In the lead up to the British Westminster elections some churches have been hosting ‘hustings’ meetings. The reasons for doing this appear to include:
Serve the local community by providing a space where such can happen
Enable Christians to ask questions of specific Christian interest
Demonstrate that the church is engaged in socio-political issues
In the past as a minister I have been involved in chairing one in a local town hall and also if I remember been in a church which hosted one…it appears that there is an idea that if a ‘minister’ or a church hosts one candidates and indeed the audience may be more civil to one another than if the event was chaired by someone else or in another building.
In some places large attendances are reported…in others even local or national media coverage. In others there are complaints about the behaviour of the candidates, the audience, a failure of candidates to answer questions directly, and no opportunity for people to ask ‘Christian’ questions (whatever might be meant by that).
Insofar as the above aims are the aims of hosting a hustings in church to be sure the success or otherwise can be measured against them. Many report good events with large numbers and reasonable behaviour.
This said, we should not complain if things do not meet these our aims. Hustings almost by definition are an expression of adversarial politics. They are designed to allow candidates to get on their ‘soap box’ and pitch their views against those they are opposing. Hustings are for speeches not discussion or conversations. The way we set them up often continues to reinforce this. If that is what we organise we cannot complain if that is what we get.
I wonder if in organising such events churches could offer a different forum for candidates and ‘audience’. Here we can draw upon other processes of discussion and conversation in adversarial situations. Perhaps candidates could be invited to sit round a table with coffee and invited to discuss not their policies but issues. In this approach the audience could be seated in a circle around the table and be invited to be listeners or participants. As listeners they would simply do that – come to listen. As participants one or two at different times could be invited to the table to converse with the candidates on issues that they have expressed an interest in (much the same way that questions are submitted and chosen). Perhaps some levity could be invited into the process whenever anyone breaks the rules of the conversations such as when they begin to simply attack another parties policies rather than argue for their own.
Anyway, whether these ideas are any good or not I am suggesting that if as churches we want to do more than host a hustings with a chair trying to keep control of a system that is already weighted in favour of an adversarial approach then we need to change the process not simply give it a church gloss.
To be sure candidates may be less than willing to participate in such a process and then we have to decide whether we continue to participate and live by the rules of the machine or refuse to use it in our place.
Of course there are many other ways in which churches can use their buildings all year around for the service of the community e.g. birthday parties for kids, Christians can ask their questions at any events just like everybody else, and the opportunities for socio-political engagement are many. So not hosting them will not be the end of the world.