The news came as an unpleasant surprise to Wythenshawe’s Methodist minister, the Reverend David Warnock.
On Easter Monday, he suddenly started to receive messages via Twitter and then calls from people expressing their surprise and concern that the Methodist Church was apparently giving its endorsement to Tommy Robinson’s campaign to become an MEP.
Baffled by this, he investigated further, and quickly discovered that Robinson’s campaign team had used the address of the Brownley Green Methodist Church in Wythenshawe as the location for the public barbecue, which was to mark the launch of his European campaign on April 25.
As David explains: “It looks more like a way-finding exercise, but also the assumption would be if you are using the name of the Church, the Church is in someway supportive of or behind that campaign, and certainly it was assumed that way by other people.”
He then emphatically rejects any association with Robinson and his ideology.
“We will absolutely not have our name claimed to be supporting racism and so in terms of extremist hate of race, ethnicity and religion we absolutely stand against that.”
To counter the disinformation, the Church printed leaflets, that were distributed within the community and which categorically stated that the Church was not involved in the event, that it stood against the racist views that Robinson had expressed in the past and also let people know that the Church would be holding a Prayer Walk on the afternoon of Robinson’s launch campaign to pray for peace.
Prior to the beginning of the Prayer Walk, Tommy Robinson turned up at Brownley Green Church to confront a participant, a local Muslim man, Muhammed Manzoor Ali.
Ali had earlier posted a comment on social media in which he branded Robinson a racist and Robinson wanted to know why. The episode was filmed by Robinson’s campaign team and David Warnock was a witness to events.
The confrontation typified the aggressive and intimidating approach used by Robinson and his supporters throughout their campaigning.
As David recalls: “He has a very, if you want to be polite, assertive way of engaging with people, very accusatory and uncompromising, I guess.”
He goes on to elaborate: “There was never any ‘What’s your view?’ It was ‘You’ve said something on Facebook and I don’t like it and I am demanding that you respond to my challenge to you.’”
‘AGGRESSIVE AND STRAIGHT IN YOUR FACE’
Some who have watched the video dispute that Robinson was threatening, something which David is quick to dismiss, pointing out that the editing of the video creates a false impression.
“I think there is quite a different perspective if you are the one who is controlling the video, to being on the receiving end, not knowing what is going to happen to that video, how it is going to be used.”
This was not the first confrontation that David experienced during Robinson’s visit to Wythenshawe. He was involved in a discussion with one of Robinson’s team, which threatened to become ugly.
The man was “aggressive and straight into your face. People who were watching it started to be concerned that it was going to move beyond verbal aggression and into some kind of violence.”
Other members of the community felt that they were being pressured into giving their support to Robinson. One woman from David’s congregation was approached by members of Robinson’s campaign team. They wanted to use her land and driveway for their event.
The pressure was exerted through the way they made “assumptions that she of course would support them and that she would allow them to use her land, her drive for their event and so on. So, she felt quite pressured and frightened, and wanted nothing to do with the event. She felt that they were forcing themselves on her.”
David and his Church have been unsurprisingly criticised by Robinson supporters. They claim that it was not a Christian act to stand or speak against Robinson and to have prevented him from using Church grounds for his launch party. The church should have welcomed him.
David counters that Robinson would always be welcome by the Church as an individual, but not as a political candidate trying to use the Church as a support for his campaign. Furthermore, he points out that Robinson and his supporters’ tendency to see all Muslims as enemy combatants, who should be expelled from the country, is deeply unchristian.
“It doesn’t really matter in one sense whether you see Muslims as your friends or enemies. The challenge of Christian faith is to love them, yet specifically some people are claiming that doesn’t apply.
“I actually do not believe my Muslim neighbours and friends, those who care for me in hospital and work in every aspect of our lives, actually secretly want to kill me.
“And the experience of our congregations around this area is that we have lovely neighbours who are Muslims and enjoy sharing our lives with them.”
David is also deeply scathing of the way Robinson supporters attempt to portray him as the only person who is prepared to stand up against Muslim grooming gangs.
As he points out, this creates a false narrative that the only grooming gangs are Muslim and that they get away with their crimes. This view conveniently ignores Jimmy Savile and the many others who were protected by the establishment for many years.
At the same time, Robinson has jeopardised the case to bring the Huddersfield grooming gang to justice, after he filmed the defendants outside Leeds Crown Court and published the video on YouTube.
HIGHLY DEPRIVED AREA
Ultimately, in the bigger picture, Robinson is an irrelevance for David. What is important is to address the many serious social problems that Wythenshawe communities face in their everyday lives, such as the high levels of knife crime and violence.
Wythenshawe is a deprived community on almost every index you look at. As an example, the last time the Indices of Deprivation was published in 2015, two thirds of Manchester’s neighbourhoods were ranked as the most deprived in the country for health deprivation and disability; within Manchester, Wythenshawe had some of the most highly deprived areas on this index.
The Methodist Church has long been embedded within the community and actively seeks to support local communities wherever it can. This help is not conditional on membership of its congregation.
The Church actively supports Studio One, which is an NHS mental health project using art to help people, as well as Centre Point, a charity supporting young people who are either homeless or in danger of becoming so.
Its premises are used by various groups for activities ranging from yoga to Irish dancing. It runs a weekly lunch group for elderly and lonely people, in addition to a Monday group for people struggling in a whole variety of different ways and a Saturday club for people with disabilities.
And the Church is planning to launch a debt centre for Wythenshawe this summer and aims to put in around £20,000 a year to help fund the project.
These activities are “an expression of saying to the people around us ‘you are of infinite worth, we love you, we want to work with you. In that we find life for ourselves as well.”
And it is David’s complete conviction in the power of love to bring people together that forms a key part of his message to those like Tommy Robinson, who seek to sow division and hate within our societies and throughout the wider world.
“Anything that stirs hate and claims superiority is not acting in the light of Christian faith. The fundamental messages of the gospels and the description and understanding they reveal of God is of love and not hate.
“The kind of message I want to say is actually we believe in life; and a life that is based on hate is awful. A life that is built and focused around love is full of joy and hope.
“It builds wholeness and healing; a community that you feel safe in, a part of and welcomed and supported by. Hate takes away all these things.”