Bishop of Birmingham in Lords Debate on Religion and Belief in Public Life

On 27th November 2014 the House of Lords debated a motion from the Crossbench Peer and former Bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, on ‘the role of religion and belief in British public life’. The Bishop of Birmingham, Rt Rev David Urquhart spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Birmingham: My Lords, I am grateful to my colleague, the noble and right reverend 01.04.14 Bishop of BirminghamLord, Lord Harries, for shaping this debate and for the remarks just offered by the noble Baroness. It may be a great surprise to many of our fellow citizens that public religious figures should be asked to play a part at all in 21st century society. However, the least surprised in the city of Birmingham are my interfaith colleagues. They expect the leaders and members at a local parish level and at a national level in what they regard as the indigenous national religion to play a full part in society and to articulate the needs, values and beliefs of those who have faith on things that are a matter of importance to the whole of society, whether they are faithful or not.

We have already referred to the great civic occasions and the local ones that are framed by public religious bodies, mainly the church. We have also noticed that members of religious organisations or bodies are outspoken in their views and can articulate particular things from an independent point of view. In public, it is a surprise these days that public figures such as bishops are still asked to say grace at institutional dinners. However, a certain amount of education is needed when asked for a grace that is secular, in the wrong use of the word. When asked about this grace, my young Muslim friend said, “Well, who are you going to be speaking to, Bishop, when you are saying it?”. These are matters of fact and I want in my remaining remarks to illustrate the liveliness and the practice of lived religion in ordinary communities across the country.

Beneath the surface of these public expressions of acts of worship in times of need and moments of outspokenness—people like the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, who has already been mentioned, or engagement in public debate with, for example, the mining industry, where the ethos of that industry has been engaging with people of religion for its future—lies the obvious observation that human beings are seen to have a spiritual, other dimension to their lives, other than just the physical and practically measurable. David Bentley Hart, in his The Experience of God, has a very good articulation that, adding to our natural way of life, there are other dimensions: being, by which he refers to God; bliss, by which he refers to our emotions and experience; and, of course, consciousness, that distinctive fact of human awareness and being. Perhaps that is why 700 lay Anglicans—only one small part of the religious life of Birmingham—chose to come together for a whole day to speak about how to tell their story of faith to one another and to others in their communities.

People of faith also have a very strong motivation simply to serve humanity and to care for the wonderful planet in which we are placed. Of course that is true of all walks of professional and public life, but it is particularly of interest when people put their faith into practice in the local communities, in their own spheres of influence. As ordinary people rise to the challenge of our current economic and social conditions, we see that, in our social inclusion process in Birmingham, which happens to be led by the Bishop—by myself—as a public independent figure, all sorts of things flowed out as a response to human need in the local communities. For example, a whole range of places of welcome were set up, as required by the local authority. Night shelters during this winter season sprang up locally because volunteers, particularly led by people of all faiths, wanted to serve in that way. Well-known street pastors serve across the city at night. Food banks are familiar to your Lordships, and it is notable that my noble and right revered friend the Bishop of Truro was asked to chair that commission. Money advice is being offered in all sorts of communities, particularly from places of religion.

Your Lordships are well aware that there has been a particular focus on Islam in Birmingham in the last 12 months. Now statutory bodies—as well as the Trojan Horse review group, on which I serve with Muslims—are making attempts to identify and act in proper ways to respond. It is in fact the local people of faith who are gathering informally—gathering in particular ways—to develop a way of being that is going to make the most fundamental difference in changing our society.


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