I beg to move,
That this House has considered Christianity in society.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell.
The Church and Christianity, and the interpretation of the Bible, have been in the news more than normal as of late. Recently, the census showed that fewer people identify as Christian. The Church of England has been debating well-known ethical teaching that is now considered controversial in a liberal, modern United Kingdom. Many institutions seem to want to erase any references to their Christian heritage. The London School of Economics recently stated that it would be dropping Easter, Christmas and Michaelmas from its academic calendar. This Easter, the giant bunny will no doubt return to my Westminster hotel lobby, but I am sure there will be no sign of a cross.
In conversations everywhere, the Lord’s name is taken in vain and no one bats an eyelid. Rainbows were long understood to represent God’s promise to never again flood the Earth, but I wonder how many people are even aware of that now. Religious literacy has been declining for decades. Every Christmas and Easter, the newspapers will report some new poll showing that fewer and fewer people understand even the most basic claims of the Christian faith, and the basic historical and legal facts about our Christian heritage and constitution are receding from our collective cultural understanding. The question is, does it matter? I want to suggest two reasons why it does: first, for constitutional and cultural reasons; and secondly, from a faith point of view.
Throughout British history, the Christian Church has pioneered some of the most profound and positive social changes ever to bless these islands. Here, as in many other parts of the world, Christians led the way with universal education and healthcare. As the historian Tom Holland and many others have recognised, so many of the laws and values that we now take for granted have their roots firmly in the Christian faith. It was the biblical idea of God as the ultimate law giver that underpinned the Magna Carta, providing the foundation stone of individual freedom and establishing the principle that no one—not even the King—is above the law.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, and I commend him for bringing this subject to the House, especially at Easter time. He speaks of our Christian heritage. We stand here in the House of Commons, where, for many of us, William Wilberforce is the most esteemed parliamentarian to have graced these Benches. Does my hon. Friend agree that it was Wilberforce’s Christian faith that motivated him to battle for years—even decades—to challenge the heinous industry of individual slavery and to see the abolition of that trade in his generation?
I thank my hon. Friend for her contribution and for her continued support; I was actually going to mention William Wilberforce in my next sentence.
It was the Christian faith that moved John Locke to develop our understanding of religious toleration. It was the Christian faith that compelled William Wilberforce, who my hon. Friend has just mentioned, to fight the slave trade, set up homes for the elderly and establish the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. It was the Christian faith that moved Lord Shaftesbury to campaign for better working conditions and provisions for the mentally ill. It was Christianity that inspired Hannah More to set up free schools for the poor. Again, it was Christianity that prompted Josiah Wedgwood to revolutionise working conditions in his factories. It was the Christian faith that led Elizabeth Fry to campaign for prison reform.
I commend the hon. Member for bringing this debate to the House. There is no doubt that it was people motivated by Christian beliefs who achieved all those social advances. It was also people who claimed to be Christians who introduced all those evils into the United Kingdom’s society in the first place.
I thank the hon. Member for his contribution. Obviously, lots of people throughout the entirety of history may not have used their faith or interpretation of the Bible in the way that I and many Christians today believe they should have. However, the list of people I just read out did some wonderful things.
My hon. Friend is to be commended for bringing forward this debate, and I support everything he says. This building, the bastion of democracy, is full of Christian iconography, particularly at the other end near the House of Lords—perhaps they are closer to God than we are.
I want to ask my hon. Friend one question. There will inevitably be pressure for us to disestablish the Church of England. I am not an Anglican, but the fact that we have an established Church is an important symbol of our commitment to Christianity. Will my hon. Friend say a word about the importance of keeping the established Church established?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his contribution. As my speech goes on, I will of course make that point.
Many of our laws are based around the tablets given to Moses on Mount Sinai and the ethical teaching of the Old and New Testaments. The great biblical institution of marriage is recognised by social science for the emotional and material blessing it brings to spouses and their children. The Christian faith is woven into the social and physical fabric of the United Kingdom. The beautiful and symbolic church buildings across this land, with their tall steeples reaching for the heavens, are part of our history and culture, not just our skyline.
The place in which we stand took its name from the noble abbey church of St Peter’s—the minster in the west. The bishops play their part in the House of Lords, reflecting hundreds of years of having an established Church. Prayers are said every day in the Chambers of both Houses. Above each entrance to Central Lobby, the patron saints from all four parts of our United Kingdom are celebrated in murals. The tiled floor contains the words of psalm 127:
“Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain.”
At the coronation, His Majesty the King will be anointed in the name of God as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, as well as Head of State. St Edward’s crown, which will be placed on his head, contains a cross and orb symbolising the King and our world under the authority of God. Many people who do not have a personal faith in Christ still value this history and the benefits it has given us.
Of course, some want to rewrite history, but everywhere we look we see our Christian heritage, and nowhere more than in this place. It matters to our national life; it is the air we breathe. Although many deride and misrepresent it, the reality is that it has been a source of great benefit. Much of what makes Britain great stems from that heritage, and many others from around the world recognise that. Why do we not? We should be proud of our Christian history and values. It would be a constitutional disaster to try to erase it—even worse, it would be a spiritual disaster.
