On 11th June 2015 the Bishop of Rochester, Rt Revd James Langstaff, spoke during the House of Lords debate on the Bishops’ Pastoral Letter for the 2015 General Election. The text is below and the speeches of others in the debate can be read here.
The Lord Bishop of Rochester: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for initiating this debate, and the opportunity to reflect on the House of Bishops’ pastoral letter, which, although issued in the context of an election, was written in the hope that it would provide an ongoing stimulus to thinking and reflecting on the shape of our society and the kind of society that we wish to be. Not least, it will provide something of a challenge to the churches, to which it is primarily addressed, but to others also, to discover afresh something that is a treasure and very much part of our story. Reference has been made to Magna Carta, and as Bishop of Rochester I would be remiss not to remind noble Lords of the existence of the Textus Roffensis, which predates the Magna Carta, although it is not quite so long, and which also merits celebration.
There is a noble and worthy story that goes right back into the deep roots of our society and which we do well to remember. Part of that story is characterised by the word that has already been used extensively in your Lordships’ debate today: neighbourliness. It is about the kind of society that we wish to be and the practical and often very local ways in which we might seek to give expression to that. It is about seeking something that may look and feel like fullness of life for all. Crucially, as we have already heard, it is about the instruments in our society, particularly those that we have described as intermediary, that have the capacity to foster local initiative and local response and give support to those who respond, often very rapidly, to things that they see on their own doorsteps.
The pastoral letter had some initial responses, and the responses may have become more measured since it was first issued, as people have actually taken the time to read and think. However, it has to be confessed that it was not a document written with ease of soundbite in mind. There is some quite nuanced argumentation in there, and I am delighted that noble Lords have clearly read it carefully and are engaging with some of the subtlety of argument within it. It seeks to move beyond the rather sterile language of right and left, private provision and public provision, and so forth, and leads us towards something that is perhaps richer and more inclusive. It asserts that,
“approaches to the well being of the nation could not succeed unless social relationships were marked by neighbourliness, strong voluntary commitment and personal responsibility”,
and bringing those together is crucial.
The reason why I think we can have some hope about our capacity as a nation to foster this kind of life and society and foster the flourishing of the intermediate institutions of civil society is that actually we have a very good basis on which to do it. Up and down the land, day by day, week by week, things are going on that are expressive of the kind of thing that we are aspiring to strengthen and see. Reference has already been made to a number of initiatives and projects. In schools, for example, there is not just what goes on during the school day but what goes on around the school day, before and after school clubs, parenting courses and things like that. There is the care of the elderly and the bereaved. There are still 330,000 Church of England-officiated funerals every week in our nation, and pastoral care goes on around that. If we add the other churches and faith traditions to that picture, it is substantial.
I heard only yesterday of a rather inspiring initiative to have a toddler group meeting in a care home for people with dementia. I thought that was wonderful. That is the kind of thing one would love to see replicated, because it has so much potential for both the people suffering from dementia and the youngsters and their families. There are other kinds of activities. Reference has been made to the ones we are all very familiar with: food banks, shelters for the homeless and so on.
In relation to churches, I shall mention some of the initiatives for the creative use of church buildings, not least in rural communities where post offices have now been located in churches, as well as community hubs, internet cafes and the like for the enhancement of those communities. Those things are becoming established now.
There are just a couple of things I would like to draw to your Lordships’ attention as particular initiatives that may merit celebration, affirmation and extension. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury is well known for his campaigning in relation to payday loans and other such things, campaigns that have some considerable fruitfulness. What is less well known is some of the other work that is flowing out of that initiative. The task group which he established to look at matters of credit has initiated some really imaginative work with schools. I am delighted that in my own diocese in the Borough of Bromley we now have the Lewisham + Credit Union working with primary schools and some of our church schools to provide education to young children in financial management, budgeting and those sorts of things. It has established a savings club so that they can learn to save at that young age. Who knows what the effects would be for a generation and beyond if we could have the civil society structures, as it were, to make it possible to replicate that in other places?
The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, referred to housing associations. A little research report, Our Common Heritage, was published today, which examines the relationship, historic and present, between the churches, housing associations and the voluntary housing sector. While there is a noble heritage there, there is also a challenge, not least to the churches, about how, for example, we can use our continuing resources of land and buildings for the benefit of our society through the provision of affordable and social housing. There is a challenge there, and a piece of work has already begun that has yet to be completed.
In my capacity as bishop to prisons, I am astounded as I visit prisons and criminal justice projects of one sort or another by the contribution of volunteering and voluntary-sector organisations in that world in mentoring, programmes to combat offending behaviour, resettlement schemes and much else besides.
This is addressed to churches and other organisations and faith communities, because we are actually rather well placed to offer those spaces and platforms for people to come together in common concern and action for the well-being of society and the flourishing of the communities in which we are set.
In closing, if there is one plea to government it is to try to make sure that there are not too many barriers that get in our way. Yes, we need things such as safeguarding provision, but there are other things that could be quietly got out of the way in order to free us to respond to these opportunities.