On 11th May 2022 the Bishop of Guildford, Rt Revd Andrew Watson, made his maiden speech in the House of Lords, in a debate on the Queen’s Speech:
The Lord Bishop of Guildford (Maiden Speech): My Lords, it is a privilege to be making my maiden speech in this most important debate on Her Majesty’s gracious Speech. I thank noble Lords for their welcome this afternoon.
As I have taken my first infant steps as a Member of the House, I have been struck by the genuine warmth and friendliness that I have experienced from fellow Members, along with House officials and staff. I am equally impressed by the quality of the debate that I have witnessed and the probing but courteous spirit in which it has been exercised. I have also begun to connect with those involved in the area of freedom of religion and belief, in which I have a lifelong interest, and I applaud their efforts to advance these basic human rights around the globe.
As a much younger man, my life might realistically have travelled in three directions: music, the law or the Church. My father was a professional musician, and, after a somewhat unconvincing start on the piano and clarinet, I picked up a bassoon one day and took to it like a duck to water. Playing in the National Youth Orchestra was a particular joy in my teenage years, and it was a genuine wrench to leave that all behind when I increasingly felt called in a different direction.
Meanwhile, with a Cambridge law degree under my belt, I was working in a junior capacity for a criminal law firm in Covent Garden. I would have made a happy lawyer, I think, specialising in criminal or family law, but the call towards ordination would not go away. One down for the law, as Michael Corkery QC kindly put it, and one up for God. Within a couple of years, I was back in Cambridge, where I first set eyes on my future wife, during a lecture given by a young, bearded Welshman with the improbable name of Dr Rowan Williams.
My ordained ministry began with three years living on a council estate in Redditch, where I led a small congregation, meeting in the church middle school. From there, we moved to Notting Hill, an area that introduced me to the disturbingly localised nature of inequality, with the very poor often living cheek by jowl with the very rich, and the church offering the only place where the two worlds met. Along with a community café and prison visiting group, we there started a nursery school where parents contributed what they could afford. Somehow, by God’s grace, we were able to pay the teachers’ salaries at the end of each month.
There were not quite the same extremes during my 12 years leading a lively church in Twickenham, but even there we had plenty of takers for our weekly suppers for the homeless, and we encountered fresh levels of deprivation when we started a congregation on the Ivybridge estate, which, for rugby enthusiasts in the House, is those mid-rise tower blocks adjacent to the international stadium.
Then, in 2008, I became Bishop of Aston in Birmingham diocese. I became Bishop of Guildford seven years later, thereby moving from the diocese with the most deprivation in the country to the diocese with the least. That move has made me recognise both the urgency of the task to level up regions across the UK and its extraordinary difficulty if we are to do more than simply tinker around the edges. Like many others in this House, I have witnessed at first hand the huge disparity in life chances, and indeed life expectancy, between those in our poorest districts and those in our wealthiest. The contrast is chilling.
Yet even within the 165 parishes that make up the diocese of Guildford—a diocese that comprises two-thirds of leafy Surrey; Aldershot, Fleet and Farnborough in north-east Hampshire; and a single parish each in Sussex and Greater London—there are huge localised inequalities, which remind me a little of my years in Notting Hill and north Kensington. Cobham has a food bank, as do Farnham, Dorking and 30 other communities within the diocese. Some of these are part-funded by the Bishop of Guildford’s community fund, set up by one of my predecessors. I spent a morning in one of them just a couple of weeks ago.
Although I would never wish to set the local in competition with the regional when it comes to the levelling-up agenda, I welcome the White Paper’s acknowledgement of both phenomena and encourage this House to keep both in mind as this debate develops over the coming months, not least in the context of the inflationary pressures that are making those food banks busier than ever.
It is tough to live in a deprived community—there is absolutely no question about that—but it is also tough to be deprived in a wealthy community, constantly surrounded by reminders of how the other half lives. Indeed, research has demonstrated time and again that the least happy societies are not always the poorest but the most unequal. So I will follow this debate and others with great interest, and hope to make a small but genuine contribution to the life of your Lordships’ House in the months and years to come.
The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, I am delighted to follow my right reverend friend the Bishop of Guildford and I congratulate him on his excellent maiden speech. I warmly welcome him to the House and to these Benches, and I have no doubt that he will have a significant contribution to make, drawing not only on his long ordained ministry in a diverse range of social settings, as we have already heard a little about, but from his wider life experiences. It may well be that he has been a loss to the world of law and music but definitely a gain to the world of the Church. I very much look forward to working with him here in the future.