Bishop of Southwark and Bishop of Guildford speak in a debate on the Commonwealth

The Bishop of Southwark and the Bishop of Guildford spoke in a debate on the 2022 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and the future of the Commonwealth on 30th June 2022:

The Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, for securing this timely debate. There is a tension throughout the history of the Commonwealth in its structure between cohesion and comprehension; between the fullest capacity to relate, and demands of function and utility. When the Imperial Conference of 1926 adopted the London declaration that the United Kingdom and dominions were

The Lord Bishop of Southwark

“autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs”—

comments which I think still resonate in terms of the last speech—the competing argument of imperial federation was in terminal retreat.

Since then, despite the closest bonds in war, despite the Ottawa agreements on trade, and despite the sterling area, the pressure in the Commonwealth has remained relentlessly centrifugal: legislative independence under the Statute of Westminster, the arrangement of the London declaration in 1949, the readmission of republics and the strategic decision of the UK to align itself with both the European Community and the United States. A vigorous UK foreign policy in the 1980s conflicted with much of the rest of the Commonwealth and tested the partnership to its limits. Yet, and notwithstanding the very significant questions about the legacy of Empire asked by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, the Commonwealth endures and flourishes. Why should this be?

One feature, I believe, is Her Majesty the Queen, who now in the 71st year of her reign is still holding true to the pledge she made on her 21st birthday in Cape Town in 1947. One part of the speech tends to be quoted, but in another the Princess Elizabeth assured us:

“If we all go forward together with an unwavering faith, a high courage, and a quiet heart, we shall be able to make of this ancient commonwealth, which we all love so dearly, an even grander thing—more free, more prosperous, more happy and a more powerful influence for good in the world—than it has been in the greatest days of our forefathers.”

She said this on the cusp of momentous change, both in her own life, and in the life of this country and the Commonwealth itself. None the less, as Head of the Commonwealth, the Queen has lived out what she commended to us. All of us, I suspect, have coins about us, and those coins bear one of the royal titles: “F.D.”—Defender of the Faith.

Increasingly, commentators down the years have noted the Queen’s personal commitment to the Christian faith. It is also true that she has never lost faith in the Commonwealth and never wavered in her outward support or active engagement, even when the subject became controversial. Indeed, her steadfast belief has been key to the survival and development of the partnership. What others have identified as a key weakness—its absence of a power structure and capacity to project influence—allows it to focus on relationships, providing a non-threatening forum for smaller states to engage with larger ones on an equal footing. Hence its expanding number, with applications from beyond the former territories of the British Empire. What is inconceivable to the authors of journal articles on international relations and practitioners of realpolitik is seemingly all too evident to the leaders of Mozambique, Cameroon, Rwanda, Gabon and Togo.

There are two causes for optimism going forward. One is the flexible nature of the Commonwealth, which allows it to survive without threatening its members, especially the smaller ones. This is particularly valuable in the arena of co-operation necessary to meet global and individual state targets to tackle global warming. Such flexibility will enable the Commonwealth to develop rather than atrophy. Secondly, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales will bring his own particular quality of commitment and service to succeed that of the Queen when he, in due course, becomes Head of the Commonwealth—a decision agreed at the 2018 London Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting; it was not automatic.

Two further things are necessary. One is to nourish the Commonwealth organisations that facilitate relationships and outcomes at an entirely different level, from the Commonwealth Association of Tax Administrators to the Association of Commonwealth Universities and the Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association. Secondly, we should increase rather than decrease our support through the Foreign Office and Diplomatic Service for our international relations at this time. The threat of cuts to the Civil Service will, I hope, be prevented in the Foreign Office.

I hope that, going forward, Her Majesty’s Government will give powerful and tangible evidence of their engagement with member states of the Commonwealth, and that the depth of our commitment will match the warmth of our words.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Goodlad (Con): My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Howell on securing this debate and on his wise, perceptive remarks. He has personally made a distinguished contribution to the Commonwealth in various capacities. I also pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Marland’s work for the Commonwealth Business Council, whose activities have burgeoned under his leadership; I look forward to his speech. It is a great privilege to follow the wise words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark.

