“The legitimacy of any legislature is judged by the sure access to justice for all citizens, regardless of age or estate. For that justice to be social it requires the active participation of all communities. I believe that this justice is rooted in the invitation of God to be generous and visible with and for others” – Bishop of Ely, 16/10/14
On 16th October 2014, the House of Lords debated a motion in the name of Baroness Tyler of Enfield, “that this House takes note of Her Majesty’s Government’s Social Justice strategy.” The Bishop of Ely, Rt Rev Stephen Conway, gave his maiden speech in the debate:
The Lord Bishop of Ely (Maiden Speech):My Lords, I begin by expressing my gratitude for the welcome I have received since I was introduced into your Lordships’ House. My theological sense of direction is rather more developed than my physical sense, and I have been touched by the noble Lords who have accompanied me around bewildering corridors. Your Lordships may yet see me, like Theseus, unwinding a ball of twine to get me back to the Bishops’ Robing Room.
The diocese of Ely, which I serve, comprises most of Cambridgeshire and west Norfolk. Were it not for Cambridge, we would be identified as a rural diocese, providing a veritable bread and vegetable basket for our country and beyond. We have some wonderful farmers’ sales co-operatives, such as G’s Growers, which are leaders not only as employers but in the production of high-value foods. Today is World Food Day. I think that in any discussion about social justice we should also take account of food justice—of access for our poorer citizens to fresh foods. I also applaud the contribution of British farmers, not least those in Cambridgeshire, to the natural development of resilient new crops to be used in marginal land around the world to feed a growing population. Justice most properly includes access to food for all.
We have two world-class universities in Cambridge—the University of Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin. With its science park and teaching hospitals, the city is at the forefront of academic research and the leading-edge conversion of that research into new technologies for business and for advances in medical treatment for all. We owe a lot of our development locally to the foresight and generosity of international institutions in our midst. As a graduate of Cambridge myself who attended state schools, I am proud of Cambridge’s record across both universities in the recruitment of diverse communities of students. This is where rigorous teaching and learning and social justice meet each other. The church and society benefit enormously from the passion of young people both for the gospel and for the common good.
The prosperity of much of Cambridge is plain to see and I rejoice that a high quality of enterprise and world-standard skills have grown the city significantly. We benefit from our proximity to London and new communities continue to be planted. This poses a happy challenge for the church as we seek to provide clergy and schools, working in partnership with developers and local authorities.
The much greater challenge for us all is the poverty, both obvious and hidden, mostly in our rural communities and market towns. I am really excited by the strategy’s commitment to the transformation of lives as well as protecting people through welfare support. Such transformation comes not only through government policy, but through the commitment of communities that everyone may flourish. As a diocese, our vision is to pray to be generous and visible people of Jesus Christ.
Generosity and visibility are by no means limited to Christian citizens. We aim to live in partnership. The market town of Wisbech is a case in point. Once a prosperous port, this Fenland town scores highly for hardship and multiple deprivation; but it is not a despairing place. In the market square, noble Lords would encounter a range of languages and a bustle of people coming from the food-packing factories and the fields where they work to put food on our tables. Many rely on friendly charity shops to assist them to manage on low pay. Many people from the town and surrounding villages deliver boxes of food to the church-run food bank, offering vital support, often to working families, not just to those living on benefits.
Beyond the market square lies the parish church, whose priest, Father Paul West, has received a large grant from the national church to run a transformational arts project through which local schoolchildren learn about art and spirituality and are given access to a range of culture and a hinterland from which they might otherwise be excluded. Close by is the Ferry Project, a night shelter founded by Christians in the town, and caring for the homeless 365 days of the year. At the Roman Catholic Rosmini Centre, there is great voluntary support for hard-working incomers from eastern Europe.
The centre also houses the Rainbow Saver Anglia Credit Union, to which I belong, which provides a simple bank account and sound budgeting for people who would otherwise be excluded from responsible saving. I would guess that none of us has much sense of what it is not to be able to have a cheque book or debit card, how excluded that makes people and how it makes them prone, despite already having a low wage, to having to pay more money to cash their work cheques at the end of the week. It is marvellous that, very often, past recipients of care from the food bank and other sources become workers and volunteers. These wonderful examples of the fruitful co-operation between church, town and business represent all that is good about Fenland—hard work, mutuality, realism and practical faith.
