Thursday 21st March 2024

(2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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15:09
Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher (Don Valley) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered Easter, Christian culture and heritage.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting me the time in this great hall. I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to this debate on Easter and Christian culture and heritage.

Easter is one of the two most important dates in the Christian calendar, and one that I hope we will all be celebrating next weekend. The cross symbolises what Christ did for us on Good Friday, which is wrapped up in the most famous verse of the Bible, John 3:16:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

We celebrate on Easter Sunday the resurrection of Christ, giving us not just a God, but a living God to believe in, to worship, to help us and to make us right with Him, with the promise of eternal life. What a wonderful gift.

I have said much of this in my previous speeches on Christianity, so let me just say that within much of our heritage is woven our historical Christian past, and it is therefore extremely important not just to this place but to our nation as a whole. It is the “Christian culture” part of this debate’s title that I will spend my time on today.

As we know, much rhetoric is expended on culture wars, at least in this place. This, in my understanding, refers to what people believe in. As a Christian, I am told through scripture to love everyone; I try to do so, but often fail, so I can understand the concerns of others when they see beliefs and practices that are not the so-called British way. Some may not believe in progressive ideologies; I understand that. Some may believe that those who have joined us from other nations should embrace our British way of life; I understand that, too. That got me thinking. What exactly is our culture? What is our British way of life?

Like most people these days, when I do not know an answer or I am unsure of a definition, I google it, so I did, and this is what Google said:

“The culture of the United Kingdom is influenced by its combined nations’ history; its historically Christian religious life, its interaction with the cultures of Europe, the individual cultures of England, Wales and Scotland and the impact of the British Empire.”

There is a glaring omission: what about Northern Ireland? Perhaps the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) can take that up with Google, because it is important. But there we have it, according to Google. There are three words in there that I believe to be very important, but I will come back to them.

I scrolled down a little further on the search engine and found numerous sites, all listing their top 10 ideas of things that make our British culture. These are some of the things that apparently make us British: the royal family, our cuisine, the English breakfast, our love of a curry and fish and chips, how we like to queue, the pub, our humour—mainly sarcasm and banter—a cup of tea, sport, the BBC, and so the list goes on. Then I thought of a scene in the film “Love Actually”. There are a few scenes in there I do not like—I will not go into those now—but who can forget the one in No. 10? No, not the singing and dancing Prime Minister. Do we think our Prime Minister sings and dances in there when he is on his own? I can assure the House that if I am ever Prime Minister, I will. If my right hon. Friend is listening —I hope he is—I should add that, no, I am not after your job, sir. The scene I mean is the one where Hugh Grant, who plays the Prime Minister, tells the US President what he thinks. He says:

“We may be a small country, but we’re a great one, too. The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter. David Beckham’s right foot. David Beckham’s left foot, come to that.”

I have to admit that the first time I saw this, it brought a lump to my throat. I felt genuinely proud to be British.

As good as all those things are, and some are truly wonderful, one thing that binds most of them together is that they are ways in which we enjoy ourselves, whether it is reading the sonnets—“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Not really me—watching our favourite team or player, eating our favourite food, or just simply having a laugh down the pub, which is definitely me. But are they really our culture? I am not so sure. Does not everyone the world round enjoy entertainment of some kind? No, I think our culture goes back to those three words I spoke about earlier—Christian religious life.

I have mentioned the royal family. Our King is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the state Church, so he is extremely important to our Christian religious life. I also mentioned Sir Winston Churchill, who did so much to defend and preserve our way of life, as have our armed forces over the centuries. But what is our culture? I believe it is not quite Christian religious life, but more our Christian way of life—the Christian way of life that has enabled us to live in freedom in this wonderful country. And trust me, it is a wonderful country, but it is even more than that—much more. It is about a life with Jesus and what that life offers, not just to the individual but to society as a whole.

Sadly, when mankind removes God from the equation, mankind resorts to its base nature. Man’s base nature is not what we think it should be—it is not good. Watching two infants play, we often see them snatch and not want to share. We must admit that we are all born at least a little selfish, if nothing worse, which is the start— the start of a life that can often lead to things going drastically wrong without correction.

If the teachings of the Christian way of life are slowly eroded, which I believe they have been, I am afraid that each generation will fall further away from our God. Life can and will definitely get worse for us all.

Martin Vickers Portrait Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He talks about culture and the changing generations. We met a group of people yesterday—the Christian creators, I think they called themselves—who broadcast their Christian views on TikTok. That is very different from my form of worship, but does my hon. Friend agree that they are getting the message across? Is that not an example of how Christianity will continue through the generations?

Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher
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My hon. Friend is right. The group of Christian creators on TikTok we met yesterday were wonderful. It was a joy to meet these fantastic young people, who are all spreading the word of the Lord through social media.

Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar (Aberconwy) (Con)
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I am struck by my hon. Friend’s reflection on a Christian way of life. In the UK, we are very fortunate to have giants in our history—people such as Josiah Wedgwood, Lord Shaftesbury and William Wilberforce—who improved the lives of thousands, millions potentially, of the poor, the oppressed and the enslaved, and who all claimed a strong Christian faith as a motivating factor. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as a country, we are freer, more equal and better off for the influence of those Christian figures in our history?

Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher
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I agree with every single word of my hon. Friend’s contribution. As I said, this is not just about society’s relationship with Christianity; it is the individual’s relationship with Christ that gives them the strength to do wonderful things for society as a whole. My hon. Friend mentioned three wonderful people who were all devout Christians.

Our need for something to believe in is always present and if it is not in the Christian teachings and God, what is it in? If we have no faith or turn our back on faith, we search for something to fill the void. Often, we start looking inwards. We start to lust after things that are not good for us. Like a drug, we may get a quick hit of happiness, but it is soon gone. Some may ask, “Where is the proof?” Here is the proof: with all the ways we have to entertain ourselves and spend our time, how many people in the UK are struggling with their mental health? Despite all those wonderful things Google thinks make us British and that I have spoken about, we have so many unhappy people. Why?

The Bible is clear: it tells us that if we turn our back on God, He will give us up to our natural state. We become filled with all kinds of wickedness, evil and greed. We gossip and speak badly of one another. We become proud and boastful and, when young, disobey our parents. It teaches us that we lose our conscience and do not keep our promises. We show no kindness or pity for others and become unforgiving souls. If we turn our back on God, He will give us up, and I think that in many places in society he may already have done so.

How did this happen? I remember many people calling anyone who believed in Christ a Bible-basher, a God botherer, and many laughed; I was called one myself. Then Christians were told, “It’s okay that you believe, but don’t ram it down my throat,” so guess what? That happened. In many quarters, the Church listened, Christians listened, and I listened, too. Many of us stopped talking about God for fear of being accused of ramming it down other people’s throats—not that other people seem concerned about sharing their beliefs. What is worse is those who do not want a faith did appear to want others not to have a faith either. Christians have been ridiculed on the big stage across the country, and now many believers have been too quiet for too long.

In the recent 2021 census, for the first time in England and Wales, less than half the population described themselves as Christian and 37.2% of people said they had no religion. Is there a connection with there being so much unhappiness, so many young and old dealing with mental health issues, and so many searching for hope often through sources that are not healthy in any manner of the word? Many vicars may feel they are just going through the motions, even feeling lost in their work preaching to empty pews. We even have many denominations trying to become progressive, or “relevant”, to fill those empty seats, and many are moving further away from God’s word. The meaning of scripture is often misinterpreted to reflect current trends, instead of holding firm and letting the Bible be the guide for our people to look to. It appears that the loudest voices continue to win.