That brings me to the main reason why we should cherish the Christian faith, because I, like many others, believe it is true. Let me speak of the basics of Christianity. The foundational premise of the gospel is that we are all sinners. We do wrong: wrong against God and wrong against one another, and we know it—I know it. I am not proud of it, but it is true. If we were all really truthful with ourselves, we would all admit that we are not the good people we like to think we are. We might not all be out stealing and assaulting people; however, I am sure we have all said things that we wish we had not said and done things we wish we had not done. We have been unkind instead of kind and greedy instead of generous. We have broken promises instead of keeping them. We have told lies instead of telling the truth. We have done the things as parents or partners that we know we should not have.
People in the Old Testament covered their sins with sacrifices—their prized lamb or goat sacrificed to God. However, God knew we would never be able to meet his hopes for our lives, which is why the events of Easter happened. John 3:16, probably the most famous verse in the Bible, says:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his…only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
At Christmas, we celebrate Christ’s birth. He came into the world as a unique person—one who was fully human like us, but also divine and therefore perfect and sinless. On Good Friday, we remember the cross where Jesus was sacrificed to cover our sins. On Easter Sunday, we celebrate the fact that he rose from the dead to sit at the right-hand side of God, defeating death for the sake of everyone who believes in him. The Christians who have had such a great influence on the life of this nation knew those things to be true because they are written in the pages of the world’s best-selling book, the Holy Bible. Those of us who believe in that book might not perfectly understand it—sadly, we might even sometimes misuse it—but it is still true and still perfect, and with the help of God’s Holy Spirit, anyone can understand it.
Christianity is not a religion only open to clever people. In fact, one reason why the Christian faith is sometimes derided and rejected is that it is disproportionately a religion for the kind of people that elites look down on—the poor, the weak, the uneducated. But as the Bible itself says, God uses the weak “to shame the strong”. The Bible is a book of truth, love and grace—a book written by God through his chosen people; a book that gives someone like me the promise of eternal life and wise guidance about how to be a better person.
I became a Christian in my mid-30s. I knew of Christ many years before, but never thought I was good enough, and I was right—I wasn’t. The Bible is shockingly plain that we cannot make ourselves good enough for God, no matter how many good deeds we try to do. But that is the beauty of Christianity and the Easter story. Forgiveness is given to us by God, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. This good news is offered to everyone, everywhere. All our sins past and present are forgiven once we make that decision.
It is a wonderful feeling to be forgiven, blessed and certain of the promise of eternal life. It is wonderful knowing that my maker is with me at all times, right here, right now. He is with me in my triumphs—there have been a few—but, more importantly, in the dark times too. I could not do this job without my faith. I would have had some lonely walks over Westminster bridge to my hotel after a long and difficult day without God at my side.
I am not sure how this speech will be received. Some people are very hostile to the idea of Christian politicians, so let me try to reassure them. The two greatest instructions are taught in Luke 10:27. Jesus said:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbour as yourself.”
He said that my neighbour is everyone in here, from all parties, and everyone out there too. That does not mean that I have to agree with them—thank goodness for that—but it does mean that I must love them.
My hon. Friend says that he is not sure how his speech will be received. I have been in this House for about 13 years and I have never been more moved when listening to a speech. He echoes so much of my own experience. I became a Christian when I was 27, and it changed my life. It gave my life meaning and purpose. As he says, it is wonderful to know that we are so loved by someone who was willing even to send his son to die on a cross, and would have done so had we been the only person in the world.
I want to put on the record my appreciation of my hon. Friend’s bravery in speaking so boldly and clearly about his faith. I believe it echoes the faith of many others in this place and across this country. It humbles me to consider that perhaps over 13 years I should have been bolder and braver, but I thank him for what he has done and said today.
I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) is making a very moving and beautifully written speech, which we never normally hear in this place. I think that a lot of politicians who may have religious belief are frightened of talking about it because they think that they will put themselves on a pedestal and that, when inevitably they fail—or, if the worst comes to the worst, there is some scandal—they will be doubly denounced. However, I am not sure that that is a good reason for not talking up about one’s faith. In talking about his faith, my hon. Friend admits that he constantly fails—that he is a sinner and all those sorts of things—so, even if he does fail in the future, that is absolutely no reason for not talking about his faith publicly.
I thank my right hon. Friend. I have known about Christianity all my life—I was brought up in a Christian home—but I did not want to make the commitment, because I never thought that I was good enough. I thought that the mistakes I made would be too many and that a Christian person should be this wonderful person with a halo. As one learns about the Bible, one realises that that is not true. It is because I make mistakes that I became a Christian.
I hope that I have not offended anybody. I hope that I have given a true account of the need for Christianity as a nation and as individuals. The west as a whole is under threat from many foreign aggressors, and many a commentator is saying that the west is under threat from itself. Whether we see Christianity as part of our history, or whether we embrace it as our own personal faith, it matters to all of us. Whether or not we are believers, our way of life is built on Christianity, and I believe that to let it fall by the wayside, thinking that it does not matter, would be a terrible mistake.