The Government’s recent UK Commonwealth Chair-In-Office Report tells an impressive story and is a comprehensive rebuttal of the case of those who say that the Commonwealth is an amorphous anachronism doomed to atrophy. The British Government’s role in supporting Commonwealth work in global health security, most recently during the pandemic, has been vital—especially in delivering vaccine doses, where there is still much more work to be done. In addition to allocating core funding for the secretariat, the Commonwealth Youth Programme, the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation, the Commonwealth Foundation and the Commonwealth of Learning, the Government have supported 32 other projects, from good governance and parliamentary accountability to countering violent extremism. Some may say that future government support for the secretariat should be accompanied by even more persuasive advice in the future than there has been in the past; I could not possibly comment.

The Lord Bishop of Guildford

The Lord Bishop of Guildford: My Lords, this summer sees the coming together of three significant international gatherings, following the restrictions of the pandemic years. One of them was the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda last week—some of the background to this debate. Another is the International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief next week in London. A third is the Lambeth Conference, bringing together bishops from all but three of the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion, which starts in late July. In each case, the leadership of these significant meetings is being provided from within these shores.

There are many parallels between the Commonwealth and the Anglican Communion, which is unsurprising, given our shared history. Both draw together autonomous units of nations and provinces. Both are held together by what the Prime Minister described last week as the

“invisible thread of shared values, history and friendship”

and what the Anglican Communion describes as our “bonds of affection”. Both have inevitable stresses and strains. Both need to work hard at developing a sense of mutual interdependence, not least because of the complexities of this nation’s imperialistic past—so graphically portrayed by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh—and the huge financial disparities between the members of each body. In particular, we in the UK need to recognise that although western secular values have a great deal to commend them, other nations can look on in horror on occasions at our individualism, materialism and religious indifference, and the breakdown of our family and community life.

One of those western secular values to which I am sure everyone in this House is committed is the theme of the meeting next week and will play a major part in the Lambeth Conference too. That is the human right not to be discriminated against, let alone persecuted, on the grounds of religion or belief. I have a particular interest in this subject, both historically and in the present, not least because we in the diocese of Guildford are twinned with Anglican dioceses in Pakistan and Nigeria—Commonwealth countries that come seventh and eighth respectively in an annual register of the nations in which it is most dangerous to be a Christian.

The other Commonwealth nation that appears in the top 10 is India, which reminds us that even functioning democracies can move in a sharply negative direction over a short period if religious intolerance, combined with a strongly nationalistic agenda, is really given its head. In India especially, that intolerance extends to Muslims and those of other faith traditions, although statistically it is Christians who bear considerably the greatest weight of religious intolerance around the globe.

The three regimes, of course, are very different. In Pakistan, a beautiful country I was privileged to visit in 2019, there is systemic discrimination against Christians and other minorities when it comes to further education and the availability of quality jobs, as well as a periodic misuse of the blasphemy laws and the all-too-regular shooting or lynching of Christians and others, especially those accused of converting from Islam. In Nigeria, where I am travelling in November, there are almost daily attacks by Fulani tribesmen on Christians in the middle belt—which sometimes, it should be acknowledged, provoke a measure of retaliation—along with the continuing problems with Boko Haram in the north, which are clearly religiously motivated, despite protestations to the contrary. The president of the Nigerian national humanist society has also just been given a 24-year prison sentence, off the back of alleged slurs against Islam.

In India, which I visited in 2017, both Christians and Muslims are suffering from incendiary rhetoric from some members of the ruling BJP, resulting in often violent and well-targeted attacks on Christians and other minorities and a plethora of anti-conversion laws, which ostensibly prohibit forced conversions but can all too easily be abused.

Here is where the Prime Minister and the British Government possibly missed a trick when it came to the first of those conferences. They rightly highlighted shared concerns, such as global warming and educational discrimination against women and girls—as we will also do at the Lambeth Conference—and addressed issues of food security in the wake of the war in Ukraine, but the issue of freedom of religion and belief seems hardly to have featured in those conversations, despite its terrifying and growing prevalence in the three Commonwealth nations with the largest populations of them all.

