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Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:49 pm on 17th October 2019.

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Photo of The Bishop of Bristol The Bishop of Bristol Bishop 12:49 pm, 17th October 2019

My Lords, it is an honour to be here to speak and, after nearly a year of watching and learning, to begin to find my voice. I am grateful to the noble Lords who have welcomed me so warmly after my introduction today and to the officials and staff who have guided me so well—not least the Church of England Parliamentary Unit.

Much has been unfamiliar but, having spent most of the last 30 years working in cathedrals, for the last 18 years as a dean, there was a certain familiarity on entering a building in need of significant structural attention. As provost, then Dean of Leicester, I worked on plans for the reordering of the interior and landscape setting of that largely Victorian building so that the cathedral might be brought back into the heart of that extraordinary, multicultural city. As chair of the cathedral council, the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, was a vital source of wise guidance during those years of rapid change.

Shortly before my appointment to York Minster was to be announced, I received a message from across the road in Leicester that archaeologists had, they believed, found the burial place of Richard III and identified his body. That news, when made public, would transform the life of Leicester Cathedral and set a narrative for my start at York which was not altogether easy, as York and Lancaster competed for his bones.

I began in ministry as a lay worker and deaconess in Liverpool, some time before the possibility of priesthood for women. As will be familiar to so many women in many fields, I had few role models or established employment paths. I became a college chaplain, then a cathedral chaplain, because there were teams in those places prepared to make space and find funding for me. I flourished in those spaces, not least because I enjoyed presenting what was then a rather unexpected female aspect to the Church.

At the start, however, my family—particularly my mother—was profoundly concerned at my sense of vocation. My mother was a Bristolian from a family firebombed out of the ward of Redcliffe, in the city’s heart. While continuing their war work, my grandparents were housed in a prefab and then in Sea Mills, which is still a fine example of a community designed and funded by a local authority. My mother was evacuated to Cornwall, served with the Wrens and was awarded a scholarship to the London School of Economics. Once she had overcome her anger at her daughter’s calling to, as she saw it, a vocation that could not be received by the Church, she became a founding member of the Movement for the Ordination of Women—so here I am.

I have, to my surprise and delight, returned to my mother’s city. The diocese of Bristol exists because the citizens of Bristol wished it so, petitioning Henry VIII to stand alongside Gloucester. However, the diocesan funding model was never entirely realistic. Lands were added over time, including, for a while, the county of Dorset as no other see seemed to want it. Bishops of Bristol had to find their fortune, often via livings held in plurality. One of my predecessors was simultaneously both Bishop of Bristol and Dean of York and was, I think, not often seen in Bristol. In the 19th century, Bristolians regretted the grant of the see, burning the bishop’s palace down and threatening the cathedral after the bishop voted against the Great Reform Bill.

Bristol remains politically lively. It has been, and remains, a space where ideas are contested. At its civic heart, on the public space that was once the harbour quay, sit the statues of two men once seen as models of virtue, now a focus for impassioned debate about virtue. The first is Edmund Burke, the parliamentarian, who insisted on representative rather than direct democracy. The second is Edward Colston, the benefactor, who probably derived his great wealth from the proceeds of slavery. Slavery, as we know, is not simply confined to the past, and tackling the scourge of human trafficking is one of the areas I hope to be involved in during my time as a Member of this House.

Bristol is also a city of engineers, where ideas are turned into things which change our lives. My grandfather was an engineer who worked his way up from an apprenticeship to the line, as foreman for Hawker Siddeley. His stories were of his pride in Brunel, Rolls-Royce and, above all, Concorde. Concorde’s home is beyond the city but in the diocese, which is more than the city of Bristol.

Air travel is another focus for dissent. In recent years, Bristol and its hinterland have emerged as an area where ideas and responses to the harmful human impact on our planet have priority on the public agenda. The long-standing research and educational work of the Bristol Zoological Society and the Bristol-based BBC Natural History Unit, and in Westonbirt arboretum and Slimbridge to the north of the diocese and the innovative sustainable farming of the Chew Valley to the south, has demonstrated the extent of the threat, need and opportunity. Bristol engineers are now turning their practical ingenuity to sustainable building materials, decarbonised transport systems and waste-to-power plants.

The public mood in Bristol on climate change shifted some time ago, and church people are among them, leading in a whole Church response. The youngest diocesan synod member chose to give a maiden speech in the Church of England General Synod inspired by the school strikes. Church communities are being challenged to meet the Eco Church award, to green their churchyards and to walk to church. One Church primary school is teaching others about beekeeping and, in Swindon, our newest secondary school’s uniform is made from reworked plastic bottles. The whole diocese has, through our close links with the Church of the Province of Uganda, been reminded that climate change will have its first and greatest impact on those living in poverty with least protection from flood, drought and the consequent population displacement.

I therefore commend the measures outlined in the gracious Speech for a new world-leading independent environmental regulator, the progress of which I will follow with interest. I look forward to continuing to contribute to debates on that legislation. I pray that Almighty God’s blessing may indeed rest upon the counsels of this House.