United Kingdom: The Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:01 pm on 23rd June 2022.

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Photo of The Bishop of Blackburn The Bishop of Blackburn Bishop 4:01 pm, 23rd June 2022

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, for this opportunity to make a brief contribution to this debate on our union, although I have learned a new meaning of the word “brief” while I have been in your Lordships’ House: it does not always mean “short”. I am sorry if I disappoint the hopes of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, about my valedictory speech.

My time in your Lordships’ House has been limited—just over two years—partly because it has been right for my female colleagues to take precedence in joining your Lordships’ House and partly because it has been constrained by the pandemic. There has been a lot to learn as well as to admire in a place of such expertise and wisdom, but I regret that I have not been able to become more involved in the serious business of your Lordships’ House.

My nearly nine years as the Bishop of Blackburn are drawing to a close and I shall be moving from the special red rose county of Lancashire, where it has been a joy to live and serve and where we celebrate Her Majesty the Queen as the Duke of Lancaster in our singing of the national anthem. The north has been more than welcoming to a complete southerner, and, as with all places where clergy serve, a bit of my heart will remain there.

In our diocesan vision for 2026, the 100th anniversary of the creation of the diocese, we have set out to make the church community a healthy influence in every situation, not cutting back but planting new gatherings in places where Christian witness and worship have been absent, most notably on urban estates. We have been blessed by generous grants from the national Church and it has felt like a time of God’s favour, as God has given us a great team and we have sought unashamedly to make the person of Jesus Christ more widely known and believed.

It has been an honour when on duty here to lead the reading of scripture and the praying of the Prayers at the beginning of each Sitting here in your Lordships’ House, which signal something of our accountability and dependence on another: the one who is the source of all life and who sets the boundaries of how we should relate to one another, those standards and values that we were discussing a little earlier this afternoon—that Christian heritage that underpins so much of our national life.

I was intrigued to read in this report about the union the strains currently experienced in governance, accountability and finance between the four nations of the union, largely because of Brexit and devolution. I wonder, if a referendum is pressed for, whether so major a decision with consequences for the whole union should be decided by only one part and not take into account the view of the whole. But I know that is controversial.

It was especially good to see reference to the importance of the levelling-up agenda, reducing the gaps in our society in terms of wealth and aspiration, something we in the north-west are desperate to see taken forward. Government support for the Eden Project North in Morecambe Bay is one example of what will bring massive transformation in terms of jobs and the growth of the local economy in Lancashire.

However, I found two things missing from the report. First, there was very little about the monarchy as one of the key strengths and bonds across the union. The recent services of celebration for Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee and the thousands of street parties that gathered whole communities together in positive ways, across all kinds of social and ethnic divides, spoke volumes about something and someone who holds us together. In Blackburn Cathedral, we handed out 900 copies of a booklet, The Faithful Queen, telling the story of her humble service as a Christian to the union and the Commonwealth. She is a worthy recipient of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury’s gift of the Canterbury Cross for unstinting service to the Church of England, as well as to the union.

Secondly—noble Lords would expect me to say this—I could not find any reference to the role of the faith and charity sectors in strengthening life and co-operation across the United Kingdom. Obviously, in the past, the established Church has played a key role in this nation, with Lords spiritual present in this House. However, over time, the churches in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have become independent; new churches have also emerged. What is more, the presence of strong other-faith communities in the United Kingdom now challenges that Christian heritage as we make this country a place in which all faiths can practise without fear or favour.

In spite of all that change, I do not want us to lose a formal and recognised place for faith in our national life. It provides a crucial underpinning of who we are in being fully human—body, mind and soul—as this House carries out its vital roles of scrutinising legislation and commenting on the complex issues of the day. The Prayers at the start of each Sitting for wisdom and right judgment will continue to be my prayer for your Lordships’ House, although I will no longer have the privilege of being present. I am grateful to you all for your good wishes.