Persecution is persecution, whatever its cause, but with the sheer numbers involved there is no question but that persecution on the grounds of religion or belief is uniquely widespread and deadly. While I am delighted that we will be hosting the global conference on that theme next week, and I applaud the seriousness with which this is treated in this House and the other place, I also believe we need a joined-up approach that brings this to the fore in all our discussions with our Commonwealth and trading partners, so as to create a better and fairer world for all.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

The Earl of Sandwich (Cross Bench): We have heard a lot about the Commonwealth’s successes, but the principal success story is quite clear: the contribution of Her Majesty the Queen. Her role has been properly recognised through the Jubilee and, above all, from her own remarkable performance as an individual as well as a monarch. Where would the Commonwealth be without her? I therefore personally expect, and indeed look forward to, a more piano contribution from the UK in future. It was an enterprise started by this country—as the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, reminded us—but I see no reason why the UK should not retire a little more from the stage and encourage others to come forward. I am sure that the reappointment of the secretary-general will assist in that process. Prince Charles himself set the tone when a new Head of State replaced the Queen in Barbados last November; he said it was “a new beginning” and acknowledged the appalling atrocity of slavery. Anti-racism and decolonisation are rightly going to be continuing themes.

I also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, that we must see more effort from the Commonwealth on human rights and governance. This is the Minister’s proper area of responsibility, so could we do more about this? Will quiet bilateral diplomacy or a new trade agreement ever be enough, for example, to change Prime Minister Modi’s discrimination against minorities and the media in India? The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford has spoken on Pakistan in this respect.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con): At CHOGM in 2018 the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, mentioned the British Empire, the role of the Queen and history. I greatly respect the noble Lord and say to him that I have been Minister of State for the Commonwealth for five years. It has been a matter of great pride and honour to serve in that capacity, as well as in other areas, because the Commonwealth is about the here and now and the future. The fact that Rwanda, a country that does not have the history of the old empire, and other countries that have no history with what was the British Empire, wish to join, including one of the new members, is a sign of the vibrancy of the Commonwealth network of states.

At the start of CHOGM 2022, President Kagame said:

“The fact of holding this meeting in Rwanda, a new member with no historical connection to the British Empire, expresses our choice to continue re-imagining the Commonwealth, for a changing world.”

That underlines the perspective of many a Commonwealth country. I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, for qualifying that the decision for the Prince of Wales to succeed Her Majesty the Queen was not that of one country, Britain, but came from the consensus of all members of the Commonwealth. I was there at CHOGM when these discussions took place, and it is right that the Commonwealth is defined by the important issue of consensus.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark: Will the Minister say anything about the question of persecution raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: I still have about seven minutes on the clock and will certainly get to that. Human rights are an important agenda item. (…)

Turning, in response to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford, to the important issue of human rights, the communiqué noted that freedom of religion or belief is a cornerstone of democratic society. Indeed, the human rights language in the communiqué from CHOGM 2022 further reiterated the Commonwealth’s commitment to human rights enshrined in international instruments, underscored the vital role of a vibrant civil society, including human rights defenders, in protecting democracy and urged good co-operation between member countries and their respective national human rights institutions; and there is more specific to that.

(…) To all noble Lords in all parts of your Lordships’ House, and to the right reverend Prelates who bring into focus the moral compass of the responsibility we have—I pay tribute to the right reverend Prelates the Bishop of Southwark and the Bishop of Guildford, who have taken part today, for their direct accountability —I say that it is right that the Government are held to account. We look forward to your contribution to the four events later this week. I assure the House that we remain committed to the Commonwealth and wish to play our part as a partner in the Commonwealth.

Finally, the Commonwealth is about the here and now, but it is also, importantly, about the future and how we continue to strengthen economic resilience and security; to step up action on climate change; to become a force for good in standing up for human rights for all and for freedom of religion for those who are oppressed; and for the LGBT community, women’s rights, girls’ education and the Commonwealth family. There are differing perspectives and different periods of travel, and different pathways may be taken; but most importantly, as a network, it allows us, as a Commonwealth family of 56 countries, to come together for that common vision and common future.

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