I am often told in this job, “Let’s look at the outcome.” That is a fair point, so let us do so. The outcome is that a vacuum has been created that was always going to have to be filled. The question is, with what? First, we have filled it with seven-days-a-week shopping, 24-hour TV, the internet, the iPhone and, for those who have really lost their way, a host of illegal activities. Secondly, it has been filled with contested views and so-called progressive ideologies that not only vilify our past but demand reparations. Ideologies confuse our present through the indoctrination of our children with gender questioning, and through climate change zealots who are not pragmatic in their views, but seem intent only on terrifying people about our world’s future. Really, we should be proud of our nation’s history, content in our present and optimistic for our future, especially when we have a faith grounded in Jesus Christ.

Thirdly, something that is not necessarily filling the vacuum, but is taking a place in our society is the beliefs of other people who have made Britain their home—our next-door neighbours. Their way of living, their faith and their culture are growing, not through force—most, like us, are kind people—but because they have something to believe in and maybe because they see nothing else. Many visitors must be amazed at the apathy with which many of us regard our own culture. We want people to embrace it, but have we let it go? Have we let it go because we have let God go?

If we continue on that trajectory or fuel it with even more secular views, we will no doubt see the swift end of what many believe is British culture. When I google British culture, it might instead speak of multiculturalism, which many will say is good, but I am sure it will also be even more of a mix of nonsense that is grounded in ways to entertain ourselves and those contested progressive ideologies. It does not have to be that way.

The Department that has responsibility for communities has a role to play here. It has an interest in helping to protect our history. The Government have a duty to protect our young people from the nonsense they see on their phones that creates their confusion. The Government have done much with the Online Safety Act 2023, but can and should do more. A Department that has responsibility for communities can surely use its budget to help Christian churches and community groups, not stop them receiving money because of tick-box exercises that do not match secular belief. It can bring the schools, churches and community together through the things that make us British—our King, a cup of tea, a game of cricket, a beer in the pub, David Beckham’s left foot. I am sure there must be a way the Department can do much more to promote faith and family and our Christian heritage, values and way of life.

Andrew Rosindell Portrait Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con)
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I commend my hon. Friend on promoting this magnificent debate, so well timed in advance of Easter. I am sure he agrees with me that our entire heritage—the foundations of our laws, customs and conventions and our entire British way of life—is founded on the Christian heritage of these islands. Although we cherish the principle of freedom of religion for all and respect for people of no faith and other faiths, it is nevertheless the Christian foundations that have allowed a free society to develop, where anyone can choose the life they lead. We should therefore defend that Christian heritage because if we undermine it, we undermine the entire free society that so many generations have built.

Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher
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My hon. Friend said in 30 seconds what has taken me 18 minutes to say, so I thank him for his contribution. He is completely right.

As I was saying, I am sure there must be a way the Department can do much more to promote faith and family and our Christian heritage, values and way of life; encourage the country’s people to look out for each other instead of focusing inwards; embrace a culture of forgiveness and love for all our neighbours; and lead the nation to speak proudly of its past. The formidable Douglas Murray once urged people to have “an attitude of gratitude”. A nation that knows the boundaries of right and wrong sets them in stone so that we all know where we are and that no means no, not maybe, especially when speaking to and guiding our young. That is a nation where opportunity is available to all for the better of all. I want a nation’s people that believes what CS Lewis once stated:

“Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth ‘thrown in’: aim at Earth and you will get neither.”

Can we not do all that while letting those who have called our shores home enjoy their culture, too? I think we can and we should.

If our Christian culture with its faith and families shines like the beacon of hope that it should, the ideologies and desires that are often negative will be starved of oxygen and will fall away one by one. The new people we welcome will see our culture and maybe even want to be a part of it, too.

John Hayes Portrait Sir John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)
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I endorse my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on securing this debate. He is articulating the fact that the most corrosive force in our country now is nihilism and the moral relativism associated with it. We hear people speaking not of truth, but of their truth, as though truth could be negotiated. But truth cannot be negotiated; it is an absolute, and is embodied in the message of Christianity.

Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher
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I thank my right hon. Friend for his contribution. I know that he believes, as I do, that the truth is in the Bible and is in the name of Jesus Christ.

If the Christian culture of faith and family shines like the beacon of hope that it should be, the ideologies and desires that can often be negative will be starved of oxygen. The new people we welcome will see our culture and may want to be a part of it. I know that this sounds utopian, but we are told that faith can move mountains. We must admit that we have a mountain to move.

My faith only grows stronger day by day. When I look for the good, not the bad, in everyone I meet, it gets stronger. I know that I am a sinner. I have turned my back on God before, but 15 years ago I gave my life to Jesus forever, and I know that He is with me now. I know that at Easter, Jesus died on a cross for me—yes, for me, and for you. Through my repentance and my belief in Him, I am saved. Although that fills me with great joy, I want all the world to know that Jesus loves them, too. I want the people of this nation to fix their eyes on heaven, not on themselves or their earthly desires. I want them to believe in a living God, not fashionable ideologies.

This Easter will our Government promote celebrating what Christ did for us on the cross on Good Friday, and His resurrection on Easter Sunday? Will they encourage the nation to go to church and embrace our Christian culture? If the people do so, and if they search and listen, they will find God, too. He is waiting with open arms. The angels are ready to sing for every sinner who repents and believes in our Lord.

If the Government get this right, we will all instinctively know what our British culture is. God will not turn his back on us. He will hold and love us, and the culture wars will be no more. Can the Minister imagine being part of a Government who eradicated the culture wars and got the country to be proud of its past, content with its present and sure of its future in Christ? There is a challenge. If the Minister and the Government wish to take it, I will be right behind them, and so will millions of Christians across this land.

Happy Easter. God bless us all, and God bless our country.

13:52
Edward Leigh Portrait Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)
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I have to start by congratulating my hon. Friend the wonderful Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher). In the short time he has been in the House, he has proved himself a superb Member of Parliament and has become embedded in his community in Doncaster. I salute his courage in applying for this debate, the third such debate that he has secured. I am not aware of anyone else, in the many years I have been in the House, who has had the courage to promote such debates.

Politicians are naturally averse to talking about their faith. I suppose they think that if they talk about their faith, they may be putting themselves on some kind of pedestal and that, being sinners as we all are, they will eventually be brought down and mocked. But my hon. Friend expressed himself in such a humble, forgiving and self-deprecatory way that nobody could accuse him of putting himself on a pedestal. He was simply trying to make the very powerful point, which too few of us have the courage to make, that Christianity is at the very heart of our nation and its history. So much of what has made us such a great nation and a wonderful place to live is embedded in Christianity. So many of our freedoms relate to Christianity.

Of course, people will criticise the history of Christianity and the way Christians treated and persecuted one another in the past. We all know that, but undoubtedly what has made this nation is the Christian faith. That is not to belittle other faiths; one thing I liked about my hon. Friend’s speech was that he was complimentary about people of all faiths. It is no accident that the great religions of the world—whether that is Islam, Judaism or Christianity—all have the same kind of moral code. In promoting Christianity, he was not trying to downplay the importance and the wonder of all of the other religions.