I thank hon. Members for listening. I hope that some of those watching and listening have learned something new about the great history of our nation, but most of all I hope that they have heard the Christian message of faith, hope and love, and that some of them might start on the same wondrous journey as I did, with God at their side. I look forward to hearing colleagues’ thoughts.
I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for my late arrival; I was delayed in the Chamber. I congratulate him on securing a debate on this subject, which is extremely important and too often neglected. His efforts to highlight the value to our society of faith, and Christian faith in particular, are to be commended.
It can often seem that the Christian faith is in retreat, and certainly recent statistics about church attendance seem to support that, but that is nothing new for the Christian Church. Particularly concerning is the lack of knowledge about the Christian faith, which was in part why, along with my hon. Friend, I recently held a debate in this Chamber about religious education. I hope that the House will allow me to reflect on my upbringing.
Being a child of the 1950s, like many I attended Sunday school. Thinking back to my school days at Welholme Junior School in Grimsby, I would say that around half our class, which at that time had about 35 pupils, regularly attended Sunday school—many of them at my church, All Saints’ in Grimsby, or the neighbouring Methodist church, which at that time had a thriving congregation. At Sunday school, we were of course introduced to the basic tenets of the faith. Importantly, that continued with daily assemblies at school, and I still recall some of the prayers used by my headteacher at Welholme and, later, at Havelock School in Grimsby.
Sadly, too many schools these days neglect the religious aspect of education. Of course, the approach taken by schools, and indeed by our churches, has had to evolve, but I wonder how many headteachers take the approach of the head at my daughter’s school. I recall attending a parents evening in what would have been the mid-1990s where, when questioned about religious education, he said that he did not regard the school’s role as to indoctrinate children, but to bring them to the threshold of faith—if only that were the case today.
Without knowledge of the Christian faith—a faith whose teachings form the basis of our laws and so many other foundations of our society—it is not possible to appreciate our history, culture and so much more. It is part of the glue that holds our society together. So many of our schools have their roots in the churches that established schools and charitable institutions.
I am a worshipping member of the Church of England. Like many in its congregation up and down the country, I am often frustrated and feel that it has lost its way. Of course, it should do good works—supporting schools and so on, as I mentioned—but I sometimes think that it is neglecting what must surely be its core job: spreading the gospel. It needs to kick into touch the endless, tortuous debates about sexuality and comments on the minutiae of Government policy and start getting people into its churches to hear a clear Christian message.
I absolutely agree that the core message of the Church has to be sharing the gospel of Christ and the good news, as we have heard today. Does my hon. Friend agree that many Christians across the country are worried about sharing their faith and even publicly quoting from the Bible because of what the law says? In fact, by law, religion or belief is a protected characteristic, as acknowledged by the Equality Act 2010. An expression of faith should not be given any less respect than any other protected characteristic. There is not a hierarchy, but does my hon. Friend agree that that is often how Christians feel? Christians are not asking for any special privilege when expressing their faith—they are just asking not to be at a disadvantage when they express their views and beliefs compared with other groups in society.
My hon. Friend was talking about the way that Church leaders speak up. I remember asking for a meeting of MPs with the Bishop of Lincoln, and at the top of a long list of subjects he wanted to talk to us about was the widening of the A15. I just wonder whether our Churches—whether we are talking about Catholics or bishops—should concentrate more on talking about spirituality. Although Christians might be in a minority in this country, people of faith are still in a very big majority—that includes Muslims, Hindus and many others. Does my hon. Friend agree that we want to hear more from our bishops about the deep value and well of spirituality, in addition to all the good causes they talk about, which are perfectly valuable in themselves?
I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend. I can recall many of those meetings from when I acted as his constituency agent in years gone by, and it would have been rather nice had they concentrated on spiritual matters. Having said that, I believe that, on the whole, the Church of England does speak for the decent silent majority who recognise that the Church plays an important part in society and, although they may not attend church regularly, like to think that it is there.
I am reading a book called “God in Number 10”; other Members may have obtained a copy when it was launched here in the House a few months ago. Its author is Mark Vickers—I emphasise that he is, to the best of my knowledge, no relation.
Yes, indeed. In the section on Stanley Baldwin, I was struck by a reference that he made. The former Prime Minister reportedly said to King George VI that the average working man—I am sure he would say woman, as well, if he were alive today—might not go to church him or herself, but was glad to know that his monarch did. I suggest to colleagues that the average working man and woman probably think the same about their Member of Parliament. We should not be afraid to “do God”, as Alastair Campbell didn’t say. I certainly get more criticism for being a Conservative than for being a Christian.
Incidentally, another extract from the book refers to a comment by Charles Gore, who was Bishop of Oxford between 1911 and 1919. Apparently, he said in a letter to The Times that he doubted that
“the cohesion of the Church of England was ever more seriously threatened than it is now.”
Well, he could have said that yesterday, rather than a century ago.
We are blessed in this country in that we can—despite the thoughts of some keyboard warriors and others—practise our faith in safety, with few exceptions. As we know, that is not the case in many parts of the world. I praise the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) in her role as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. We should welcome the fact that the Prime Minister, and indeed his predecessor, made such an appointment. I also commend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for all his work with his all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief.
