My speech in yesterday’s House of Common’s debate on women bishops.
Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): Anybody looking in on this debate from outside would be rather surprised at how low key and sober it has been, given the momentousness of what we are debating and hopefully approving. I suspect that it is because most people will be rather surprised that this was not done some time ago. They probably thought it had been. Still, that should not detract from the importance and the historic nature of this evening’s debate, or of the approval for this Measure.
I hope that the right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), who speaks on behalf of the Church of England, will answer the technical questions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), and by Lady Howe in the other place. However, I do not want to spend my few minutes focusing on technicalities. There have been few moments in the House of Commons that have given me this much pleasure. I joined the Movement for the Ordination of Women as a teenager; some may think that rather sad. Apologies to my Labour colleagues, but I joined the movement several years before I joined the Labour party.
We should pay tribute to all the campaigners over the years who spent a lot of their time getting us to where we are, and who took a lot of stick. I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Banbury, because—without sparing his blushes—he has been the most fantastic Second Church Estates Commissioner. He has shown leadership on the issue; after the previous Synod debate, which took us all by surprise and shocked the nation as well as the Church of England, he went back to the Synod, the bishops and the Archbishop of Canterbury and made it absolutely clear to them that Parliament would not put up with the situation.
We sometimes underestimate the role that we can play in this place, but the fact that we spoke with one voice, and such a strong voice, in response to that terrible vote two years ago in Synod really made a difference. I was involved in some of the meetings and discussions with the bishops and the archbishop. They were sobered by the vote, and were certainly unnerved by some of the discussions that we had in this place, saying, “If you can’t sort this out yourselves, we will sort it out for you through legislation. You had better watch the Church of England’s established status if you carry on like this.” That did concentrate minds, and it was largely to do with the right hon. Gentleman’s tireless work. I shall miss him in this place, not just because of the role he plays in the Church, but as one of the few sane Tory voices on Europe. I am sorry to lose that from the House as well.
I also pay tribute to the Archbishop of Canterbury. I always said that I thought that it would take somebody coming from his tradition within the Church of England to drag it into the modern age, and I am in danger of being proved right. He has shown real leadership and determination and organisational skills, political skills with a small p, which are essential in that job to get anything done. The majority that was achieved in the Synod last time took my breath away given what had happened the time before.
In response to the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) who is no longer in his place and who expressed some concern that what we are doing here tonight might damage our relationships with the Roman Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church, there are many in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches who wish they were in the same position that we are now moving to in the Church of England. Pope Francis, bless him, had his own difficulties this week in Rome with his own bishops in his attempts to drag the Roman Catholic Church a little further into our century. I urge him to take comfort from the experience of the Church of England during the last two or three years: if at first you do not succeed, just try again. I am sure he will have more success next year in his final Synod. Perhaps they could look at our experience and take some comfort from it.
I also want to thank all colleagues on both sides of the House who have worked very hard on the issue and have made sure that Parliament’s voice has been heard. In particular, I refer to those tireless campaigners, such as Margaret Webster, the widow of the former Dean of Norwich, who, when I was a teenager and she was one of the founding members of the Movement for the Ordination of Women, nobbled me to join that organisation. It was really my first experience of political activism. I do not know how many other Members’ first experience of political activism was on such an issue, but it taught me about the importance of perseverance, of campaigning, of not giving up, and of making and winning the arguments. Heavens, it has taken us a long time, but it gives me fantastic delight and pleasure that we are getting here tonight. There will be a lot of people out there in the country, not just women themselves, but millions of ordinary Anglicans, who will be celebrating this evening.