Our forebears who made this building—I think a lot about this, because I serve on the restoration and renewal board—knew this. When we walk around this building, we see Christian iconography scattered all over it. Only this morning I was showing some visitors around the Robing Room in the House of Lords. The paintings on the walls depict compassion, mercy and forgiveness, all of which are Christian concepts.

My hon. Friend is very courageous. I know that Alastair Campbell once said, “We don’t do God,” and most politicians—certainly those who want to get to the top of politics—are very wary of the subject, but I think it is important that just occasionally there are people of courage such as my hon. Friend who are prepared to speak up.

There is such a rich and different tradition in Christianity. Only yesterday, my hon. Friend was telling me about the evangelical church he goes to in Doncaster, where there is a tremendous spirit. Some people might call it happy-clappy; I would not say that. He told me that his church is extraordinarily successful. The churches that are successful and growing are the ones that are self-confident and, as he says, rooted firmly in the Bible. During their services, they do not necessarily talk about our secular world and how we can make it a happy place, but they root themselves in the Bible.

I come from a Christian tradition very different from that of my hon. Friend. I am not an evangelical; I do not talk about Jesus in the way he does. I am a Catholic. But it is interesting that the successful Catholic churches in this country are those that are increasingly rooted in our ancient Catholic traditions. Many young people are flocking to the Catholic churches that are resurrecting the beautiful ancient mass. They seem to be self-confident. I am not a member of the Church of England, so I suppose it is not for me to offer it advice or even criticise it, but I think that there is a message there for our established Church.

We should be very proud to be one of the very few countries in the world that has an established Church. Above all, we should keep the established Church as established and we should keep bishops in the House of Lords. The Church of England leadership—I make no criticism of the people who are working on the ground—are wonderful people, and I quite understand where they are coming from, but sometimes, dare I say it, they feel that they have to wade in on politics. They have a right to do that, just as I have a right to wade in on religion, but perhaps they need to remember that in this country and in any country there is a tremendous yearning for spirituality.

One of the problems with the decline of Christianity and of faith in general—we have to accept that this is now one of the most secular countries in the world—is that if there is a vacuum, other movements step in and the whole country becomes unhappier and more difficult to govern. In a place like India, even though there are villages with levels of unimaginable poverty, they are not necessarily less happy than we are. In many ways they are happier, because they have that spiritual grounding that so many people in this country do not have.

There is so much of importance in what my hon. Friend says. I do not really want to inject a negative note, but—

Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar (Aberconwy) (Con)
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It strikes that my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) are describing something bigger and more enduring than much of what we concern ourselves with as politicians. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a dislocation from those eternal and enduring beliefs or values is perhaps giving us a sense of drift or lack of purpose in society today?

Edward Leigh Portrait Sir Edward Leigh
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Yes, we have to recognise that there is a sense of drift and pessimism in society. However, this debate is about Easter, which is the great feast of the Resurrection—the great feast of hope. It is wonderful that my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley has expressed himself in such a positive way.

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), I represent the most beautiful and wonderful county in England, namely Lincolnshire. We have the finest medieval churches in the country: in every single village in my constituency there are wonderful expressions of piety, faith and hope, built hundreds of years ago. I sympathise with the Church of England, which has to maintain that huge structure. My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley has asked the Government to do many things. I think that even this wonderful Minister may find it difficult to recreate this country as a faith-loving community, but one thing that the Government can do is to help and enable the Church of England to preserve that amazing heritage. In France, for instance, all churches built before 1900 are funded by the state. The Church of England is on its own, which is a tremendous burden. It is to be commended for keeping this wonderful architectural heritage going.

I will, again, make a gentle criticism of the Church of England. I am very much on the side of the Save the Parish movement and on the side of the Church of England putting whatever resources it has into the parish ministry. There is some criticism that in the Church of England, resources are being diverted away from the parishes and into the centre, and too many people are being hired at the centre.

To give one example, the diocese of York is advertising for a racial justice education adviser. The job specification elaborates that the role will cover unconscious bias and diversity training. The concept of “unconscious bias” has no evidential basis in scientific, psychological or medical research. It has been years since the Government dropped it from the civil service. In 2020, the Government Equalities Office commissioned the behavioural insights team to summarise the evidence on unconscious bias and diversity training. Its report highlighted that

“there is currently no evidence that this training changes behaviour in the long term or improves workplace equality in terms of representation of women, ethnic minorities or other minority groups”.

It further pointed out that there is emerging evidence of unintended negative consequences of that training.

I know that the Minister cannot answer on behalf of the Church of England, but perhaps the Government have a role here. We see the Church, quangos, charities, civil society groups and corporations adopting this training. Perhaps the Government can take a lead in enlightening them not only that is it nonsense, but that it can often lead to the opposite of the intended result. Indeed, it may lead to something perverse. I have mentioned one example from the diocese of York, but I am sure that a search of the vacancies posted on the websites of other Anglican dioceses would find many such cases.

I am sorry to make that point; I do not mean to criticise the Church of England, which is a superb institution that is doing wonderful work all over the country. There is, however, a slight tendency at the centre of the Church of England to move in the direction that I have been talking about, which I do not think is central to its purpose of making us a more spiritual nation.

Before I sit down, may I pay tribute to the late Lord Cormack? Christianity, culture and heritage, in any combination, were his lifeblood. He was the founder of the all-party parliamentary arts and heritage group. In the real world, he was a valiant fighter. He co-founded Heritage in Danger in 1974. He was one of the central figures who prevented Hereford cathedral from selling off its magnificent mappa mundi in 1988 to pay for repairs. Lord Cormack was a warden at Parliament’s own parish church, St Margaret’s, across Palace Yard. He served for a decade on the Church of England’s General Synod. His compassion and service were not limited to the Church of England; he was a leading campaigner for Soviet Jews in the 1970s and 1980s, and was granted an honorary doctorate by the Catholic University of America.

Next Monday, we will gather at Lincoln cathedral to bid Lord Cormack farewell for the final time, and there could be no more appropriate setting for that great parliamentarian. I know myself from my decade serving on Lincoln cathedral’s council how pressed for resources the great churches of England are. I believe it is vital that the Government, whether through direct heritage funding or via agencies such as the national lottery, support our churches to protect their architectural heritage. Last year we celebrated the 39 different projects in Catholic churches that were funded thanks to Historic England’s heritage stimulus fund, part of the Government’s culture recovery fund. I was pleased to see Lord Parkinson, the Heritage Minister, there alongside the Lord Speaker and our own Mr Deputy Speaker. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales produced a splendid booklet called “Living Stones: A Celebration of Achievement”, detailing all the works completed thanks to that funding.

The important thing to remember about those buildings, whether they are great cathedrals or the tiniest gospel hall, is not the stones, bricks and mortar. As the First Epistle of Peter tells us, we Christians are to be living stones upon which a spiritual house is built. What we have to offer this country is not just an architectural heritage or a service of care and relief for the poor. The resurrection, and the faith built upon it, is the reason for all that. Without that, our history and our heritage is meaningless.

