Bishop Steven in the House of Lords
10 September 2021: This week, Bishop Steven has been on Prayer Duty in the House of Lords, reading daily prayers at the beginning of each sitting and contributing to daily business in the House on a range of subjects, including climate change, education and standards in public life.
On Tuesday, Bishop Steven asked the Government, in relation to a recent report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, about a need for a programme of public engagement on climate change:
My Lords, we all agree, I am sure, that the climate emergency is an immensely complex subject with many different facets. There is an urgent need and responsibility to educate and engage the public in responsible ways on the urgent priority of public and private action. Does the Minister agree that investment and a serious programme of public engagement are needed to combat climate change deniers, climate change delayers and those who say that there is no hope, and nothing can be done? What are the Government’s plans for this?
On Wednesday, the House of Lords debated the Environment Bill in the second day of the Report Stage. The Environment Bill seeks to bring about urgent action to combat environmental and climate crises by stimulating investment in green technology and setting long-term, legally binding environmental targets for the country. Bishop Steven is passionate about collective climate change action and took the opportunity to share this in the House of Lords and highlight the joint statement on climate change from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch.
He spoke in favour of Amendments 19 and 20 about the importance of consistency in commitment to the climate crisis across all government departments:
My Lords, I shall speak in favour of Amendments 19 and 20, and passionately so.
Many members of your Lordships’ House have spoken of the urgency of the crisis before us; just yesterday, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch issued a powerful joint statement. They appealed to those with “far-reaching responsibilities”—including ourselves—to “make short-term sacrifices to safeguard all our futures; become leaders in the transition to just and sustainable economies.”
There can be no exceptions.
Last week I was privileged to take part in an interdisciplinary gathering in Milton Keynes, which is part of my Diocese of Oxford, which brought together, through the agency of Citizens UK, a range of contributors on the climate crisis. The first speech of about 12 during the evening was the most memorable. It was from a 19-year-old woman who described how, when she was 16, she first encountered the news of the climate crisis. She was told—mistakenly, of course—that nothing could now be done, so serious was it, and that the world would end in ten years. The impact of this news was absolutely devastating to her mental health. She has moved on and is now active in climate campaigning, but her speech was a real eye-opener to the importance of engaging with future generations and those who are now young on this issue and all those with power and responsibility, indicating that they are part of our considerations.
With regard to Amendment 20, the Bill and the climate crisis need to be taken with equal seriousness across the whole of government. The submissions already made to your Lordships’ Select Committee on the Environment and Climate Change, of which I am privileged to be a member, indicate a catastrophic variation in the place these issues have on the agendas of major departments of state. These exceptions signal that this can be tolerated when the opposite is the case. Every part of national and local government, every church and charity, company, institution and household need to play their part, and that includes the MoD and the Treasury. As has been said, we need a fresh pair of economic spectacles.
Another contribution in the Milton Keynes seminar last week was a fine presentation from those planning the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, of which MK is in the centre. The environmental leaders in that venture are attempting to apply Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics as the foundation for the life of the arc and are viewing everything through that lens. Taxation is a key lever for government to drive environmental improvement, and I urge the Government to accept this amendment.
Bishop Steven also spoke in favour of Amendment 24 supporting the introduction of a target to halt the decline in species biodiversity by 2030:
My Lords, I also support Amendment 24 and related amendments. Again, I quote the unprecedented statement made yesterday by the Archbishop, Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch:
“We stand before a harsh justice: biodiversity loss, environmental degradation and climate change are the inevitable consequences of our actions, since we have greedily consumed more of the earth’s resources than the planet can endure.”
For that reason, we cannot solve these complex problems through good intentions alone. Independent scrutiny is absolutely vital. Therefore, I support the maximum possible independence for the office for environmental protection. Action on climate change and biodiversity will be challenging politically for every Government over the next three decades. We will face many difficult decisions. It is essential to build in independent assessment and challenge for the medium and long term.
Over the last three years, I have had the privilege to be part of the board of the Government’s Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation—as it happens, alongside the new chair of the office for environmental protection, in whom I have every confidence in that major role. One of the major threads running through the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation’s work—which, I believe, has been excellent—has been a strong ambiguity about its independence from government in terms of budgets and the appointment of its chair and board. The questions were present at every meeting, whether spoken or unspoken, and consumed a significant amount of energy. Reading the political runes at any given moment was, on balance, a distraction from the CDEI’s vital task.
As has been said, the OEP needs to command national and international confidence for the objectivity of its advice and recommendations. I join many other voices in urging the Government to build in greater independence along the lines of these amendments.
Thursday saw Bishop Steven highlight the progress of the Church of England and the Diocese of Oxford towards net zero. Bishop Steven asked the government about their plans to support the switch from fossil fuels to green energy suppliers for home heating.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. As your Lordships may be aware, the Church of England has declared a climate emergency and is aiming for net zero by 2030. In the diocese of Oxford, we are stewards of 470 parsonages and many other buildings. We have a lot of work to do, and a lot of investment is required to bring those buildings to net zero. Two things are preventing us making progress; we clearly need to spread the work over a decade. The first is knowing the Government’s plans for home heating and the second is the help and support that will be available from government for those changes. The system needs to be simple and sustainable and to carry confidence. When will we know the way forward?