Faith plays an important part in the lives of billions of people across the globe, and we must do all we can to ensure that they can practise their faith in safety. Here in the UK, I sincerely hope that the Christian faith lasts for very many more centuries to come.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, and thank you for getting me in at the last moment. I also thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for bringing forward this debate.
Today’s debate is timely, given the approach of Easter. We are also now in the holy month of Ramadan, and Passover and Vaisakhi will soon be upon us as well. I declare an interest as somebody who was brought up in the Church of England, although I was told off by a local vicar last year for not attending regularly. He has a good memory, because I think the last time I went was some years ago.
I pay tribute to the role of churches in my community, and it is timely to reflect on the wider values of faith communities in British history. Certainly in Reading, and in Woodley, which is the other town I represent, there is an enormous contribution from our local faith community. That includes churches and many other faiths. I am grateful for this opportunity to thank them for their outstanding community work at this time. I will give the example of the Whitley Community Development Association, which has benefited enormously. That group, which is led by residents in a very disadvantaged part of our community, regularly receives donations of food and other support from local churches and other faith communities. They have had support from a gurdwara as far away as Slough, which is certainly far away from a Reading perspective, although perhaps not for people outside Berkshire. I thank all those churches and other faith communities for getting involved. Other food bank support in our area includes the Trussell Trust and ReadiFood, which is heavily involved with local churches, and I thank them, as many families and pensioners are suffering enormously in the cost of living crisis.
Other notable community organisations that have a religious link include CommuniCare, which carries out very useful advice work for many residents. It has been a privilege to visit its office on a number of occasions. There are literally queues of people waiting outside in the morning to be helped by that charity. Once again, I thank local church members for supporting it. Indeed, I thank other faith communities and people of no faith for their work in community organisations.
I also pay tribute to a practical demonstration of people’s faith that is truly humbling. In our town, as in many parts of the country, there is a terrific problem with homelessness. I have been privileged to visit New Beginnings, which is a wonderful community organisation that takes in people who are street homeless, and offers them a warm meal and a place to stay. It has converted a former pub, turning it into a place of refuge for people who are in deep trouble, and it offers them practical help. That was set up by a number of practising Christians, and there is a strong church element to it.
Sadaka is a similar organisation that has Muslim heritage. Equally, a number of practising Muslims wanted to show their support to the wider community. In a truly amazing demonstration of that support, they offer food regularly on a Saturday morning. It has no property of its own and is looking for one, so if anybody has a spare property in Reading to give them, we would be delighted to accept that.
I appreciate that time is limited, but two other forms of help are worth mentioning as practical demonstrations of peoples’ faith in my area and across the country. The first is wider help for the vulnerable—I mention Street Pastors in particular—and the second is the long-standing work of church and faith communities in supporting international development. I particularly want to thank CAFOD—the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development. I am not a Catholic, but I am hugely supportive of its work, and it has reached out to me since I became an MP in 2017. There are many other groups, such as the charities that make up the Disasters Emergency Committee, including Oxfam, Islamic Relief and a number of others, that do incredible work. That is motivated by people’s faith and belief in supporting other human beings at a time of great need. Those charities deserve huge support and appreciation for their incredibly valuable work.
There are many other groups that I have not been able to mention. I appreciate this opportunity to say some words of thanks and encouragement to the faith communities —particularly Christians, as they are the subject of the debate—that play such an important role across many fields. I also thank Support U, a charity that supports LGBT people in our area; I have had the privilege of working with that absolutely fantastic organisation.
Thank you for allowing me to take part in today’s debate, Mr Mundell, and I again thank the hon. Member for Don Valley for securing it. It has been a wonderful opportunity to thank many hard-working and motivated people whose faith is at the heart of what they do.
It is a real pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Mundell. I am pleased to begin today’s summing up, which will not be politically based, as it often is in Westminster Hall debates, because this has not been the usual type of debate and there has been a significant degree of consensus.
I want to present a slightly different view, and I say this as a lifelong committed Christian who shares many of the values that have been expressed. We need to be careful about how we talk about the history and future of Christianity in our nations and elsewhere. As I indicated in my intervention, although there is no doubt that people motivated by Christianity have been responsible for extraordinary acts of kindness, courage, bravery and selflessness, from the days of Christ himself, we cannot hide from the fact that people who claim to be acting in accordance with Christian teaching have been responsible for some of the most heinous acts ever committed on God’s earth.
Slavery was set up by people who claimed that it was God’s will. Apartheid was set up and maintained by people who claimed that it was God’s will. We have seen acts of cruelty and barbarity during wars and crusades throughout the Christian era on earth. They were carried out by so-called Christians, but I find that impossible to reconcile with any of the teachings of Jesus, or indeed anything else among the teachings of the Church.