14:06
Andrew Rosindell Portrait Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con)
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Thank you for calling me to speak in this significant debate in Westminster Hall, Dr Huq. I again commend my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for calling this debate as we approach the Eastertide period. May I also say what a privilege it is to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh)? Throughout his many years in this House, he has demonstrated clear Christian leadership in so many areas of British life. I thank him for the service he has given to this House and to our country, always standing up for the Christian heritage of the United Kingdom. It is that which I want to refer to today, because the title of this debate is Easter, Christian culture and heritage.

We can talk about religion, and we have done, and so we should—my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley rightly made that the focus of his speech—but the cultural side is also vital. Not everybody in these islands considers themselves to be Christian: many have no faith; many have different faiths; many are unsure where they stand. However, I believe that what most people stand strongly for is the upholding of the heritage that goes with the Christian faith—the culture; our customs; our way of life; our laws, which are founded on Christian teachings; our constitution; our monarchy; our flag. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough mentioned, all the great national symbols of this nation have Christian symbols embedded within them. One only needs to look at the crown that His Majesty wore in the coronation, only a year ago. On the top of that crown is a cross. It is there for a purpose, because it signifies the foundations of our society.

We have an established Church, and I am glad we do, because having the Church of England as our established Church protects all other religions and denominations to worship freely in a free society without being persecuted, belittled, sidelined or attacked in any way. We have a society in which freedom of religion is cherished and protected under the rule of law. Having an established Church prevents sectarianism and prevents different religions from vying for power or domination, because everyone accepts that our King is the head of the Church, and that the Christian faith has made the foundations of our society. Everybody can worship freely under that framework. That is why I strongly support the Church of England as both the religious leadership of this country and part of the culture of our nation.

It is right that in schools, young people are able to sing hymns. It is right that at the start of a meal, we say grace. That is part of our heritage as well. It is right that we celebrate Easter, Christmas, Whitsun and all the magnificent religious holidays that we officially recognise in this country. Long may that remain so. I would be deeply unhappy if there were ever a question of days such as Good Friday, Christmas day or Whitsun not being formally recognised as public holidays. Good Friday should be a day when people reflect, when there is solemn feeling, and when we consider why we are celebrating Easter and why we are sad on Good Friday, the day that Jesus was crucified.

Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar
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I was struck by the fact that my hon. Friend described Christianity as a source and not an addition, a bolt-on or a replaceable extra in the culture and heritage of our country.

Andrew Rosindell Portrait Andrew Rosindell
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My hon. Friend is exactly right, and that brings me to some of the points that I would like to make.

Christianity is everywhere around us. We may not be a Christian; there are people who are not Christians, but the Christian culture of British society is everywhere, and to remove that would undermine the foundations of our society. One only needs to think back in history. The Vikings came to these islands a thousand years ago, but it was the Christian faith that united England under the banner of King Alfred and then of King Æthelstan. It is St George who is the embodiment of England, and we will be celebrating St George’s day on 23 April. As chairman of the Houses of Parliament branch of the Royal Society of Saint George, I will be hosting, I hope, an event in Parliament for all Members to celebrate the heritage of England. That includes hon. Friends from other parts of these islands, especially Scotland.

Of course, our national anthem is a prayer itself—a prayer to God. The de facto anthem of England is, of course, “Jerusalem”. It is not officially recognised, but nevertheless I think “Jerusalem” is the hymn that most people sing when we celebrate England, and English heritage and culture. Of course, our monarch is anointed in Westminster Abbey, and our royal motto translates to “God and my right”.

The Bible has transformed the way our civilisation has operated, through law, governance, art, architecture and so many other areas of life. It has shaped the way all Britons—everybody in this country, including those with no religion—think about family, community and morality. It was through the lens of the Christian faith that we were the first nation on the planet not only to outlaw slavery permanently, but to enforce that ban worldwide through the West Africa Squadron.

We do indeed have a proud history, based on our Christian heritage and our Christian customs—long may they continue. But it has not always been quite so straightforward. I have been a Member of Parliament for 23 years. In my second year as a Member of Parliament, there was almost outrage when some local authorities suggested that the hot cross bun should be banned, can you believe? I remember it happening; I think it was in 2003. There was political correctness even then. I think it is probably worse today: anything can offend anybody, and that is dangerous because then we lose our heritage.

I remember that in 2002, we had to table an early-day motion to defend the hot cross bun. I am sorry that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) has left the room, as he was one of those who signed the EDM. I will remind the House of what it said:

“That this House is appalled at the decision by some local authorities in the United Kingdom to ban hot cross buns from schools; believes the hot cross bun to be a splendid Easter tradition that represents the Christian heritage of Britain; and encourages all schools in the United Kingdom to ignore such politically correct advice from local authorities and continue to serve hot cross buns.”

Only yesterday, I was delighted to enjoy the hot cross buns offered to Members of Parliament in the Tea Room, but I must say to my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley that that little thing, all those years ago, alarmed me—that so many perfectly innocent parts of our culture can be undermined by people who seem to want to take away so much of what we hold dear in these islands, and which our ancestors, our forebears, have fought to defend over so many generations.

Edward Leigh Portrait Sir Edward Leigh
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My hon. Friend makes a very important point, which I wanted to raise earlier. It is very important that we should defend the right of people to speak their mind freely about religion. So, we should defend the right of Richard Dawkins, atheist, to attack religious people or religions in general. We have got to also defend the right of religious people to have their space, whether it is Orthodox Jews, or devout Muslims, or evangelical Christians. We must also defend the right of people, not just to attack religion or religious people in general, but also to criticise particular religions. There is a sort of dumbing down of debate and people are afraid, increasingly, to express their viewpoint, but in a vigorous democracy there must be this freedom of expression.

Andrew Rosindell Portrait Andrew Rosindell
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My right hon. Friend is completely correct. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion go hand-in-hand. It is of course right in a free society that anybody can criticise a religion for the teachings that it espouses, but equally, we have the right to believe something completely different and be tolerant to one another in a free society. That is the nature of religion. People do have different opinions; people do have different perspectives. People are raised in different ways; they come from different ancestry. People come from different heritage, different countries, and have other religions. I defend that. That is one of the fundamental things that make us British—that we defend freedom of religion. We should never lose that. We should not be afraid to debate these things or have different opinions, and to criticise people because they have a different opinion. We can discuss and debate, but we must always allow opinions to be expressed. For if we lose that ability to speak freely and to disagree with each other in a polite and gentlemanly way, I am afraid that we lose so much of what our society is about. So, long may freedom of speech and freedom of religion go hand-in-hand together.

Before I conclude my remarks, I would like to say one or two things about my constituency. I was christened and confirmed at the church of St Edward the Confessor, a most magnificent church in the centre of Romford market. Every year we have magnificent Easter celebrations. On Good Friday there has been a march of witness, which I have always attended since being a Member of Parliament. In recent times, we have had open-air services with all the churches within the town centre, led by St Edward’s church, which is the main church in Romford. On Palm Sunday in recent years, a donkey has appeared, making its way through the market square and into the church, as we have gathered for that significant day in the Christian calendar.

I want to pay tribute to the Reverend Father David Simpson, who was the parish priest for the last few years. Having retired two weeks ago, he is now working for the Mission to Seafarers. I pay tribute to his service to the people as vicar of Romford, leading our church and playing such a significant role in the community. I know that hon. and right hon. Friends will wish him well with his future career as he becomes a pastor to seafarers based in Felixstowe, carrying out his mission for the seafarers of our country, and indeed the whole world.

Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar
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My hon. Friend is being very generous and I thank him for giving way a second time. Again, it seems to me that, in rightly paying tribute to the institutions and individuals in his own constituency—something that every other Member present could doubtless do— he is showing again how much Christianity is a part of the fabric of our society, and how it is steeped in those traditions and rituals, many of which we will have forgotten or overlooked for their familiarity. They are there none the less and are an inherent part of British culture and society.

Andrew Rosindell Portrait Andrew Rosindell
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Indeed, they are part of our way of life, and long may that be the case. As Members of Parliament, we understand how important it is in our constituencies to engage with our churches and faith groups—of all religions, by the way—especially those that represent the local culture and heritage of our individual constituencies. I certainly do that in Romford: I am very proud to be a member of St Edward the Confessor Church and I pay tribute to its work over many centuries. In fact, Her late Majesty the Queen visited the church in 2003, a year after her golden jubilee, and I was very honoured to meet her in Romford on that occasion.

I also pay tribute to the parish church of St. Alban Protomartyr and the Reverend Father Roderick Hingley, who has raised hundreds of thousands of pounds to restore the church with magnificent artwork depicting the stations of the cross, with magnificent candlesticks and stained-glass windows, and to refurbish the church and its hall in general. What a magnificent leader of our community Father Hingley has been, and his extension by the Church of England to continue in post for a few more years has been most welcome.

However, I worry about the divisions that exist in the Church of England. I want the Church of England to be strong and to uphold the Christian heritage. Of course, there are different ways of worshipping within the Church of England, but we must ensure that the Church is still there for all people and that it is not allowed to become a divided organisation. We must try to bring the Church of England together, because it is the Church that represents the state. The King is the head of the Church and that provides an incredibly important structure to retaining the Christian heritage of our nation.

In closing, I would like to finally say that, when I became a Member of Parliament, I was proud to swear the Oath of Allegiance to the Queen. I have done so ever since at each occasion, and I did so only recently to His Majesty the King. I believe in the importance of having Prayers at the start of our proceedings in the House of Commons, and it is vital that we retain those traditions and conventions. We all have a duty to protect people of all faiths in our constituencies, and to always remember that the law of this country affords us freedom of religion, which is there for everyone to cherish. That is the nature of the United Kingdom. It is a foundation of all parts of the British isles, and long may all Members of this House defend that heritage.

14:24
Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on securing the debate. It does not seem like it was that long since we were taking part in the debate that he led on the significance of “Christmas, Christianity and communities”, perhaps for the simple reason that it was not actually that long ago. The date of Easter, as the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) will well know, is calculated using a formula known as the computus, which identifies the first Sunday after the full moon occurs on or after the spring equinox. That means that this year Easter is almost as early as it possibly can be under that formula. We are about as close to Christmas as we can be since that last debate a little over three months or so ago.

It is not an accident that the two great feasts of the Christian calendar occur when they do. Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Jesus, who Christians consider to be the light of the world, comes just after the winter solstice, when the days begin to get longer and darkness is overcome. Easter, which marks the death and resurrection of Christ, follows the spring equinox, when new life begins to bloom in nature. The date of Easter is also linked to the Jewish observation of Passover, because the gospel tells us that the last supper, crucifixion and resurrection all took place around the time of Passover observations in Jerusalem. Just as Passover commemorates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, Christians mark Easter as the liberation of humanity from slavery to the trappings of this world, which would separate us from the love of God.

This is a particularly holy and special time of year for those who profess the Christian faith. Indeed, it is the time of year when many Christian Churches, particularly the Catholic Church, welcome new adults who have chosen to seek baptism and confirmation into full communion of the Church. It is a time of great joy for those individuals, their families and the communities and parishes that they will join, and I am sure that we want to keep all those making that journey this year in our thoughts and prayers.

Easter comes after the period of Lent, which is a time of reflection, prayer, fasting and almsgiving—practices also being observed at this time by our Muslim brothers and sisters observing the holy month of Ramadan. I always hold those who keep the Ramadan fast in the highest regard; I find swearing off certain food and drink for six weeks during Lent difficult enough, but I would find abstaining entirely from any kind of nourishment during daylight hours, including water, incredibly difficult.

However, the joy of Easter is not confined just to celebrations in church buildings and parish halls. Those practices and observations are all about more than just what happens during the particular seasons. Christians, the Muslim community and those of other faiths who practice similar traditions see them as preparation for service throughout the year and, indeed, throughout their lives. Faithful witness is about not just words, but deeds. We can see examples of that in our communities already, and we have heard examples from Members who have spoken today. I assure the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) that I will be happy to celebrate St George’s day with him, particularly in solidarity with friends in Catalonia, who also recognise St George as their patron saint.

Andrew Rosindell Portrait Andrew Rosindell
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I thank the hon. Member for giving that commitment to celebrate St George’s day, on one condition: that he organises a celebration for St Andrew’s day on 30 November. I do not think that we have ever had one in Parliament; I have certainly not attended one. I am sure that we would be delighted if there was one for all patron saints of the British Isles.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady
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The hon. Member is right. We all know that each of the patron saints of the nations of the United Kingdom are depicted in Central Lobby. I do not think that any Church has designated one saint for the whole of the United Kingdom, probably for quite important diplomatic and theological reasons. If the House is sitting in November—who knows what might happen towards the end of the year that may cause it not to sit, or to cause some change in its composition—perhaps that is something to consider. Incidentally, SNP Opposition days quite often fall around St Andrew’s day; I will leave others to consider whether that is by accident or design. I also have some sympathy with what the hon. Member said about hot cross buns. I try to abstain from hot cross buns until Good Friday itself, then I very much enjoy them after attending the Good Friday services.

However, the debate is about all our different communities. In Glasgow North, such prophetic witness is visible in the activities of many of the Christian Churches and other faith-based organisations. I have spoken before about the food bank at St Gregory’s church in Wyndford, which is staffed by dedicated volunteers and gratefully receives donations from not just the parish community, but people of all faiths and none and businesses across Maryhill. However, it still struggles to meet demand. A particular proportion of the need that it meets comes from the refugee and asylum seeking community in the area—people who are hungry and looking for food, those who are thirsty and looking for drink, those who are sick and need visiting, and those who are strangers and need taking in. Some Members will recognise that Jesus says in Matthew 25 that those who carry out such works for “the least of” his brothers and sisters do so also for him.

I pay tribute to the work of the Maryhill integration network, which helps to provide access to culturally sensitive and religiously appropriate sources of food and nutrition to those who arrive in our city, sometimes with nothing but the clothes on their back. I also pay tribute to those in Glasgow North and elsewhere who are motivated by their faith to work for peace and justice around the world. I think particularly of the work of Christian Aid, the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund and Tearfund, who often use this time of year of Lent and Easter and the time that follows it to raise awareness of their campaigns for justice around the world and particularly the impact of climate change.

His Holiness Pope Francis has spoken powerfully about the impact of climate change on some of the poorest and most vulnerable people around the world, and says that a way of putting faith into action is to take action on that point. Another climate zealot, perhaps, is His Majesty King Charles, who said at COP28:

“I pray with all my heart that COP28 will be another critical turning point towards genuine transformational action…unless we rapidly repair and restore nature’s unique economy, based on harmony and balance, which is our ultimate sustainer, our own economy and survivability will be imperilled.”

