Bishop of Blackburn makes his valedictory speech in debate on the Union of the United Kingdom

The Bishop of Blackburn, Rt Revd Julian Henderson, made his final speech to the House of Lords during a debate on the Union of the United Kingdom, on 23d June 2022:

The Lord Bishop of Blackburn: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, for this opportunity to make a brief contribution to this debate on our union, although I have learned a new meaning of the word “brief” while I have been in your Lordships’ House: it does not always mean “short”. I am sorry if I disappoint the hopes of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, about my valedictory speech.

My time in your Lordships’ House has been limited—just over two years—partly because it has been right for my female colleagues to take precedence in joining your Lordships’ House and partly because it has been constrained by the pandemic. There has been a lot to learn as well as to admire in a place of such expertise and wisdom, but I regret that I have not been able to become more involved in the serious business of your Lordships’ House.

My nearly nine years as the Bishop of Blackburn are drawing to a close and I shall be moving from the special red rose county of Lancashire, where it has been a joy to live and serve and where we celebrate Her Majesty the Queen as the Duke of Lancaster in our singing of the national anthem. The north has been more than welcoming to a complete southerner, and, as with all places where clergy serve, a bit of my heart will remain there.

In our diocesan vision for 2026, the 100th anniversary of the creation of the diocese, we have set out to make the church community a healthy influence in every situation, not cutting back but planting new gatherings in places where Christian witness and worship have been absent, most notably on urban estates. We have been blessed by generous grants from the national Church and it has felt like a time of God’s favour, as God has given us a great team and we have sought unashamedly to make the person of Jesus Christ more widely known and believed.

It has been an honour when on duty here to lead the reading of scripture and the praying of the Prayers at the beginning of each Sitting here in your Lordships’ House, which signal something of our accountability and dependence on another: the one who is the source of all life and who sets the boundaries of how we should relate to one another, those standards and values that we were discussing a little earlier this afternoon—that Christian heritage that underpins so much of our national life.

I was intrigued to read in this report about the union the strains currently experienced in governance, accountability and finance between the four nations of the union, largely because of Brexit and devolution. I wonder, if a referendum is pressed for, whether so major a decision with consequences for the whole union should be decided by only one part and not take into account the view of the whole. But I know that is controversial.

It was especially good to see reference to the importance of the levelling-up agenda, reducing the gaps in our society in terms of wealth and aspiration, something we in the north-west are desperate to see taken forward. Government support for the Eden Project North in Morecambe Bay is one example of what will bring massive transformation in terms of jobs and the growth of the local economy in Lancashire.

However, I found two things missing from the report. First, there was very little about the monarchy as one of the key strengths and bonds across the union. The recent services of celebration for Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee and the thousands of street parties that gathered whole communities together in positive ways, across all kinds of social and ethnic divides, spoke volumes about something and someone who holds us together. In Blackburn Cathedral, we handed out 900 copies of a booklet, The Faithful Queen, telling the story of her humble service as a Christian to the union and the Commonwealth. She is a worthy recipient of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury’s gift of the Canterbury Cross for unstinting service to the Church of England, as well as to the union.

Secondly—noble Lords would expect me to say this—I could not find any reference to the role of the faith and charity sectors in strengthening life and co-operation across the United Kingdom. Obviously, in the past, the established Church has played a key role in this nation, with Lords spiritual present in this House. However, over time, the churches in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have become independent; new churches have also emerged. What is more, the presence of strong other-faith communities in the United Kingdom now challenges that Christian heritage as we make this country a place in which all faiths can practise without fear or favour.

In spite of all that change, I do not want us to lose a formal and recognised place for faith in our national life. It provides a crucial underpinning of who we are in being fully human—body, mind and soul—as this House carries out its vital roles of scrutinising legislation and commenting on the complex issues of the day. The Prayers at the start of each Sitting for wisdom and right judgment will continue to be my prayer for your Lordships’ House, although I will no longer have the privilege of being present. I am grateful to you all for your good wishes.


Lord Cormack (Con):

My Lords, it is a real honour and privilege to follow the right reverend Prelate’s short but moving speech. This is a bittersweet moment for us all because, as he said, he has been with us for only two years. It is less than two years since he made his maiden speech, which I read again this morning. It was referred to then by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who followed the right reverend Prelate, as

“a thoughtful and exemplary maiden speech”.—[Official Report, 8/9/20; col. 687.]

It clearly was.

This afternoon, we have heard an exemplary valedictory speech from a man who is both genuinely humble and totally determined. He really does live his faith, both in his diocese and here. He has led us in Prayers every day this week. He will be much missed because, although he has been with us for such a short time, he has made it plain that he is a campaigning bishop who is passionate about Christians and those of other faiths who are being persecuted around the world. We will long remember him. I wish him every possible happiness and success; I know that I speak for the whole House in saying that. He will now have more time for gardening, reading, cycling, DIY and the other things he lists as his recreations in Who’s Who and Dod’s. Godspeed—come back and see us often.

Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab): My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, for bringing this excellent debate to the House. It has been extremely interesting and was very much enhanced by the valedictory speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn, and we wish him good luck for the future. (…)

(…) We also feel that the stresses on the union have been exacerbated by the economic policies we have seen recently, which have levied disproportionate public service cuts and amounted to a sense that we have not all been in this together. For this reason, the UK also needs a new and transformational economic settlement to properly level up the country and show that the union can exist to reduce regional inequalities. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn talked about the importance of levelling up. This must be central to any constitutional work going forward.

Lord Greenhalgh (Con, Minister of State – Home Office & Department for Levelling Up): My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, for securing this debate on such an important topic. I also enjoyed the valedictory speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn. He raised two important issues in a succinct contribution: the role of the monarchy in holding the union together, which is fundamental—we saw this with the Platinum Jubilee—and the role that faith communities, communities of all faiths, play in our lives.

Lord Lisvane (CB): My Lords, I shall not attempt a retrospective of this afternoon’s debate—given the scope of opinion and experience involved, that would be an entirely impractical idea—but I am very happy to thank the Minister for his detailed reply. Like other noble Lords, perhaps I may single out the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn. I entirely endorse the eloquent words earlier of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. When the right reverend Prelate leaves us, perhaps to embark on a new career as stellar as his present one, he will know that he takes with him the warmest good wishes of every Member of this House.

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