Tim Farron – former leader of the Liberal Democrats – opens up about his experience of Christianity as a young person, why the political landscape is similar to the one he grew up in and why we need to be careful what we share online.
What was family life like for you in Lancashire?
My parents were very young when they got married and very young when they got divorced. I was not even 5 when my parents split up. I was very close to my dad, but we lived with my mum.
It was a happy childhood. We were not in any way well off – my parents suffered bouts of unemployment so quite a tough time growing up financially, but one of the marks of a wonderful parent is that you don’t realise you were poor until you look back.
I was not ‘churched’ as a youngster. Being brought up in the 1970s, while I didn’t go to church, I was raised by a generation that had done, so there was an awareness of faith, Christianity and the Church was there. Religious education was 90 per cent scripture back in those days, so I think me and my generation will have learnt stuff about the Bible, but I never made a commitment of any kind.
Where did politics come in, because you joined the liberal party at 16?
I was interested in politics, but there was a particular thing that politicised me. I watched Cathy Come Home when I was 14, which was an utterly groundbreaking piece of cinema about working class people – Cathy and Redge.
I knew people like Cathy. We had a family stay with us for the best part of a year. We were only in a two up, two down terraced house so to have three extra people stay was a big deal, but it was because a friend’s marriage had broken down and they had nowhere to go and they would have been literally destitute otherwise.
At the end of the film, you were invited to send a stamped, addressed envelope and a postal order of £1.50 – three week’s pocket money – and join Shelter. That made me interested in politics. I thought, “this is awful; I must do something about it.”
The 1980s was not dissimilar to now in that politics felt extreme and lively – awful and exciting at the same time. And there were two TV events ever week that everybody seemed to watch. Thursday night: Top of the Pops, Sunday night: Spitting Image. So we’d go into school on a Monday morning talking about these grotesque puppets of all of our political characters. People who would never have the first idea who Neil Kinnock or even Margaret Thatcher were could do impressions on them based upon these characters.
Politics was interesting to me and I slowly took a side. I remember watching Live Aid in 1985 and being struck that the famine in Ethiopia was not an accident, it was a consequence of human wickedness and political failure and therefore I should be doing something about it. When I had just started sixth form, I joined the Liberals for a variety of reasons, but mainly because I thought I am a liberal.
And you became a Christian two years later at 18?
I became a Christian in Singapore the summer after I finished school. I was a poorly travelled person. I’d been abroad once when I was 12 to a Spanish island. Towards the end of the academic year, my mum – who was a lecturer at Preston Polytechnic – came home and told us that she and some colleagues had been seconded to a college in Singapore so my sister and I went out with her once I’d finished my A-Levels. We ended up being put up with a family friend in a nice detached house that belonged to that college.
That was all great until we realised there were three bedrooms and four of us and none of us were prepared to share, so they cleared out the junk room for me. It had all the stuff that the previous tenants had left in the house. These guys were Christians and the one thing they didn’t take out of the room were the books. It rains quite a lot in Singapore and so I read a whole bunch of stuff.
To cut a very long story short, the penny dropped with me: “Oh, crumbs, it’s all true.” I realised that Christianity wasn’t a world view that I could either agree with or not. It wasn’t like a political manifesto where I could say, “Ooh I like that, so I’ll join”. It was something that was a dynamic faith.
If you’d asked me who Jesus was the day beforehand I would not have dismissed him. I would have said that he was probably a historical figure but what we know about him is so foggy and vague and lost in the depths of time and he was a good teacher and it was tragic he died so young – something like that. I wouldn’t have dismissed his existence.
If you’d asked me if I was a Christian? Yes. Did I have a relationship with Jesus Christ? Definitely not. For all the reasons I’ve just set out really. I certainly thought that Christianity and the practicing of it was weird, unattractive, restrictive.
I knew a guy at college – Jack – who was ‘the college Christian’. I really liked him and he was a drummer in a band. He got photographed holding a pint of beer at a college do and the college mag had a picture of him holding a beer and “it’s a sin” underneath it. So people liked Jack, but they mocked him.
My mum raised me to question absolutely everything. I did not see myself as the kind of dupe who would fall for religious nonsense, but I think by the grace of God I’m someone who knows the truth when he sees it.
What would you say to a young person who is politically engaged?
The most important strength to develop is knowing how to appoint or involve the right people. It’s the people you choose that indicate what your strengths are going to be. And that can be the volunteers around you – so surround yourself with good people who give you good advice and who do the things you’re not so good at maybe.
From a Christian point of view, don’t go cold. Make sure you have plenty of people around you with whom you can have good fellowship – faithful Christians who will hold you to account and make sure some of them are reasonably politically savvy as well, but don’t only surround yourself with Christians. It’s important that we are there to serve all people.
The other thing it’s worth bearing in mind – a kind of practical tip– I’m blessed in the sense that the internet wasn’t a thing when I was young. I think all of us need to be careful now that our every utterance is online. It’s there for posterity and for an opposition to rake over. And one has to be careful what one says. Some people think that’s too much of an intrusion on our privacy – and that might be right – but it is what it is. Being careful with what you say and the opinions that you express and the way you contradict other people is something we should all seek to do, just so that you don’t turn up at the grand old age that I’m at and find that you are hoist by a petard that you strung up 30 years earlier.
This is taken from an interview carried out by Premier Christianity. Get yourself a free copy of their magazine or check out their podcast, The Profile. This is a regular show on Premier Christian Radio, where leading Christian figures share their story.