These are important words. The role of the monarchy and of Christian leadership has been mentioned many times today and we should take those examples of leadership to heart.

I also want to acknowledge the work of our faith schools and their contribution to our communities. In particular, I congratulate the staff and pupils at St Mary’s Primary School in Maryhill, who are celebrating the school’s 50th anniversary this year. Their current building was opened on 26 February 1974. In recent weeks a number of events and activities have marked the occasion, including the pupils coming together to form a giant figure 50 in the school playground, celebratory reunions of former staff, pupils and chaplains, and an anniversary mass celebrated in the nearby Church of the Immaculate Conception by the Archbishop of Glasgow, Archbishop Nolan. I am sure all Members will want to congratulate the school on this very happy milestone and wish them all the best.

Successive Scottish Governments, led by successive First Ministers, have recognised the importance of the Easter celebration to the Christian community in Scotland. Last year, the new First Minister Humza Yousaf sent his first Easter message to those celebrating. He did so as the first Muslim leader of a Government on these islands and while he was himself observing the Ramadan fast. He said:

“For Christians, Easter is an enormously important time of year. It’s a time when family and friends come together to celebrate a story at the very heart of Christianity. A story of sacrifice, of hope, of renewal, that provides inspiration to people all around the world.

We see the results of that inspiration, of course, in the work of our Christian churches throughout the year. In all parts of our country, they play an exceptionally important role, offering spiritual guidance, helping those in need and strengthening our communities.

At the same time, they also continue to provide vital support to communities across the developing world. And that contribution is one which I hugely value and admire.

So I want to thank our Christian communities for the vital role that they play and send my best wishes to Christians everywhere and I want to wish all of those who are celebrating it a very happy and joyous Easter.”

It is also right to acknowledge that the Prime Minister, the first Hindu to lead a Government on these islands, has regularly recognised the contribution of Christianity to our heritage and to modern society, and has also sent messages of goodwill at Easter and Christmas.

That all recognises and demonstrates the importance of strong interfaith relationships and the importance of interreligious dialogue, which is why a number of Members from across the House, myself included, and a number of my constituents are disappointed at the UK Government’s decision to end funding for the Inter Faith Network. At a time when understanding and dialogue between faiths is so important, when in so many parts of the world and even in some parts of our own country people are using religion or belief as grounds for seeking division, it is important that resources and structures are in place to promote tolerance and respect.

As has been noted many times here in Westminster Hall, one thing that all the great religions of the world have in common is the golden rule of reciprocity—the teaching that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto ourselves. Very few of us would want to be bombing ourselves, destroying ourselves or causing any kind of trouble and hatred towards ourselves, so we should not be doing that to others. I hope the Government will carefully consider and review their decision.

This time next week, Christians will enter into the three most important days of their liturgical year—the celebration of the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday, the commemoration of the crucifixion on Good Friday and then the joyful celebration of the resurrection at the Easter vigil on Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday itself —such a joyful occasion, in fact, that the celebration continues in the Church’s calendar for 50 full days until the feast of Pentecost. I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Don Valley intends to apply for a debate to mark that date in the Christian calendar. The vice-Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), did say at business questions today that the Committee’s calendar is now pretty crowded. The hon. Member for Don Valley has nevertheless done a service to the House by securing this debate, and I wish him and all those who are celebrating a happy, joyful and blessed Easter when it comes.

14:35
Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist (Blaydon) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for securing this debate on Easter, Christian culture and heritage.

I will say a little about the contributions from other Members, which have been very interesting. The hon. Member talked about his faith and about the influence of Christianity on the country. It is good to see him reflecting that view, and that he is proud to speak of his faith. The right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) talked about Christianity being at the heart of our culture and about his own religious background, as well as the strength of the Church of England. The hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) talked about the heritage and culture derived from our Christian faith—those other elements of the debate—and told the story of hot cross buns. I am certainly very glad that we are still able to have hot cross buns in this place, and indeed in many other places. He also talked about Westminster Abbey, just across the road from us, and its significance in our history and culture.

This weekend, my constituents will be getting together, attending services and taking part in Easter egg hunts. Easter eggs may be one of the things we have adopted, rather than coming from a Christian background. People will be taking part in hunts like the one in Crawcrook Park in my constituency, which is always a highlight with the children; let us hope that this year we have enough Easter eggs for all the children who come out, because it is very popular. For churchgoers and non-churchgoers alike, such events are a reminder that Christianity has shaped many of our traditions.

I will take this opportunity to pay tribute to one of my local vicars, Father Barry at the church of St Mary the Virgin in Whickham, which was built between the 12th and 14th centuries and has a long tradition and a great history. Father Barry has been a real part of the community, working with different people for many years. I pay tribute to him for all his work, and look forward to celebrating with him his years in Whickham.

I will also talk about some of the other heritage assets in my constituency. The Church of the Holy Cross, on which building started in 1220, is a real asset to our community and very much valued. I should also mention the one of the earliest Catholic churches in my constituency, the Church of St Mary and St Thomas Aquinas, in Stella. I was very proud and pleased to be a governor at the church associated with the parish. I pay particular tribute to Churches Together in Blaydon, which works tirelessly across denominations to serve our local community. With its community larder and the other support that it provides, it has supported many families in desperate need.

As we speak, of course, we remain in Lent, which is marked by various customs, including prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Each year, pupils at St Thomas More Catholic School in my constituency take part in Lenten alms, with six weeks of fundraising for local charities. Proceeds this year will be going to local charity Daft as a Brush, which provides transport for people being treated for cancer. I thank all the staff and students for their work during this period.

Like many other faiths, Christianity has a proud tradition of charity, which is an important aspect of our Christian heritage. To give a few examples, I think of Joseph Rowntree, the Quaker businessman and social reformer, who sought to tackle the root causes of poverty endemic in early 20th-century Britain. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s social research continues to inform policy work to this day. Meanwhile, organisations such as Christians Against Poverty and Christian Aid are a lifeline for those facing acute hardship, both here in the UK and around the world.

I pay tribute also to the Trussell Trust, which supports more than 1,200 food bank centres across the UK. The food bank model spread rapidly through church networks, and, as the organisation says, they were inspired by Matthew 25:35-36:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

That is a reminder of the obligations we have to the most vulnerable people in our society. The Trussell Trust does great work, but its vision is for a UK without food banks because they are unnecessary. I cannot but agree with it in that mission.

Charities in the UK have carried many families through the cost of living crisis, when this Government have not provided the help they need. Many charities are being hit hard by the increase in demand, with some even having to turn people away. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has called this a “cost of giving crisis”. This Easter, I hope the Government will take steps to recognise and support charities’ essential contribution.

As a Labour MP, I cannot go without recognising the role of Christianity in the history of our party and our trade union movement. Our founder, Keir Hardie, was a methodist preacher and many other early figures in the movement cited their faith as having inspired their passion for the principles of co-operation and solidarity. Of course, Christianity has inspired many diverse political movements and, in turn, the values of the Labour movement are by no means exclusively Christian. Our movement, and our society, are all the better for the contributions made by countless faiths, cultures and denominations, often working across faith boundaries. The compassion of these communities was vital for getting many of us through the covid-19 pandemic. To this day, as the cost of living crisis continues, many churches, mosques, synagogues, gurdwaras, mandirs and temples have been right at the frontline, opening their doors beyond their own immediate communities to those in desperate need.

