a position of power has a responsibility to recognise that power, that it means that they can affect the lives of others who are less powerful, and that they should therefore do something with caution, and a sense of compassion for those who are without power. I think that is pretty fundamental to me to how I would articulate power in the context of Christian theology. It is not to be used for the good of the person in power primarily, but they have a responsibility to act with grace and generosity, and in a way which is not harmful for those without access to that power.
Would you say that Methodists are appropriately and proportionately represented in public life?
I think reasonably so…you have to recognise that numerically Methodism isn’t as high as it was even 20 or 30 years ago. But there are Methodist MPs, Methodist members of the House of Lords, plenty of people who stand for political office. If they are not adequately represented I don’t think that that is the fault of anyone other than individuals within Methodism. I think Methodism does encourage social engagement; the Arminian basis places emphasis on nobody being left out and social engagement ensures this. I think that standing for public office can be a very appropriate way, for some people at least, to achieve this.
How does the Methodist church seek to challenge decisions which it sees as problematic?
Principally ecumenically, the JPIT…to me that seems a very effective means of engagement and trying to hold government to account where the Methodist church feels that it needs to do so.
Do you think that public bodies have a good understanding of the needs of practising Christians? Has your personal experience been of having had your beliefs and needs understood and respected?
I’ve never encountered any problems. I think there perhaps less detailed understanding than there used to be, which may reflect changes in church attendance. But I don’t think that I’ve ever experienced any kind of practical obstacles because of that.
Is it important for you always to act within secular law?
I think fundamentally it is important to be a law abiding citizen. I think one’s personal opinion of the law shouldn’t come into that. Merely because one thinks a law isn’t just that isn’t a good enough reason to break it. But on the other hand there are extreme cases say where it is expedient to steal something that is essential to keeping somebody alive. I would say that there are extreme cases…but it shouldn’t be done easily.
Do you beliefs require you to speak out against injustices affecting third parties?
Yes, there are good reasons for doing so and I think the New Testament gives us plenty of instances where we are challenged to speak up for those who don’t have the means to do so for themselves. It is not only in line with Christian belief, but an important aspect of Christian engagement with wider society.
Do you think that the Rule of law is applied equally to all groups in the UK, or do some receive preferential or prejudicial treatment?
My perception, and this is based entirely from the outside, as I’ve never had any direct engagement with the law in any sense…but I think yes. I think the law is applied equally and where prejudice is part of that there is good reason for that, because of people with vulnerabilities or disabilities need different treatment.
What do you think about the general trend for police powers to increase? Has this been a necessary or a disproportionate response?
I think that the increase in police authority is in principle justified, given the changes in the last 15 years or so, in light of international terrorism. Whether or not the way in which those powers are applied are fair I don’t know; I don’t have particular experience. You read stories of statistics of ethnicity being a factor in people detained or questioned, and they do seem to be skewed and that concerns me that there may be some problems in the way in which these powers are put into practice.
What is your feeling towards religious groups who want greater expectation from general legal rules? Things like the cake case?
I think my instinctive reaction as somebody who is theologically and socially inclined to a reasonably liberal point of view, would be tough! Get on with it! You are restricting somebody else’s rights and freedom. In the cake case, is that such a fundamental aspect of Christian faith as some groups make out? No……On the other hand, having a friend who is a senior Methodist minister in a multicultural part of Birmingham, he is concerned that whilst a liberal Christian viewpoint would be as I suggest, that has difficulties in interfaith relations. I’m not sure….in some cases I think I would rather see engagement with points where the religious belief comes into conflict with the law of the land say on gender equality to be debated from the theological perspective of that particular religion, than recourse to secular law. But my own liberal inclinations would be go with secular law.
Are there any legal rules which you currently find restrictive?
Not that I am aware of, no.
Anything else you would like to say to us?
I think that there is this argument that Christianity is marginalised and other religions are given undue exceptions or better treatment. Those arguments bother me, as they are often made by people who are not practising Christians, and yet still feel they have a right to speak. It bothers me more when those views are articulated within the Church because it reflects a lack of theological engagement with what it means to be human, and what it means to be free, which to me are fundamental things for Christians to understand.
Martin Clarke is a Lecturer in Music at The Open University. He grew up in a Methodist family in South Wales during the Thatcher years. Confirmed into the Methodist Church as a teenager, he has played an active role in Methodism as a local church organist, church council member, and a member of the connexional committee responsible for compiling the authorised hymnal Singing the Faith (2011). He is currently training to become a Local Preacher. Martin was educated at Durham University, attaining BA (Hons) and PhD degrees in music. Prior to taking up his lectureship at the OU, he taught part-time at the OU and Durham University, maintained a large piano teaching practice, and worked as Director of Music at a local Anglican parish church. Away from work and music, Martin enjoys watching cricket, reading crime fiction, sports books, and biography, and responding to the ever-changing challenges of fatherhood.