SOME years ago, in my trainee reporter days, I was dispatched to cover an Easter Passion Play put on by amateurs at Rochester Cathedral. I turned up at an evening rehearsal to confront good cheer, enthusiasm, children by the carload - and for good measure, an incontinent donkey sauntering up the nave. The whole project had been the brainchild of a spirited local woman whose name I have now forgotten. But I have never been able to get out of my head her stated motivation for staging the event. "I felt the Lord was asking me to do something," she said, "and He was asking me to do it for Tonbridge." For Tonbridge. A nice touch, that. I had to admit that God is nothing if not specific when He has to be.
I thought back to Rochester on Thursday night when polling day brought out the faithful of Brentwood in Essex for the final count at the town's leisure centre. True, they were entirely different events but the introduction of personal religious convictions into otherwise neutral pursuits - in one case staging a pageant and in the other fighting the local elections - seemed to be a common thread and one that appears to be weaving itself more and more frequently into the fabric of British public life. Not every one is happy about it.
I should perhaps first explain that the citizens of Brentwood have not been born again en masse. After all, this part of the world owes more to the Green rather than the Bible Belt. However, in recent weeks the activities of a local Pentecostal church have forced religion, uncharacteristically, into the news. It all began when the local Conservative Association noticed a dramatic increase in its membership. By January of this year in the Pilgrim's Hatch ward it had suddenly risen from 16 to 118. Now it is over 200. Delight turned to suspicion when it became clear that the new members had one thing in common. They all belonged to the Peniel Pentecostal Church, a thriving Christian fellowship based in, you've guessed it, Pilgrim's Hatch.
As the local Tories found themselves having to adjust to the ways of the newcomers there was talk of "takeover" and "infiltration". All of it was strenuously denied by the church whose leader, a powerful and charismatic former policeman, Michael Reid, said church members were merely exercising their democratic rights to take part in local politics for the common good. They were, he said, Tories who happened to be Christians. Even so some local officials smelled a rat. Why were they suddenly so interested in the Conservative Party now? Why hadn't that same 118 joined the Tory footsoldiers as they took to the doorstep for the General Election? In short, what was their ulterior motive?
There was none, the Church explained. Democratic rights, desire to make a difference, need to put Christian values of honesty and integrity back into political life etc, etc. Nothing suspicious at all.
Veteran Tories were not reassured and they prepared themselves for the inevitable dispute and division. The extent to which the local Conservative association is divided was there to see on Thursday. One rosette but two factions, each inclined to view the other with caution. Such a shame that the mere mention of religion in the same breath as politics seems to create an uneasy lull in any conversation. But it does.
It has to be said that of the five Peniel Conservatives fighting for election on Thursday at least two were far from being callow political virgins lured into the fray after prayerful consideration. They were local Tory politicians of long standing, seasoned campaigners who "just happened to be Christians". In the time-honoured way beloved of all activists of whatever religious or political affiliation they interpreted defeat as victory and pointed to the increased vote they had managed to secure. Again, some non-Peniel workers were unconvinced. They had been torn, they said, between the desire to vote Conservative and their reluctance to endorse "church-sponsored" candidates. Personally they had nothing against them as individuals. It was their affiliation to the controversial Peniel fellowship which was causing concern. "I don't think the Conservative Association will survive," said one.
In the event the Liberal Democrats hung on to overall control with the Conservatives losing one contested seat. As we filed out of the hall just before midnight a defeated but buoyant Peniel man confronted the possibility that the result might just be God's way of telling him something, "If He is telling me something," he said, "I'm too tired to listen and I'm going home for a cup of tea." Equally defiant in defeat, his colleagues made their exits too, fired by the promise, "We'll be back."
And they will, too, unmoved by comments from within their own party that religion and politics don't mix. Nowadays, it seems, increasingly, they do. I blame the Government.