As we have seen threats to community cohesion in recent months, it has been inspiring to see faith communities bringing people together. Such inter-faith dialogue is vital, not only for resolving differences, but for building strong and collaborative communities that can support people in times of need. The Government have a role to play in facilitating such co-operation, and I know Members across the House are concerned about the impact of the closure of the Inter Faith Network on that community cohesion work. I hope the Minister is working to ensure that multi-faith dialogue is facilitated through other means too.

We must remember those who will be observing this Easter in the most desperate of circumstances—those facing destitution, fleeing persecution or sheltering from the violence of war. Since the outbreak of the war in Gaza, the Holy Family Catholic church has been a source of refuge for hundreds of displaced Palestinians. In December, an innocent mother and daughter were killed within its grounds and many others continue to suffer without water or food. I hope that this Easter the Minister will join me in recognising our shared humanity and in a call for peace.

As we look toward Holy Week, I pay tribute to people of all faiths and to those of no faith at all who strive daily to serve their communities, both here in the UK and overseas. I celebrate the Christian churches and charities in my own community and the rich contribution that they have made, and continue to make, to our society. The Government should rightly recognise those contributions, but they must also reflect on the hardship that has made some of them necessary. Finally, I hope that Members present today and across the House have a very happy and peaceful Easter.

14:44
Felicity Buchan Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (Felicity Buchan)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq, being a fellow London MP. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on securing this important debate. His speech was deeply thoughtful, very eloquent and also humorous, which is quite a difficult combination, and the strength of his faith came across clearly.

I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) for his considered and impassioned speech. I was particularly struck by his remarks on freedom of speech and religion. I know that he is a man of strong faith. We always see each other in the summer at Brompton Oratory during my constituency’s annual summer fête, and I know that he went to a very good faith school in my constituency, St Philip’s. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) for his important contribution. I was struck by his comments on how intrinsic Christianity is to our culture and history, and on the importance of the Church of England.

I thank the Front Benchers for their contributions. I found the contribution of the SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), very interesting, particularly his comment about how close Christmas and Easter are to each other. I thank the shadow Opposition spokesperson. There is just one point I would like to take up from your comments—

Rupa Huq Portrait Dr Rupa Huq (in the Chair)
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Order. The Clerk always gives me a funny look when people say “you”. Other people in the room who have sat in this Chair know exactly what I mean.

Felicity Buchan Portrait Felicity Buchan
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My apologies, Dr Huq—my mistake entirely. I meant the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist). She said that the Government have not given sufficient support for the cost of living. I want to put it on the record that this Government have given more than £100 billion of cost of living support.

Turning to the subject before us, the importance of Christianity, I share the convictions of my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley about the importance of faith as an essential pillar of our society, and I welcome the opportunity to celebrate the role that Christianity has played in shaping and nurturing the world we live in. I agree that we should be immensely proud of Britain’s history and culture. The Government believe that people need to feel strong in their religious identities, and we are ensuring that the voices of people of faith are being heard.

Our country has been built on Christian values. They permeate every aspect of our lives. Values such as respect for others, public service and the rule of law are supported by the overwhelming majority of people in this country. Those values have evolved over time to become an integral part of Britain today. For that, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the Church of England and the Church of Scotland—the two established churches in the UK.

The Church has, from the first, been the bedrock of our Christian community. It underpins the spiritual wellbeing of individuals. The Church welcomes each of them into a sustaining community of faith, and it builds around them the cultural and institutional framework that promotes and protects their wellbeing. Those values are not unique to churches and their worshippers; they characterise the core beliefs of all our faith communities.

It has been mentioned that at this time of the year, many religions are celebrating important events. We are in the holy month of Ramadan, and I was privileged to attend an iftar at al-Manaar mosque in my constituency last night. Passover is coming in late April, and I will be visiting a synagogue in my constituency at the weekend. Each of our religions, through the commitment they make to serve their worshippers and in their efforts to build our society, helps to deepen and enrich the lives of all of us.

At Easter time, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection signifies the promise of redemption and rebirth and the forgiveness of sin. So as Easter approaches, I am grateful for this opportunity to celebrate the role of the Christian Church in our history and culture.

I am proud of the United Kingdom as a place where people are free to practise their religion, faith or belief. We should all celebrate the diversity and richness of a society that has welcomed and supported those of all faiths and backgrounds. The latest census tells that the number of Christians living in this country has decreased, but Christianity remains the most prominent religion.

We may think of ours as an increasingly secular state, but the imprint and influence of Christianity on every aspect of our lives is unmistakeable. It is expressed in the very fabric of our buildings—our great churches and cathedrals, the Hall that we stand in today. It shapes the defining landmarks of our calendar—Easter, Christmas, saints’ days and holy days. It defines our working week, setting aside one day of each week to rest and worship; and it has long inspired our artists, composers, writers and poets, whose work enlightens and sustains our lives.

Christianity has shaped this country’s history and we should take this opportunity to celebrate the impact that those inspired by its teachings have had on the work of our Parliament. It was the Christian faith of the likes of William Wilberforce and John Wesley that led to the abolition of slavery. Elizabeth Fry devoted herself to the cause of prison reform. Lord Shaftesbury promoted care for people with mental illnesses. Charles Dickens, driven by his faith to work for a better, fairer, world, called his Common Lodging Houses Act 1851 “the best piece of legislation” that ever proceeded from this Parliament. Florence Nightingale, Charles Spurgeon, Harold Moody, Octavia Hill—all were committed reformers inspired by their Christian faith to drive reform and improve the lives of all.

Faith and belief continue to motivate people to acts of public service and to serve their local communities. As a nation, we continue to be made stronger by the work of those inspired by their faith. The tireless work goes on every day in our communities up and down the country, often without fanfare or fuss, quietly undertaken by those making an essential contribution to the common good. It is right that we celebrate and show our gratitude for this work and ensure that the perspective and voices of faith and belief are heard by Government.

Churches are often centres of community support, providing a range of services, including after-school care, youth clubs, financial advice, and addiction support to name a few. Many provide a safety net for those in need, running food banks or warm hubs, and the pastoral impact of the Church extends further into our society, with the provision of chaplaincy across the public sector, including Church of England schools, which we have addressed, prisons, hospitals and the armed forces.

Christian faith schools, like all other faith schools, also play an important role in our education system, providing high-quality school places for many children from all backgrounds, and choice for parents. Faith schools are some of our highest performing schools and are often popular with parents, whether they belong to the faith or not.

Edward Leigh Portrait Sir Edward Leigh
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My intervention is on precisely that point. I do not expect the Minister to give an answer now, but I have had various meetings on this subject. We have had meetings with the Secretary of State for Education, and I know the decision is now in Downing Street. There has been a long campaign to abolish the so-called faith cap, which serves no purpose apart from limiting the ability of Catholic schools and academies to attract new pupils. As I said, I do not expect my hon. Friend to answer now, but can she promise to raise this matter with Downing Street and with the Secretary of State for Education, who I know believes the faith cap should be removed?

Felicity Buchan Portrait Felicity Buchan
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I will certainly follow up and revert to my right hon. Friend on that. I have many faith schools in my constituency, but I will mention just two: St Mary Abbots Primary School, which has hosted many Afghan and Ukrainian children and made them so much a part of the school community; and Cardinal Vaughan, which is an exceptional Catholic secondary school.

