Second Church Estates Commissioner praises role of Church in fostering tolerance and mutual respect

14.03.20 WH debateOn 25th June 2014, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the Rt Hon Sir Tony Baldry MP, took part in a Westminster Hall debate on the teaching of British values. Taking inspiration from a speech made by Her Majesty the Queen at an event at Lambeth Palace, he spoke of the significant role played by the Church of England in creating and sustaining a space in society for the flourishing of those of all religions and those with no religious beliefs. He reflected on the Judeo-Christian values underpinning British society and the importance of tolerance and mutual respect in fostering good relations in communities and throughout society. 

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Tony Baldry): We are grateful to the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) for introducing this debate. I do not think we agree with his analysis.

The inscription on the second world war memorial in my school reads: “Whatever hope is yours, Was my life also”. Later this year, we commemorate the centenary of the start of the great war. A good starting point for defining British values would seem to be exactly what our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers considered to be the values they were fighting for in those wars.

I think the first value, which I am sure we have learned over the centuries, is that of tolerance—the need to tolerate others and the need, in particular, for religious tolerance. That is perhaps not surprising, because there was a terrible legacy of religious intolerance in this country during the Reformation and the counter-Reformation, which led to our recognising that we needed to get along with and tolerate each other. Unlike some other countries in Europe, in Britain we have generally never had hang-ups about religious emblems, such as crucifixes, being displayed in schools or public buildings.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Sir Tony Baldry: Come on. The hon. Gentleman has 10 minutes; I have only five, for heaven’s sake.

Of course, tolerance is not absolute. One of the great challenges for liberal democracies that has to be learned is what the acceptable boundaries of tolerance are. In the first week of sixth form at my school, my contemporaries and I were set an essay by our head master, John Ounsted, entitled, “To what extent should the tolerant tolerate the intolerant?” It is good for schools to consider the appropriate way not only to promote tolerance, but to deal effectively with intolerance.

Closely related to the need to understand and learn tolerance is the understanding of mutual respect, or what Quakers have traditionally described as “finding that of God in every man”. I have visited primary and secondary schools in my constituency for more than a third of a century, and my impression is that schools are extremely good at seeking to promote mutual respect among pupils.

Tolerance of others, a belief in freedom and the importance of democracy are, therefore, all fundamental British values. And they are British values—these are not lists. Some of those who have described British values have simply described lists. When John Betjeman was asked to describe Britishness, he wrote of

“Books from Boots’ and country lanes”,

but such things are not values; they are games of word association about things people at any time might associate with Britain, and the word associations are constantly changing. What we need is a focus on values.

In the short time I have, I would like to make a point that it is easy for me, as Second Church Estates Commissioner, to make. Nothing in what the Government propose should be seen as being in any way intended or likely to be anti-Muslim because it seeks to promote British values. At the start of her diamond jubilee year, the Queen made a visit to Lambeth Palace to meet faith leaders. I was fortunate enough to be present in my capacity as Second Church Estates Commissioner. Her Majesty the Queen made a short, but moving speech, which I have no doubt she wrote herself. This was a personal comment. She said:

“This gathering is a reminder of how much we owe the nine major religious traditions represented here…Our religions provide critical guidance for the way we live our lives, and for the way in which we treat each other…Here at Lambeth Palace we should remind ourselves of the significant position of the Church of England in our nation’s life. The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.

It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely. Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society—more and more in active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths.”

In other words, part of British values is about having the tolerance and mutual respect to respect and, beyond that, protect the free practice of Islam in this country. However—to go back to my earlier comment about the tolerant not tolerating the intolerant—that does not mean protecting the teaching of Islam if that teaching perversely seeks to suggest that Islam is opposed or hostile to other faiths or values.

Her Majesty went on to say:

“Faith plays a key role in the identity of many millions of people, providing not only a system of belief but also a sense of belonging. It can act as a spur for social action. Indeed, religious groups have a proud track record of helping those in the greatest need, including the sick, the elderly, the lonely and the disadvantaged. They remind us of the responsibilities we have beyond ourselves.”

That is perhaps another important British value: loving one’s neighbour as oneself, accepting personal responsibility and accepting responsibilities to oneself, one’s family and the community in which we find ourselves.

That advice from Her Majesty the Queen was very sensible, and I see no reason why it is not possible to ensure that all schools promote fundamentally decent British values. Those values bring us all together.