Chris Bryant: As a vicar I found that most churchgoers are liberals trying to find meaning in life

A Political Life

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Spool back 25 years to 14 December 1986.

I had just moved into a new house by the railway station in High Wycombe and had donned a dog collar for the very first time, as I was about to be ordained deacon in the very beautiful Parish Church of All Saints by the Bishop of Buckingham (who always jested that he lived in the other Buckingham Palace).

As I was getting out of the car with a box of wine for the post-ordination reception, a stranger came up to me. "Excuse me, you're clearly a holy man," she started, prompting much guffawing from my friends. "You must know where the Kingdom Hall is." Sadly, I didn't know where it was. "And, in fact, I haven't been ordained yet," I said. "Ah, well," she replied, "I'm sure when you are ordained you will know."

And so I spent half the ordination service wondering whether a special knowledge would descend on me the moment the bishop placed his hands on my head. It didn't.

I was never a great curate, really. Always too insubordinate and rather heterodox in my beliefs. But I enjoyed the amazing privilege of being close to people at some of the most acute moments in their lives. Like the very first lady I visited, who died in my arms, happy that the curate had come. Or the funeral of a disabled teenager who believed equally passionately in social justice and Paul Simon, so we sat in tears at the crematorium listening to all four minutes and 50 seconds of "Bridge over Troubled Water". Or the joy of visiting the special care baby unit every Wednesday with communion for exhausted, exhilarant mums.

And in the end there is (was?) something profoundly decent about the Church of England, because contrary to rumour, most churchgoers are not self-righteous hypocrites, but liberal-minded people who are looking for a sense of meaning in their lives. And maybe we do all need to hear the roar of faith, sing the hymns of hope and practise just a bit more charity. Or is that too pious?

Tory silence on Russia has a background

I'm worried. Two weeks ago the Special Immigration Appeals Commission decided that Katia Zatuliveter was not a Russian spy, even though the security services had asked me to provide a written statement about her. And now, following the elections in Russia, it seems that every Russian politician I have had lunch with this year has been arrested.

First the brave blogger Alexey Navalny and then the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. What really worries me, though, is that David Cameron and William Hague are so obsessed with doing more trade with Russia that they are terrified of saying boo to Moscow. Yet in Putin's Russia, no business is done without massive kickbacks for officials; torture is commonplace; the free media have been closed down; journalists have been murdered; and, not content with rigging the election (in Chechnya Putin's United Russia party got a suspicious 99.5 per cent of the vote), he is now crushing peaceful demonstrations.

I fear that the Tories' shameful reluctance to speak is because Tories and the United Russia parties between them dominate the same European Democrat grouping in the Council of Europe.

Glamour is in the eye of the beholder

We had a rather unchivalrous moment this week. While asking the Business Secretary a question about the "miracle" fabric graphene, Tory MP George Freeman decided to brandish a sheet of the material to illustrate his point, incurring the wrath of the Speaker as the rules of the House prohibit such "props". Having finished his question, Freeman handed the honeycomb lattice to a friend, whereupon Bercow had another go, demanding that he stop passing "that rather unglamorous specimen around the Chamber". This time, the Mancunian Graham Stringer took offence, as apparently graphene was discovered in Manchester. Bercow then put his foot in it by saying, "Of course, I readily concede that something unglamorous can also be very important", before calling Penny Mordaunt to speak. Cue much laughter. For the record, I think Penny is perfectly glamorous enough.

On the ropes

Advent brings with it a swathe of awards ceremonies, so this week I've been at the GovNet Alternative Politician and the ITV Wales Politician of the Year thrashes. I had been to another such event a few years ago and was perhaps looking a tad worse for wear the next morning when a Tory MP asked me what I had been up to the night before. I told him it had been the Welsh Sports Personality of the Year Awards, to which he (hilariously) replied: "That's a bit of contradiction in terms three times over, isn't it?" All I could say was: "Well, I suggest you take it up with the winner, Joe Calzaghe."

Why do gay people have to be flamboyant?

Belgium has a new Prime Minister, the 60-year-old Socialist Francophone leader, Elio di Rupo. Leaving aside the fact that the country has been without a government for 596 days since the previous PM resigned and yet has managed to achieve the fastest economic growth in the EU – which is something of a reproof to all us politicians – I was intrigued to see how his elevation was reported in the UK. One newspaper called him "flamboyant", another as "gay and flamboyant".

It's a word that the gays get used to, flamboyant, as in BBC Wales veteran Patrick Hannan's first question to me after I was elected as MP for the Rhondda in 2001: "Aren't you a bit too flamboyant for the Rhondda?" I guess he really meant too gay, but he didn't dare say it. So far, the only evidence I can find for Elio di Rupo's "flamboyance" is that he wears red bow ties, something Sir Robin Day was also prone to – without, so far as I know, any allegations of concomitant homosexuality. I rather like that in 1996, when di Rupo was asked whether he was gay, he just said: "Yes, so what?"

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