I had the good fortune to spend five years on the court of governors of the University of St Andrews. On the day that it had its annual chapel service in memory of the founders and current benefactors, we would go outside as soon as that was done. Just outside St Salvator’s chapel, the initials “PH” are built into the pavement, and we would have a memorial service there. Patrick Hamilton was a devout Christian, and the stones mark the spot where he was slowly roasted alive by another group of devout Christians because he was devoutly the wrong kind of Christian. Later in the history of St Andrews, the tables were turned, and the other form of devout Christians were starved to death and thrown out the windows of St Andrews castle.
Tales of such barbarity between Christians have been going on for almost as long as Christianity has existed. I say that not to suggest that Christianity has been an evil influence on the world, as some people suggest, but when we talk about all the good that it has brought, we also have to be willing to recognise that it has not been a one-sided story. We have to recognise that many people across the world still find it difficult to break the bond between Christianity and slavery, colonisation, persecution and empire building—the exploitation of other lands and their people. The people responsible for those crimes were not acting in a Christian way, but in the minds of a lot of our brothers and sisters across the world, there is still an association between Christianity and the darker side of their history.
I do not accept the concept of anywhere being a Christian country. It is a matter of fact, certainly for most of our recent recorded history, that all our countries have been led by people who purported to be Christians, but that is not the same thing as being a Christian country. I point out to the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) that while he is rightly proud of a lot of the history and heritage to which he referred, a lot of it is not the heritage of all of us who attend this place; it is a heritage of one nation in the United Kingdom.
Magna Carta, for example, is an exclusively English document. We should not mention Magna Carta without recognising that, by today’s standards, anyone who published it would be arrested because it was one of the most antisemitic documents that has ever been produced. It was very much of its day. While we might celebrate the liberties that it gave to some people, we have to recognise that for Jewish people in England at that time, Magna Carta was not going to liberate them from anywhere. The same is true, coincidentally, for the Claim of Right for Scotland because, by today’s standards, that is an extraordinarily anti-Catholic document.
Much of the heritage that the hon. Member spoke about is, indeed, a rich heritage that anyone is entitled to be proud of. It is also not the heritage of this Parliament. It might be part of the heritage of many of the buildings in which this Parliament sits, but it is a heritage of one of its predecessor Parliaments: the English Parliament, which, with the Scottish Parliament, was combined by the union of the Parliaments. In fact, technically, the United Kingdom Parliament has been going since only the early 1800s. While we can talk about the heritage of the building, we should not make the mistake of thinking that the institution that now uses this building necessarily inherits all that heritage.
As one example, the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) mentioned the religious iconography that we see in many places around here, and that is absolutely correct. However, the legacy of John Knox in my country was to destroy hundreds of years-worth of religious iconography. When we talk about Christian heritage as it is applied in this place, if this place had been in Scotland, a lot of the treasured iconography would have been destroyed. Again, it would have been Christian iconography being destroyed by people who said it was a Christian thing to do.
I certainly agree with one of the most poignant parts of the speech by the hon. Member for Don Valley, when he said he could not do this job without his faith. That is one thing with which I can wholeheartedly agree. I could not do anything that I have done in my life without my faith, and anybody of genuine belief in any of the faith traditions would say that.
I want to put on the record that, in almost 31 years as an elected politician, I have never felt under any pressure from anybody to speak or vote in a way that went against my Christian conscience. I know some of my colleagues have found it very difficult, but I have never found it difficult to separate what my faith tells me I should do in the way that I run my life and thinking that it then gives me the right to legislate over how other people run their lives. I remember the difficulties that some of my family and friends had when I supported the scrapping of section 28 many years ago, because the Catholic Church at that point was against scrapping section 28. I took the view that the Catholic Church tells me and I try to follow the teaching about how I practise my own sexuality, but it does not give me a right to legislate as to how anyone else practises theirs, any more than it would give me the right to legislate to say, “You have to go to mass on a Sunday, and you are not allowed to eat meat on Good Friday or Ash Wednesday.”
In fact, I find that my Christian beliefs attract not nearly as much animosity on social media as some people’s do, but any abuse I get on account of my faith on social media tends to come from other people who claim to be Christians. I do not think I have ever had any kind of religious-based abuse from anybody who did not make it clear that they claim to be a Christian of some kind.
Hon. Members have spoken about, for example, the decline in respect for not only Christianity generally, but the displaying of recognition of the great feasts. It saddens me that most Christians do not realise that we are coming up to the most important day of the year. Easter in the Christian tradition is significantly more important than Christmas, but we would not think it from looking at the way it is celebrated, or not. The decline in respect for Easter, and, indeed, for the true spirit of Christmas, started long before there was any noticeable number of people in these islands who professed other faiths. It probably started in days when 80% to 90% of the population would have described themselves as being Christian.
Essentially, although this is maybe too deep a subject to go into just now, the decline in Christianity that we see in the United Kingdom has been caused by Christians giving up, losing interest or just stopping being particularly concerned about it. It has not been caused by outside influences. It is a problem that has been created here within our own Christian faiths, and it can be addressed only from within Christian faiths.
There was some discussion during this debate that perhaps Church leaders should focus on the spiritual and religious message and not be talking so much about other things. I cannot speak for people of other faiths, but as a Catholic living in Scotland, I certainly have not noticed a shortage of statements from the leaders of the Catholic Church in Scotland in which they extol the essential spirituality of our faith or in which they continue to remind us what Easter, Christmas and a number of other days are really about, for example.
