On 10th December 2021 the Bishop of Birmingham spoke in a House of Lords debate led by the Archbishop of Canterbury on contemporary challenges to freedom of speech and the role of the public, private and third sectors in upholding it
The Lord Bishop of Birmingham: My Lords, as we have been hearing, speech is one of the most precious gifts for humanity, freedom of which is easy to take for granted, as we may do from week to week in this House, but even easier to abuse. Speech is so important that, at this season of the year, for people of Christian tradition, we even call the son of God’s appearance the word of God—the word made flesh
In the same scriptures in which we read that story, there is warning of the danger of the use of the tongue:
“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”
Of course, I do not refer to anyone who stands on the platform at Speakers’ Corner or any other venue of that kind. We remember also
“the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!”—
the blaze of instant phone recordings or a tweet out of context.
Good law is in place; we have just heard about the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and Article 19 in it, and there is also our own Human Rights Act 1998 and its Article 9,
“Freedom of thought, conscience and religion”,
and Article 10, “Freedom of expression”. We give thanks for those, but we also notice laws around the world that need challenge and change; for example, blasphemy laws in countries such as Nigeria, Egypt and Pakistan, where organisations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide draw our attention to the sort of things we have just been hearing about from the noble Baroness.
Today, even when good law is in place and upheld in public, personal and public speech can perpetuate prejudice and division—or it can extend the benefit of these hard-won freedoms. Our most reverend friend mentioned the importance of intermediate activity in this area. Between the nation and the individual is the need to soften and remove the inhibitions on speaking up or speaking out, to allay the fear of exclusion or reprisal and to give new confidence in conversation. This is where civil society and faiths can create and convene safe spaces where difference can be spoken with care and understanding can be deepened, truth revealed and progress made towards a common good. I will give one or two examples of putting this into practice from my personal experience—in South Africa, Birmingham, the Church of England, as mentioned already, and the City of London.
In South Africa, following the intense need for truth and reconciliation, there are continuing deeper conversations—courageous conversations, as they are called—convened by the Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba. These conversations are focused on the key industry in the country, extractives and mining, and they bring together each element of people who find it really difficult to talk to each other—senior politicians, the companies themselves, the trade unions and, essentially, the communities most affected by the activity, either economically or personally. This is an accomplishment model of good, courageous conversations that could not happen in public but can happen with Chatham House rules and appreciation, in particular of the dignity of the person—starting with a relationship and moving on to possibility, opportunity, action and result. There is no quick win, but a deep transformation of relationships through honest speech.
In Birmingham, interfaith conversations have been an essential follow-up to the mechanical mechanisms of Prevent, along with other things that try to resolve extreme differences in our local society. Conversations are bringing together the six main religions—Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and people from Judaism—in the same room to listen appropriately and begin to gather the issues that really matter so that we can build up a public discourse and necessary change. The Feast in Birmingham is a youth example of that, with principles of engagement in which friendship is the key. They may seem very obvious: listen to what everyone has to say, do not tell others what they believe, do not force people to agree with your views and so on.
In the Church of England, we have mentioned the difference course. There are also the six pastoral principles, which are really painful, for those of us who are grown up, mature and confident, to be aware of as we face difficult conversations which may end in disagreement. They are: ignorance, power—as has been mentioned—fear, prejudice, silence and hypocrisy. We keep those in mind when trying to face up to disagreeing well on hard-won social issues.
Finally, just to mention another example, the Financial Services Culture Board, in that great industry, is trying to develop a culture of openness and honesty, where whistleblowing is not a necessary and brave thing to do but where issues can be raised easily and functionally so that, in an assessment of progress, we can see a benchmark model of improvement in how good speech and behaviour are improving in an important part of our society.
Noble Lords may be familiar with these principles. I am arguing that the intermediate activity of each individual in their groupings is the only way forward for actually practising these principles, which are enshrined in law. Some of them need to change worldwide, but we need to practise them. I hope those examples will give us encouragement to join in and change ourselves as much as we want to change others. Let us have difficult conversations and take this place for a creative, lively, compassionate and honest use of this precious gift of freedom of speech, for the good of all.
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