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The Bishop of Norwich’s maiden speech in the House of Lords

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Lord Bishop of Norwich

Maiden speech

My Lords, it is a privilege to offer my maiden speech following the first gracious Speech given by His Majesty. I thank noble Lords for their welcome, and the staff for their kindness and guidance. I will need to draw on the wisdom of all who serve our nation in this House.

As Bishop of Norwich, I serve a diocese that has 658 of Norfolk and Waveney’s churches. Many of them are gems of medieval architecture. All of them are treasure troves of memory and places of prayerful watching. Plenty have unique round towers. Each rural church community knows about the hidden challenges of poverty, poor transport and the high cost of housing, but also about the strong sense of community found in our churches and schools.

Since my early years, I have been captivated by our natural world, going on to become an ecologist. This, combined with a vocation to ministry, means that my passions are flying in formation in my current role as lead bishop for the environment. Through a quirk in history, I am also the last remaining Bishop Abbot, with the ruined St Benet’s Abbey in the Norfolk Broads being my bailiwick. I sail there each year in a Norfolk wherry, standing at the bow, anxiously trying to ensure that my mitre is not blown off.

That stunning landscape was created by our forebears’ need for fuel—for peat. Now, as we realise the damage to people and the planet from our dependency on carbon fuels, so ably highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Stern, we must protect and enhance ecosystems that store vast amounts of carbon, such as wet fen, reed beds, deep peat soils and forests.

The noble Lord, Lord Gascoigne, mentioned in his excellent speech his love of the natural world. I raise him Norfolk’s biodiversity: the peregrine falcons nesting on the spire of Norwich Cathedral; the dancing of swallowtail butterflies over milk parsley in the Broads; the plaintive mewing of the grey seals protecting their pups on the east coast; tending my own honeybees; the great dawn flight of pink-footed geese from their marshland roosting grounds on the north coast; or the soil ecosystems that are so essential for growing cereals for Norfolk’s outstanding ales. Big skies and rich land, chalk streams and broads, forests and heathlands: many are internationally important habitats because of their place along migratory routes, the scarcity of their ecosystems, or the rarity of their species.

Therefore, I welcome His Majesty’s Government’s commitment in the gracious Speech to

“continue to lead action on tackling climate change and biodiversity loss”.

Past UK Governments have been instrumental in seeking and shaping international agreements to protect nature. I saw these in action as a board member of the Northumberland National Park Authority, with its various protected landscapes, and as we dealt with new tree diseases when I chaired the Forestry Commission’s advisory committee in the north-east. While the gracious Speech spoke of holding

“other countries to their environmental commitments”,

the UK Government can do that with credibility only if we are an exemplar ourselves. As His Majesty has frequently reminded us, we must learn again our interdependence on nature and seek to reverse the horrific graphs of decline.

With the care of creation being a strong theme within Christianity—indeed, all faith communities—churches have a part to play. Churchyards should have a rich biodiversity—places for the living, not just the dead. The Communion Forest is a global initiative comprising local activities of forest production, tree growing and ecosystem restoration, seeking to safeguard creation right across the Anglican Communion.

The Book of Revelation notes that the leaves of the trees will be for the healing of the nations. To plant is to hope; to restore is to heal; to protect is to love. I wonder whether seeing again nature’s wonder and its beauty might just rekindle the foundation for a life-affirming, nature-valuing horizon, because we have a long way to go to leave nature in the better place than we found it, as the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, spoke about. This needs cross-party leadership and a commitment long into the future. I look forward to playing my part in your Lordships’ House.