I have to wonder whether people who get uncomfortable when church leaders comment on social matters are uncomfortable really about the fact that their church leaders are telling them that what they are doing, the way they are acting, is not in keeping with the teaching of their faith. Certainly when I look at the principles of Catholic social teaching—it is one of the things that drive me in this place—I find it difficult. I would not challenge people’s sincerity for a minute; I can only assume that those who promote some of the things that I see in this place feel that they can reconcile that to Christian social teaching and to Catholic social teaching. But—I am sorry—I find it very difficult to make that reconciliation.
Perhaps what we need to do is to recognise that how people promote their Christianity can draw people into the Church or push people away. If people speak of Christianity in one way and act in a different way, that is always going to give us a problem. I have never found a passage anywhere, in any part, of the Bible where these words appear: “Suffer the little children to come unto me, unless they came here in a small boat.”
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Mundell. I thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for his efforts in securing the debate. As I am shadow Minister for local Government and faith, it is my joy and privilege to praise and talk up the vital, meaningful work of the countless religious groups that we have across the UK, especially during this time of year, which is, as has been mentioned, a special, holy time for many religions. Easter is upon us. Last night, I joined the other members of the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims as they broke fast in the Speaker’s House. I look forward next week to hearing more about and seeing Jewish traditions around the marking of Passover in the UK and across the world.
In my constituency of Luton North, the interfaith community is long established and a source of cohesion and strength. The Luton Council of Faiths received an award from the late Queen for its important—vital—work on faith but, importantly, community cohesion as well. I mention this interfaith work because everybody has talked about their background and I grew up in not just a mixed ethnicity, race and heritage household, but a mixed faith household, both Buddhist and Christian. When I see scenes such as those that we saw last night at Manchester Cathedral, with more than 1,000 people of all faiths and none breaking fast and coming together, welcoming each other into the cathedral in much the same way as the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) talked about— opening the doors—it is to be welcomed and celebrated.
As we approach Holy Week, when Christians across the UK and the world will reflect on both the sombre and the celebratory nature of the Easter story, it is right that we reflect, too, on their value in our society. They are moral guides, whether they are bishops leading on pressing ethical issues in the House of Lords or peacekeepers in struggling communities. Particular examples come to mind: the former Bishop of Kensington providing comfort to the traumatised survivors and relatives following the Grenfell tragedy, and providing leadership in challenging the injustices and continued injustices that have been exposed; the retired Bishop of Liverpool, who did not leave the side of those affected by the Hillsborough disaster throughout endless let-downs, setbacks and injustices; and Pastor Mick, who has used his life experiences of violence and addiction to set up the Church on the Street and serve vulnerable people in Burnley.
We all know that, beneath those who make the headlines, many more Christians are working quietly and thanklessly on the ground, in all our constituencies, to support those who have fallen through the gaps of poverty and misfortune. Their generosity and compassion became most evident during the pandemic, when, alongside all people of faith and those of none, people relied on churches, mosques, synagogues, gurdwaras, mandirs and temples to get the message of public health and public safety out, to keep their communities fed and to meet a variety of other needs.
The hon. Member is giving a very powerful speech. Does she agree that the circumstances she is describing, whereby people of a variety of faiths and people of no particular faith have all come together for the common good, are a reminder that although many of us would hold fast to what we regard as Christian values, those values are not exclusively Christian? If we recognised that a lot of those values are shared worldwide by people of many different faiths, maybe we would get on better than we do just now.
I thank the hon. Member for that intervention. It is always important to note where we share values—and that always plays to our strengths.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) made a powerful point about the vital support that churches and charities provide on a non-judgmental basis not just to Christians, but to their wider communities and everybody who needs support. Churches and Christian organisations have been stepping forward where the state has largely stepped back for over a decade, and I see examples of that in my constituency. When we had fires in tower blocks, St Luke’s in Leagrave provided warm banks, despite the fact that its bills are going through the roof. Christchurch Bushmead, which is at the centre of our community, has provided support for those in need. We all know about the food banks in our constituencies that are run from churches by Christian charities. As food prices climb, energy costs soar and wages fall, we cannot expect the need for food banks to diminish any time soon.
There are also the night shelters. They are less typical at this time of year, but every winter Christian organisations go above and beyond to provide warmth and shelter for homeless people. They do so not because they have an abundance of money, space or resources, but because their faith compels them to do and give what they can. I note that hon. Members have mentioned and recommended books throughout the debate, and I would love to take the opportunity to recommend a book co-written by my dear friend and the chief executive of the Christian charity Jubilee+, Natalie Williams, entitled “The Myth of the Undeserving Poor”. We can add that to our reading list for the Easter recess.
Vital support, including the debt services provided by organisations such as Christians Against Poverty, is long standing but has never been so needed as it is now. CAP partners with churches of all denominations around the UK to offer personal budgeting courses and employment support, helping people to break free from the paralysing chains of debt. I will never forget the personal testimony that I heard from CAP when it came to Parliament to speak to parliamentarians about the vital work it does.