Let me say again that as a Government we recognise the importance of faith and belief across our communities. My colleague in the other place, Baroness Scott, the Minister with responsibility for social housing and faith, continues to champion the brilliant work carried out by our faith and belief communities up and down the country. As hon. Members know, we published Colin Bloom’s independent review of faith engagement in April 2023. In his review, he examines engagement with faith in a broad range of public settings and makes a number of recommendations on how Government can improve engagement with faith groups, both to recognise the contribution of faith communities to our society and to address harmful practices. We are carefully considering the review’s findings and will respond in due course.

I want to pick up on a few points that were mentioned today. Religious tolerance was mentioned, and I want to make it very clear that freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law and equal rights are things that we all strive for and value. The rights that we enjoy in the UK extend to everyone. Any individual or group is free to express views and beliefs within the confines of the law, but we must all behave responsibly and respect one another’s fundamental rights. Freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental human right and one that underpins so many other rights.

Regarding funding for places of worship, I want to be very transparent about the fact that such funding is relatively limited. Successive Governments have followed the principle that it is for faith communities themselves to be responsible for the management and upkeep of their places of worship. Nevertheless, there are some instances of Government support: for example, the Heritage Fund run by the national lottery is a scheme to help to restore buildings so that they can be enjoyed by the wider community. If a place of worship is listed, there is a further scheme called the listed places of worship grant scheme, run by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Under the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023, local authorities can now pay small amounts of money for repair and maintenance of local churches where their buildings are being used to deliver services to the wider community.

I want to talk briefly about the Inter Faith Network. I took an urgent question on that a few weeks ago. I want to make it very clear that we value the contribution made by all organisations that are dedicated to bringing our faith communities together in order to strengthen the ties that bind us, and in my own constituency—[Interruption.]

Rupa Huq Portrait Dr Rupa Huq (in the Chair)
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Order. We have a three-hour slot, so we will be fine whatever happens.

Felicity Buchan Portrait Felicity Buchan
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In my own constituency, I bring together the leaders of many different faith groups. I bring together Holland Park Synagogue with Al-Manaar Mosque, with the gurdwara in my constituency and with many Christian churches. Valuing inter-faith networking is very important.

Andrew Rosindell Portrait Andrew Rosindell
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I rise to thank the Minister for her welcome when I visited All Saints’ Notting Hill in her constituency, I think three years ago, for the unveiling of the royal coat of arms in that wonderful church. Does she agree that it is magnificent that a church displays the royal coat of arms, and that all churches should be encouraged to do the same?

Furthermore, will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Reverend Father David Ackerman of St John the Evangelist, Kensal Green? The church not only displays the royal coat of arms, but it raised £20,000 for windows to celebrate the platinum jubilee —magnificent stained-glass windows that depict flora and fauna from all over the Commonwealth. The windows were a unique tribute to Her late Majesty for the platinum jubilee. Will my hon. Friend visit the church to see how wonderful the windows look? They are a great testimony to our Christian faith and the importance of the monarchy and Commonwealth to our Christian heritage, which we celebrate today.

Felicity Buchan Portrait Felicity Buchan
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I certainly agree with everything the you have said about the importance and unity of the Church, the state and the royal family. It was a great delight to see you in my constituency—

Rupa Huq Portrait Dr Rupa Huq (in the Chair)
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Minister, the Clerk is nudging me. The word “you” means me in this context.

Felicity Buchan Portrait Felicity Buchan
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That is right, Dr Huq. It was a great delight to see my hon. Friend in my constituency, and I would love to see him there again.

To return to the subject of the Inter Faith Network, the Department monitors all funded organisations throughout the lifecycle of their projects for the purposes of assessing delivery against workplan targets, compliance and evaluation, in line with best practice for the management of public funding. To ensure suitability, all partners are subject to clearance through our internal finance and due diligence processes. The Secretary of State made the decision to withdraw the offer of funding to the Inter Faith Network in view of a member of the Muslim Council of Britain being appointed to the IFN’s board of trustees. Successive Governments have had a long-standing policy of non-engagement with the MCB. The potential closure of the Inter Faith Network is a matter for the IFN as an independent charity, not the Government.

I would like to express my gratitude to those driven by their faith to strengthen our society and communities. Their selflessness, dedication and commitment to helping others during these challenging times are commendable. 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, I know we can achieve even more to help our communities.

Easter is the very foundation of the Christian faith. For Christians worldwide, the importance of Easter is praising and acknowledging Jesus Christ’s resurrection, his triumph over sin and death, and the promise of everlasting life. As we hear in the Gospel of John 3:16, which my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley quoted,

“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

I remember having to recite that in Sunday school, in Fraserburgh in Aberdeenshire, as a young girl. Easter is a time we can all learn from as 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 who has taken part in this very timely debate a happy Easter.

Rupa Huq Portrait Dr Rupa Huq (in the Chair)
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I call Nick Fletcher to wind up—but not until 4.30 pm. You have a couple of minutes, Mr Fletcher.

14:06
Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher
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It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Dr Huq. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister. I do not know whether I am allowed to say this, but I think she is a really lovely lady, and I am really pleased that it was her responding to this debate. I know it is a Thursday and people want to get home, so I appreciate it.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and my hon. Friends the Members for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) and for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) for their contributions and interventions. I also thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist). It was great to hear what has been going on in the hon. Lady’s constituency. She mentioned several people of faith, and I have a few people to mention myself.

I believe we are all brought to faith by the people around us, and the people who bring us to faith are so important. The person who really brought me to faith is my dad. He is a fantastic fellow; he is 82, but he is still out there spreading the good news. He is a wonderful, wonderful man, so my thanks obviously go to him.

I also thank my pastor, Pastor Grayson Jones. Anyone can become a Christian at any time—they just have to repent their sins and ask Christ to come into their life —but it is nice to do that with somebody. That is what happened between me and my pastor some 15 years ago now. He is a wonderful fellow. We have a fantastic church, and his heart is for the Lord and for young people too. The message is spreading like wildfire across Doncaster, which is wonderful to see.

I also thank the Christians in Parliament all-party parliamentary group, which has helped me so much. There are Bible studies on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and if anyone wants to know more, please get in touch.

I thank Simon Calvert from the Christian Institute, a fantastic organisation. It helps me so much, daily and weekly, and I know it has helped lots of other Members of Parliament. My thoughts go to the institute, whose director, Colin Hart, passed away. He was a wonderful fellow, and my thoughts and prayers go to the Christian Institute and to his family.

As we know, Easter is an extra-special time. I genuinely believe that a life in Christ is the most wonderful thing. Although Christmas and Easter shine a light on the Christian faith, I believe God is with me all the time and that He helps me. I am never alone because of my faith. There are so many lonely people out there, and it is our duty as Christians to go and see them and let them know what faith in Christ can do for them and for society as a whole. Please, if anyone wants to know more about Christ, come and knock on my door. I would love to tell as many people as possible about Him.

Thank you, Dr Huq. I thank the Clerks and everyone who attended on a Thursday afternoon. Thank you very much, and happy Easter.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered Easter, Christian culture and heritage.

15:08
Sitting adjourned.