On July 5, more than 700 MPs, members of the House of Lords, and church leaders met to pray at the National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast in Westminster, England.
The Reverend Les Isaac spoke to the assembled group: “At the center of our lives is Jesus, and a desire to be like him and to fulfill his purpose here on earth. Many men and women are quietly demonstrating service, humbly and compassionately, for the common good of the community, of society, of their city and their nation.”
At the front table, directly beneath the lectern, was an empty chair. Boris Johnson, the UK’s prime minister, had joined the breakfast but left after the opening song. News had broken that morning of a former senior official contradicting Johnson’s previous denial about whether he knew about allegations of inappropriate behavior from a government minister.
That evening, two of the most senior ministers in the government resigned—Sajid Javid, secretary of state for health, and minutes later Rishi Sunak, chancellor of the exchequer. And within 48 hours, Boris Johnson announced that he would be stepping down as leader of the Conservative Party and therefore also as prime minister.
My colleague sat at a table with Sajid Javid at that breakfast, who stayed throughout. In a statement to the House of Commons on Wednesday, Javid opened by saying, “Yesterday, we began our day together. You, I, my right honorable friend the prime minister, and members from right across this house—when we broke bread together at the parliamentary prayer breakfast.”
“And we listened, all of us, to the words of Reverend Les Isaac, who spoke about the fact that responsibility comes with leadership. The responsibility to serve the interests of others above your own and to seek common ground of your party, your community, and, above all, your country.”
Javid, who has described himself as being of Muslim heritage but not practicing, has since confirmed that it was while listening to this sermon that he decided to resign from the government. This seemed to set off a chain reaction, after which more than 50 other members of the government quit.
While we cannot say for certain whether a single sermon was the catalyst for bringing down a government, it seems to at least be a contributing factor. That said, Javid’s motivations for resignation may well have also been political, as he is currently contesting to replace Johnson for the role of PM.
Most of the politicians who stepped down cited the need to restore integrity in our government. Ever since the criminal investigation into breaches of COVID-19 regulations at the center of government, Boris Johnson’s premiership has frequently seemed on the brink of collapse.
In the UK political system, prayer holds a vital place. Each day, prayers are said at the start of sessions in the Commons and the Lords. In the central lobby, laid into the tiled floor are the words of Psalm 127:1 (in Latin): “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.”
As an evangelical advocate in the UK, I believe Christians have a particular responsibility to pray for our nation.
I’ve attended several prayer breakfasts over the years, in Westminster and other parliaments of the UK. In March, I joined with many in the Welsh parliament as we prayed for revival in the nation—a prayer that needs answering even more than who is our current prime minister.
We now await what comes next in the UK after the resignations. The UK political system does not directly elect its prime minister; that is simply the person considered best able to command a majority within parliament—in effect, the leader of the largest party.
So, the choice of the next prime minister is in the hands of the Conservative Party. Members of the parliamentary party will vote among themselves and decide the top two candidates, who will then be voted on by the wider party membership over the summer.
This political crisis was unusual because it was not really about policy priorities. Instead, it was a widespread feeling that integrity had seeped out of those leading in the highest offices of public life.
Over the last nine months, a series of political crises have put under scrutiny the motives and integrity of those in the highest political offices. An attempt to change the rules relating to misconduct in public life in autumn 2021, followed by the revelations about parties in Downing Street by those organizing rules prohibiting them, all contributed to a precipitous decline in trust.
Therefore, as we look ahead to the coming leadership election, we should focus on restoring trust and reestablishing truth as a foundation. Isaiah 59:14 says, “So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter.”
In times of immense political upheaval, even the most modest statements risk echoes of partisan favoring. But standing for justice, advocating righteousness, speaking for truth, and relying on honesty should be a threshold we refuse to dip beneath.
Along with their policy platforms, I’m expecting leadership contenders to make significant plays on how they will lead differently and work to restore trust in government. Words can be incredibly hollow. We’ve all heard apologies that are heavily caveated or subtly shift blame elsewhere.
In the same way that meaningful apologies need to be substantive, commitments to improve how the government operates need to be backed with evidence that is more than just words.
Trust begins with a commitment to truth. It is a sad indictment of too much of public life that we have accepted a dichotomy between the public and private—where someone’s private actions, indiscretions, unfaithfulness, and dishonesty are not considered relevant to their public roles. But someone who can lie to the person closest to him or her can lie to the public.
Integrity is demonstrated by long-term action, not simply by one’s words. We should care about the policies that political leaders advocate and their track records in delivering them. However, just because leaders are effective and hold to political stances that we agree with should not be a free pass for them to behave however they want.
Christian social critic Os Guinness has often spoken of doing the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way: We undermine our witness to Christ if we back expediency and efficacy over integrity. And after all, it was in apparent defeat that Christ triumphed over death.
I suppose we’ll never know the full impact of the words spoken during the recent parliamentary prayer breakfast, whether from the stage or around the tables. Regardless, prayer is a powerful weapon, and we should never underestimate its impact on the life of our nations.
Danny Webster is director of advocacy for the UK Evangelical Alliance, working to represent evangelical Christians to government and inspire them to engage in all areas of public life.