That is just a brief selection of Christian charities working domestically. Globally, there are organisations fighting bravely for religious freedoms and human rights, and tackling poverty and famine. Colleagues will be aware of the fearless work of Open Doors, which works in some of the most dangerous regions of the world to serve persecuted Christians. Over Easter, we must keep in mind worshippers and believers in places such as North Korea, Nigeria, China, Hong Kong, Afghanistan and many more, who will risk their lives to worship God at this time.
I pay tribute to International Justice Mission, which works internationally to end modern slavery; Tearfund, which has been providing disaster relief for over 50 years; and Christian Aid, which continues to lead progressive and powerful campaigns on the climate emergency. Despite how needed and important their campaigns are, such organisations are struggling. The cost of living crisis has meant that, while demand is higher than ever for food, shelter and financial support, the public’s capacity to donate has declined. The fact that wages are falling far beneath inflation is forcing ordinary working people to cut back where they can. For many, that means reducing or ending charitable giving. This is where we need Government action.
I ask the Minister to go back to her team and other Government Departments, and look at what more can be done to protect our churches and charities from further financial struggle. Stronger interventions on energy costs and business rates would be a very good place to start. After 13 years of Conservative Government, where does the Minister think our country would be without the safety net provided by Christians and other faith groups? If families, children, and those out of work or struggling with addiction had only the Government to rely on, what state would our economic and social health be in? She should ask herself, honestly, whether the Government have allowed themselves to become complacent in presuming that faith groups will always be able to step forward and make up for state neglect and failure. On the contributions of Christians to fighting global issues of injustice, will the Minister update us on efforts to return the level of overseas aid to 0.7%?
This Easter, I will be celebrating the inspiring Christians around me in Luton North; the church leaders, their congregations and communities across the UK; and the charities working here and abroad to serve humanity. We can all be inspired and grateful for the hugely powerful impact that Christians have in our society, but we must never be ignorant of what they need from Government or overconfident that they will always be able to clean up our mistakes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on securing this debate on Christianity in society and on his very personal and passionate speech. My hon. Friend is a committed champion for his area and a committed advocate of the role of Christianity in our communities. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) for their thoughtful and reflective contributions. I also thank the Front-Bench spokesmen, the hon. Members for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) and for Luton North (Sarah Owen), for their profound reflections.
To begin with, let me emphasise the importance of the Church as an essential pillar of society. It has been, and will always be, a bedrock of support for Christians, and it will always be an important institution in Britain. Our country has been built on Christian values, and the Church of England and the Church of Scotland are the two established Churches in the UK. As we break for Easter recess, it is important to remember and celebrate the role of the Christian Church in our history, culture and values. It not only plays an important constitutional role in our national life, but has been instrumental in fostering our values as a society—values of compassion, tolerance and respect. As my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley alluded to, love thy neighbour.
At Easter time, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection signifies the promise of redemption and rebirth and the forgiveness of sin. In my constituency of Kensington, I have the great privilege of having a very active Christian community. My constituency has some of the major iconic churches in London: the Brompton Oratory; Holy Trinity Brompton; St Columba’s, Church of Scotland; St Mary Abbots; the Notting Hill Methodist Church; and Kensington United Reform Church. I am proud to have that vibrant community.
Faith in general is a vital part of people’s identities and communities. The Government fully support the invaluable work being done by people around the country who are inspired by their faith. Values such as democracy, respect for others and regard for the rule of law are supported by the overwhelming majority of people in this country. They have evolved over time to become an integral part of life in Britain today. Faith can guide the moral outlook of many. It inspires great numbers of people to public service and to helping those in greatest need. Christian values, like values found in other great faiths, are those of humanity and service to others.
The Church of England, as has been mentioned, holds a unique place in our society. As senior members of the established Church of England, 26 bishops sit as individual Lords Spiritual and are impartial Members of the House of Lords. The monarchy also plays an important constitutional and religious role in the UK, with the sovereign acting as Head of State and Supreme Governor of the Church of England. As we approach the coronation of His Majesty King Charles III, there are a number of statutes that govern the declarations and oaths that must be made by a new monarch. The oaths represent an important part of our history and traditions, symbolising the role and duties of the sovereign. Bishops provide an important independent voice and spiritual insight into the work of the upper House. While they make no claims to direct representation, they seek to be a voice for people of all faiths.
The Minister has spoken about the monarch publicly declaring his faith on oath. Can the Government give some clear guidance on the rights and freedoms of others in our society—Christians and those of other faiths—to publicly express their faith? That right exists, but there is an enormous amount of confusion about it—indeed, in some cases, even fear. The right clearly exists, subject to some limited caveats, such as not inciting violence.
Can we also see a review of the guidelines that the police work to when they arrest or charge people on the grounds, for example, of an alleged hate crime? Again, there is a lot of confusion there. Often, the cases we hear of seem to progress and then there is clearly no case to answer. Finally, can we make it absolutely clear that no one should be arrested simply for silently praying?
