“Service, in the Christian tradition, is a vocation. When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples he reversed the power relationship between the teacher and his followers. Two thousand years ago, service never made you great; it was a sign of your enslavement. These days, by contrast, everyone wants to do us a service” – Bishop of Norwich, 27/11/14
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 Norwich, Rt Rev Graham James, spoke in the debate, focusing on themes of trust and a vocation to service in public life.
The Lord Bishop of Norwich: My Lords, like other noble Lords I am very grateful to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for securing this debate. I notice that the commission of which he is part is considering how religion may contribute to,
“greater levels of mutual trust and collective action, and to a more harmonious society”.
I will address the reference to mutual trust, especially with regard to our public life, which is far from well. The level of cynicism about our political structures and politicians finds reflection in an all too common assumption that many people in public life are not to be trusted. That is true for religious leaders, too, and for almost anyone in the public eye, and it generates cynicism about the state itself.
In the United Kingdom we need a much more elevated understanding of what the state is called to be—and here, religion has its part to play. Too often, for want of that, we are reduced to sterile discussions about British values, which seem largely to consist of tolerance and queuing, although I have certainly been in queues which were not the least bit tolerant.
In this House the Throne is the symbol of the one person in public life who is called to embody the nation. William Temple, who thought and wrote much about the place of religion in public life before his untimely death during the Second World War, said in 1928, intriguingly, that the public at the time did not regard King George V as head of state. He wrote that the King was,
“the impersonation of the Community—a greater thing. When the King opens Parliament, we see the Community, in his person, calling on its servant, the State, to discharge its functions”.
Therefore William Temple spoke of the state as the servant of the community of the nation.
Service, in the Christian tradition, is a vocation. When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples he reversed the power relationship between the teacher and his followers. Two thousand years ago, service never made you great; it was a sign of your enslavement. These days, by contrast, everyone wants to do us a service. The so-called service industries are often thought to be one of the strongest parts of our economies. The supermarkets fall over themselves in wanting to be of service to us, yet we know that they are very powerful organisations. When businesses, politicians or even bishops say that they want to be of service to the people, they do not always convince.
The state is seen by many people as powerful, heavy and inert, and not on their side. Many people in our society see religion in much the same way. Yet in many faiths, the image of a journey or a pilgrimage is the metaphor for life, and for Christians the journey is towards the kingdom of God. The Prayers in this Chamber may be unchanging every day, but every day we also pray that God’s kingdom will come. Even in Parliament, we have no abiding city.
That is a crucial perspective on all political institutions and social constructions, too: they are all penultimate at best. The quest, as always, is for a better society. We should not be satisfied with what we have constructed—not through cynicism, though, but through aspiration. One of the roles of religion in public life is to witness to that quest for a better world and to recover a spirit of trusted service and intergenerational solidarity. Edmund Burke, whom the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, referred to earlier, defined the state as a partnership between,
“those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”.
As I look at the long lists of rectors and vicars in so many medieval churches in Norfolk, I am reminded of the inheritance and continuities of faith. Then I look at the children and families who come to Messy Church within them—I suspect that that has never been mentioned in this Chamber before—and I see novelty in religious practice. We need places with a visible continuity between past and present that have hope for the future.
When people gather together for worship, they form moral communities as they acknowledge their weakness and seek forgiveness. They serve each other and the wider community, and seek to build trust between each other and beyond. There are tens of thousands of such churches and other groups that build such cultures of trust in our country. They are not all religious, not by any means, but religion is significant within them.
When we speak of broken states in our world, what has broken down is trust. No state can fulfil its vocation to build a culture of trust between its citizens if they do not build cultures of trust among themselves. Therefore the role of religion is to build cultures of trust. There will be no trust in any state or in public life if we do not first build it among ourselves.