My Lords it is a great privilege to have the opportunity of initiating this debate. Before I begin I would like congratulate the Noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria on his debate last week that also focused on the contribution of ethnic and religious communities to Britain. I know that many noble Lords here today also participated in that debate and I am grateful for their presence in the chamber today. Sometimes debates are like buses. You wait forever for a debate on the contribution of faith communities in Britain and then two come along at once.
Given that this weekend, we will celebrate Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee I hope that your Lordships will allow me to focus the majority of my time on the second portion of the question today, that of the relationship between faith communities and the Queen and to draw attention to the gracious way in which she has guided and sustained this nation through one of its most challenging transitions, into a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-faith society.
Many tributes have been and will be rightly paid to Her Majesty for the six decades of her sustained and dedicated service to the nation, but one in particular should not be forgotten. It is not easy for any society to undergo change, least of all when that change touches on such fundamental markers of identity as religion, ethnicity and culture. It is even harder in a nation where there is an established church, to make the members of other faiths feel welcomed, valued and at home.
But that is precisely what her Majesty has done, and I believe I speak for all of us if I say that we are lifted, blessed and enlarged by the generosity of spirit in which she has done so. Many noble Lords will wish to add their perspectives, and we will be hearing today from Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Zoroastrian and other Jewish members of this house, as well as being honoured by the Most Reverend Primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who, together with his predecessors, has done so much personally to contribute to our national ecology of tolerance and mutual respect.
Let me simply therefore say on behalf of the Jewish communities of Britain and the Commonwealth how much we have appreciated Her Majesty’s kindness to us and to others. This is something of a miracle in itself since Jews rarely agree on anything; but on this we are united. It is in fact astonishing how far this spreads. For the past year wherever I have travelled to Jewish communities throughout the world, one of the first questions I have been asked, is “How was the royal wedding?” And in the United States in several synagogues I visited in February of this year, to my astonishment, they sang “God save the Queen.” This may be the first time since 1776 they have done so. Each week in all our synagogues we say a prayer for the Queen and the royal family, and this week we will be saying a special prayer of thanksgiving to mark Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee and the great gift of her leadership and service. There are rare individuals whose greatness speaks across all ethnic and religious divides. Her Majesty is such an individual and we are truly blessed by her.
She has spoken often of her personal faith and of the Church of England of which she is the head. But she has spoken equally of the contribution all other faith communities have made to the life of the nation. At Lambeth Palace, in February, in one of the first official engagements of the jubilee year, she reminded us of how faith itself, not just Christian faith, recalls us to the responsibilities we have beyond ourselves, and about how, together with the Church of England, other faith communities were increasingly active in helping the sick, the elderly, the lonely and the disadvantaged.
In 1952, in the first year of her reign, her majesty became the patron of the Council of Christians and Jews, the organisation founded ten years earlier, in the holocaust years, by Archbishop William Temple and Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz. That was one of the first great interfaith organisations in Britain, and today there are hundreds of such groups, creating friendships across the boundaries between faiths, where otherwise there might have been suspicion and fear. One of the greatest of them, the Interfaith Network, is this year celebrating its silver jubilee; and as we speak, another new initiative, Interfaith Explorers, is being launched at the Regents Park Mosque in the presence of His Royal Highness the Duke of York. That too is a reminder of how greatly other members of the Royal family like His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, and others, have done in their own right to make all nine of the major faith communities in Britain feel recognised and respected.
We are enriched by our religious diversity. Each faith is a candle; none is diminished by the light of others; and together they help banish some of the darkness in the human heart. I know of few places in the world where friendship across faiths is more vigorously pursued than Britain; and for the way she has led and encouraged this great opening of hearts and minds to one another, as for so much else, Her Majesty has lifted our spirits and earned our thanks.
Might I therefore humbly ask Her Majesty’s government two simple questions? Firstly, how have they recognised the role and contribution of faith communities, as Her Majesty has done over her 60-year reign, and how they will continue to do so in the future? And secondly, if they might find a way of conveying to her Majesty the thanks of all Britain’s faith communities for all she has given us and all she has inspired us to give to others?