The Oasis Christian bookshop in the same town lives up to its name as it offers a safe meeting place for people with severe and enduring mental health needs. I have a long-standing personal commitment to the support and inclusion of those living with these challenges. Social justice for these neighbours of ours does include access to welfare and decent healthcare provision, as the noble Baroness Lady Tyler, has said. It is more fundamentally, however, about social inclusion and the removal of stigma from mental illness. I celebrate the passion and commitment of the staff and chaplains of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Foundation Trust in supporting those living challenging lives in the community, for some of whom getting up each morning is an act of profound courage and staying up an act of profound perseverance. I have been especially impressed by my experience of the Recovery College, which offers courses co-designed and led by service users and mental health professionals. Fundamental to all of this and to any approach to social justice is that the transformation of lives is about being given the confidence to do for ourselves and with others, not to be “done to”.
I am soon to succeed the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford as the chair of the National Society, which supports the vocation of children and young people throughout the church’s life and witness, and which sustains the work of church schools and the Church of England’s commitment to further and higher education. Most of the opportunities that I have been given have come through access to the best of state education. I am here only because of what all that has meant in terms of inclusion and access. Any strategy for social justice has to be rooted in supporting young people so that, regardless of background, we are offering unrivalled access to the best education in schools, colleges and universities where ethos and performance are indivisible. The Church of England is the largest provider of primary schools in rural areas and has a significant part to play in serving multicultural and multi-ethnic areas in our inner cities. We intend to continue to play a full part in raising standards and contributing to the training of high-quality teachers for the sake of our children.
The legitimacy of any legislature is judged by the sure access to justice for all citizens, regardless of age or estate. For that justice to be social it requires the active participation of all communities. I believe that this justice is rooted in the invitation of God to be generous and visible with and for others. I would love the story to be true of the vicar who locked the congregation out of church on a Sunday morning and said, “We have been practising long enough; let’s go and do it”.
Excerpts from the speeches that followed:
Lord Ramsbotham (CB): My Lords, among the customs of this House that I hope will never be changed are the courtesies around the making of maiden speeches. The inevitably nervous speaker is encouraged to pay due and richly deserved tribute to our wonderful staff and no one is allowed to move in or out of the Chamber until the courtesies are completed by someone both welcoming and responding to the speaker. As I reflected on this happy opportunity, I noticed many parallels between the path of the right reverend Prelate to this House and that of my father, who as the Bishop of Wakefield made his maiden speech on a similar subject to today’s.
The first time I went to the right reverend Prelate’s lovely cathedral in Ely was as a student at Cambridge when I attended the installation of one of his distinguished predecessors, Bishop Noel Hudson, a great friend of my father’s. Bishop Noel had a very keen sense of humour. With the invitation he included an Osbert Lancaster cartoon of two bishops in full fig filling in a football coupon during the Church Assembly, one saying to the other, “Cave Basingstoke, the Arch is looking”.
Before being ordained, the right reverend Prelate taught at Glenalmond, where one of my brothers was educated. He was ordained in Durham Cathedral and spent the first 20 years of his ministry in the diocese of Durham, including two years as the Archdeacon of Durham. My father was the Bishop of Jarrow and Archdeacon of Auckland for eight years, living beside that incomparable building. Although Bishop Stephen’s time as Bishop of Ramsbury was nearer to mine on Salisbury Plain during my Army service, I note that since his installation he has been on a mission to southern India, where my father was sent in 1952, resulting in a succession of Indian archdeacons living with us in Durham during their return visits.
This has been a notable week for the Church of England in the House, with the legislation for the ordination of women bishops on Tuesday and now the right reverend Prelate’s outstanding maiden speech during this important debate. I think he has given a very clear indication that not only does he know and care a great deal about social justice, but he will make an important contribution to the work of the House. So, on behalf of all Members, I most warmly congratulate him and hope that we will have the pleasure and privilege of hearing much more from him in the future…
Lord McAvoy (Lab): ..I also congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely on an excellent maiden speech, which promises further interesting observations from the Bishops’ Bench…
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Lord Nash) (Con): .. I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely on his excellent maiden speech and thank him for all the work he does in support of social justice, but particularly in the field of education, with academies and in general, and I wish him well in his new position as chair of the National Society. The church’s contribution to education in this country is long-standing, very substantial and highly impactful, as it is of course in its work on poverty in general…
Baroness Tyler of Enfield (LD):..I would particularly like to thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely for his excellent maiden speech…