Let me address the first question. No one should be in fear of professing their faith, regardless of which faith they belong to. That is very important. I am afraid guidance to the police falls outside my jurisdiction—it is a matter for the Home Office—so I will defer on that point, but I feel strongly that everyone should be able to declare their faith.
I am happy to pass on my hon. Friend’s comments.
The latest census tells us that the number of Christians living in this country has decreased; however, Christianity remains the most prominent religion. Christianity has shaped this country’s history, and we should recognise and celebrate that. We can all be proud of our Christian heritage and values. My hon. Friends the Members for Congleton and for Don Valley both mentioned William Wilberforce. It was his Christian faith that led to the abolition of slavery. It was his resolute Christian faith that prompted him to become interested in social reform, including the improvement of factory conditions in Britain. He firmly believed that the revitalisation of the Church and individual Christian observance would lead to a harmonious model society.
In every city, town and village in the UK, we see the positive impact and vital contributions that Christianity, Christians and churches make to our society, as, indeed, other faiths do too. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes mentioned the importance of Christian schools and faith schools; just before coming to the Chamber, I was with one of the schools in my constituency, All Saints Catholic College in north Kensington, which I am delighted to say is an outstanding school. There is no question but that Christian schools play an important role.
Churches are often centres of community support and provide a range of services, including after-school care, youth clubs, financial advice and addiction support, to name but a few. They often provide a safety net for those in need, running, for example, homeless shelters, food banks and warm hubs. As the Minister for homelessness, I want to put on the record my personal thanks for everything that churches do in support of the homeless. We recently distributed a £10 million night shelter transformation fund, with a specific focus on voluntary and faith groups.
The hon. Member for Luton North asked what the Government are doing to support charities. I am delighted that the Budget included £100 million specifically to support charities, and homeless and domestic abuse charities will be beneficiaries of that. We are conscious that there are inflationary pressures in the economy and that charities need more support, so I was delighted that the Chancellor made £100 million available. That comes on top of the huge amount of support that the Government have given to those facing cost of living pressures, with £37 billion in the last Budget and a further £26 billion in the autumn statement. We are, in effect, paying half of everyone’s energy bills at the moment; the average household is receiving £1,500 in support for its energy bills.
The pastoral impact of the Church extends further into our society with the provision of chaplaincy across the public sector, including in prisons, hospitals and the armed forces. The Government recognise and support the importance of faith. My colleague Baroness Scott, the Minister for faith, continues to champion the brilliant work of our faith communities up and down the country. She regularly meets leaders from across faith groups in our country.
We were the first Government to commission a wide-ranging review of how the Government engage with faith. As Members may be aware, the independent faith engagement adviser, Colin Bloom, will soon publish his review. He will make recommendations to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities about how the Government can celebrate the contribution of faith groups and their positive role in society, while also tackling harmful practices. There was an unprecedented number of responses—21,000—to the review’s public call for evidence. That demonstrates the high level of interest in religion and faith across our society. We will carefully consider Colin Bloom’s recommendations when the report is published.
That falls outside my remit—it is a Foreign Office matter—but I will certainly pass on the hon. Lady’s question.
I would like to express my gratitude to the Christian Church for everything it has done for the people of this country. The Government’s support for the Christian Church reflects the importance of religion in the UK. Religion plays a significant role in the lives of many people, and the Government are committed to ensuring that it can continue to play a positive role in society. By working together, we can achieve even more to help our faith communities.
Before I conclude, let me take this opportunity to reiterate the important message that the Government are fully behind the work of our faith communities. Easter is the very foundation of the Christian faith. For Christians worldwide, the importance of Easter is in praising and acknowledging Jesus Christ’s resurrection and what that means to them. Easter is a time when we can all learn from Christians coming together, and a time we can all share with loved ones in unison.
I wish my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley and everyone else who has taken part in this timely debate a very happy Easter.
I thank all Members for attending today. I am very pleased to see so many people here on the Thursday before recess. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda), who named all the Christian charities that are helping in his constituency, and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), both for her continued support and for sharing her story of faith.
The fantastic Christians in Parliament all-party parliamentary group is one of the most active APPGs in this place, and I thank it for all its work. I have Bible study on a Wednesday morning and everyone is welcome—please do contact me. It is so wonderful to be part of that group. When I first came here as a Member of Parliament, I knew literally nobody, and the APPG helped me through that period. It was a fantastic group to get to know.
I thank the Minister for her response to the debate. I know that she will report back to the Government on how important this subject is and how well attended the debate was. She will obviously make sure that Christians are thought of when anything happens in Government; it is really important that we think of people of faith. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for letting me have this debate, which is really appreciated, and I thank you, Mr Mundell, for chairing it.
Easter is, more than anything else, a time to reflect. The main point of Easter is that Christ died for our sins and he forgave us. That is something we should all remember, and we should follow Christ’s lead on that. No matter how we have been wronged, and no matter how far in the past—whether we were wronged centuries ago, weeks ago or today, or whether we will be wronged in the future—the message of Christ’s story, more than anything else, is forgiveness. I understand how difficult it is to forgive, but if we can all learn to forgive each other, we will have a wonderful future. Happy Easter, everybody.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Christianity in society.