Bishop Steven also contributed to a debate about standards in public life, the importance of accountability and transparency of those in senior positions, and drew on biblical examples of good leadership:
My Lords, it is a great privilege to take part in this debate and to follow the noble Lords who have spoken. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, for his leadership and introduction. I learned a great deal from the noble Lord while Bishop of Sheffield.
I suggest that improving standards in public life is a three-cornered stool. One leg of that stool is being neglected in the public conversation. It is right that we have the highest possible principles and standards. The Nolan principles have stood the test of time and I support their application to people and their extension to areas of technology. They are the first important leg. The second leg is the way in which we hold one another to account on those principles, which is where I guess that the majority of this debate will be focused. Others are better qualified to speak on this than me. Those ways need to be thorough and consistent with the Nolan principles.
There is an important third leg to this stool, which I want to call formation and support. How do we intentionally grow a community of diverse public servants who are ethically formed and equipped, and have the inner capacity to be honest, open, objective, accountable and selfless? How do we form boards and cultures which are able to work in those ways? They do not simply happen. How do we offer ongoing support and learning to those who exercise high public office and have to cope with greater and greater complexity, pressure and temptation?
According to the great biblical tradition, there is one central insight on leadership in communities which is foundational and counter to much contemporary teaching on leadership. It is that the exercise of leadership in communities is very, very, difficult. The greater the power and authority we are given, the more our character is tested. Part of our humanity is that we are fallible; politicians fall short and so do churches and Church leaders. Being honest about our fallibility creates a much better climate for public discourse. Remember the biblical stories of Abraham and Sarah, of David, Ahab and Jezebel and of Peter. Last Friday the Church remembered Gregory the Great, a Pope in the 7th century. Gregory’s Pastoral Rule, his legacy to all the centuries, is a masterpiece on the complexity of leadership and the need to balance the inner and outer life. For centuries, translated by King Alfred, it was the foundation of good government in Europe.
So, what are the ways in which this Government and Parliament can recognise the need for this formation and support and develop it? First, is it possible to make a similar investment in training and support in the Nolan principles as the recent welcome investment in relationships and conduct in the workplace? Secondly, is it possible to ensure confidential networks of support across government departments, especially for those in senior roles, given the stresses and strains they carry? We need to nurture and look after our leaders. Thirdly, is it possible to build formation and training on ethical principles into every team and board so that, year by year, we tend to and grow this aspect of our common life?
This week, the House of Lords unusually sat on a Friday. Bishop Steven spoke in a debate on the Education Bill (Assemblies), which would bring about an end to the requirement for state schools without a religious character to hold collective worship in assemblies.
My Lords, I do warmly welcome this debate. As others have said, it is very timely that it is raised. I thank the noble Baroness Burt for her careful introduction and other Lords and Ladies who have spoken, particularly my distinguished predecessor-but-one, Lord Harries with whom I think I am about to disagree.
Worship and spirituality are a vital part of what it is means to be human and it is absolutely right for all the reasons that have been said that this is carefully reviewed and possibly some changes introduced.
I think my reason for in conscious finding this bill difficult goes back to my experience of leading assemblies as a local parish priest in Halifax many years ago. and putting a great deal of time and energy into rehearsing the parable of the good Samaritan, the story of Joseph, the story of Moses and only for the otherwise extremely good and gifted headteacher in the school to reinterpret my assembly with the phrase “Of course, what the vicar really means is don’t run in the corridors and pick up the litter in the playground.”
Without a serious faith tradition, it’s a reduction of fantastic values that had been articulated to simple practical motifs which I fear is the danger of the bill like this.
There are many benefits of collective worship in schools: a time to pause and reflect, to gather community, to mourn in times of tragedy as we’ve seen recently, to foster common values, to celebrate festivals – not just Christian – and to build religious literacy which is vital.
Although there is some evidence to the contrary, there is other evidence that suggests that the present arrangement works well as many schools and children will testify.
The noble Baroness and others have argued that the bill would liberate school to use the valuable time gained to cover themes such as the environment, health, relationships and self-esteem. But all of these are regularly part of good collective worship in the present pattern within the context of the great faith tradition. If the Bill is passed one effect may be to make anything which is more than secular assemblies not legal and contested in our schools.
I fear, one of the risks of the bill, is that it will weaken the protection around this valuable space for reflection from the school day and that the life of our schools will move in an ever more utilitarian direction. And children will grow up being ignorant to the possibilities and depth of the faith traditions which, as the noble Lord Lilley has said, have formed our society and our culture and the societies of the world where faith plays, still, a massive role.
So, is it right in a pluralist society that worship remains wholly or mainly Christian? I believe it is and for this reason: the alternative to rooting collective worship in the Christian tradition is to root it in a largely invented, contemporary gathered syncretic tradition which lacks depth or authority, which is unconnected to any faith community, and which will quickly be abandoned.
I think the effect of the bill may be to replace a tolerant, humane and hospitable Christian faith as the main strand of worship in our schools, combined with other faith traditions, with a largely manufactured cluster of ideas with few roots in stories or culture and varying enormously from school to school.
I don’t think the majority of the nation’s children and young people should be denied the experience of spiritual, moral, social and cultural development connected to a living tradition which research shows they value. It is right that we are having this debate and I hope many conversations from it, but I urge your Lordships not to progress.