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Faith Communities — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:49 am on 29th May 2012.

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Photo of Lord Sacks Lord Sacks Crossbench 11:49 am, 29th May 2012

My Lords, it is a great privilege to have the opportunity to initiate this debate. Before I begin, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, on his debate last week, which also focused on the contribution of ethnic and religious communities in Britain. I know that many noble Lords here also participated in that debate and I am grateful for their presence in the Chamber today. Sometimes debates are like buses: you wait for ever for a debate on the contribution of faith communities to Britain and then two come along at once. However, given that this weekend we will celebrate Her Majesty's Diamond Jubilee, I hope that your Lordships will allow me to focus mainly on the second portion of today's Question-on the relationship between faith communities and the Queen-and to draw attention to the gracious way in which she has guided and sustained this nation through one of its most challenging transitions into a multiethnic, multicultural and multifaith society.

Many tributes have been and will be rightly paid to Her Majesty for her six decades of sustained and dedicated service to the nation, but one aspect of it in particular should not be forgotten. It is not easy for any society to undergo change, least of all when that change touches on such fundamental markers of identity as religion, ethnicity and culture. It is even harder in a nation where there is an established church to make other faiths feel welcomed, valued and at home, but that is precisely what Her Majesty has done. I believe I speak for us all if I say that we are lifted, blessed and enlarged by the generosity of spirit in which she has done so.

Many noble Lords will wish to add their perspectives, and we will hear today from Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Zoroastrian and other Jewish Members of this House, as well as being honoured by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, who, together with his predecessors, has done so much personally to contribute to our national ecology of tolerance and mutual respect.

Let me simply say on behalf of the Jewish communities of Britain and the Commonwealth how much we have appreciated Her Majesty's kindness to us and to others. This is something of a miracle in itself since Jews hardly ever agree on anything, but on this we are united. It is astonishing how far this spreads. For the past year, wherever I have travelled to Jewish communities throughout the world, one of the first questions I have been asked is, "How was the royal wedding?". In the United States, in several synagogues that I visited in February, to my astonishment they sang "God Save the Queen". It may have been the first time since 1776 that they have done so. Each week in all our synagogues, we say a prayer for the Queen and the Royal Family, and this week we will say a special prayer of thanksgiving to mark her Diamond Jubilee and the great gift of her leadership and service.

There are rare individuals whose greatness speaks across all ethnic and religious divides. Her Majesty is such an individual and we are truly blessed by her. She has spoken often of her personal faith and of the Church of England, of which she is the head. However, she has spoken equally of the contribution that all other faith communities have made to the life of the nation. At Lambeth Palace in February, in one of the first official engagements of the jubilee year, she reminded us of how faith itself-not just Christian faith-recalls us to the responsibilities that we have beyond ourselves, and of how, together with the Church of England, other faith communities were increasingly active in helping the sick, the elderly, the lonely and the disadvantaged.

In 1952, the first year of her reign, Her Majesty became the patron of the Council of Christians and Jews, the organisation founded 10 years earlier, in the Holocaust years, by Archbishop William Temple and Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz. It was one of the first great interfaith organisations in Britain. Today there are hundreds of such groups, creating friendships across the boundaries between faiths where otherwise there might have been suspicion and fear. One of the greatest of them, the Interfaith Network, is this year celebrating its silver jubilee; and as we speak, another new initiative, Interfaith Explorers, is being launched at the Regent's Park mosque in the presence of His Royal Highness the Duke of York. That, too, is a reminder of how much other members of the Royal family, such as His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and others, have done in their own right to make all nine of the major faith communities in Britain feel recognised and respected.

We are enriched by our religious diversity. Each faith is a candle; none is diminished by the light of others; and together they help banish some of the darkness in the human heart. I know of few places in the world where friendship across faiths is more vigorously pursued than in Britain. For the way in which she has led and encouraged this great opening of hearts and minds to one another, as for so much else, Her Majesty has lifted our spirits and earned our thanks.

Might I therefore humbly ask Her Majesty's Government two simple questions? First, how have they recognised the role and contribution of faith communities, as Her Majesty has done over her 60-year reign, and how will they continue to do so in the future? Secondly, could they find a way to convey to Her Majesty the thanks of all Britain's faith communities for all she has given us and all she has inspired us to give to others?