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Maiden Voyages: the Bishop of Chelmsford

4 min read

In his occasional series, Patrick Kidd looks at maiden speeches of note

It has been boom time for bishops in the House of Lords recently. Every week at the end of last year a new mitre seemed to appear on the hat stand as Lords Spiritual representing Exeter, Liverpool and Chelmsford took their seats, with Guildford soon to follow.

Since Winchester and Liverpool (yes, he’s just passing through) retire next month and Birmingham and Peterborough are to receive their Nunc dimittis later in the year, the next bishops along the subs’ bench should start warming up. 

It seems odd that the Bishops’ Bench brings the average age of the Lords down a notch, but they have to shuffle off once they turn 70, though a couple reappear as Lords Temporal, and unlike with other peers it is one-in-one-out. The Lords Spiritual have been fixed at 26 since 1847 and, outside the big five of Cantuar, Ebor, Londin, Dunelm and whatever the Latin for Winchester is, a retiring diocesan bishop is replaced by the next longest serving, with women allowed to jump the queue until 2025.

Exeter and Liverpool had been waiting seven years for their moment and were keen to get cracking. The former took the environment as the text of his maiden sermon in the House, explaining that Exeter is twinned with Melanesia in the South Pacific, whose islands are rapidly disappearing owing to climate change. “I recognise that this is a complex subject and I feel very much the amateur,” he said. “I console myself, however, with the knowledge that whereas the Ark was built by amateurs, the Titanic was built by professionals.”

Liverpool’s opening speech was in defence of the BBC. A frustrated actor, who studied drama at university before choosing what he called “the lower calling” of ordained ministry, he had been due to play Barabbas opposite Jimmy-from-Brookside’s Pontius Pilate in the Liverpool Passion until Covid broke. He spoke in favour of the Beeb’s still, small voice of calm in these shrill and fractious times.

As for Zaghari-Ratcliffe, she had been used as an innocent pawn

Both were overshadowed, though she would be the first to decry the idea of competition, by a powerful and very personal debut from Chelmsford that had several peers wiping away tears and saying it was the finest they had heard. It was in a debate on the fate of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been imprisoned in Iran for five years on a trumped-up charge of plotting to topple the government.

Chelmsford knew all about persecution in Iran, where she was born. Her mother was injured in an attempt on the life of her father, a Christian convert who was bishop of their community; their home was ransacked and her brother murdered. Guli Francis-Dehqani, as she became, fled the country in her teens. “None of this has left me bitter or with ill will towards my homeland or my countryfolk,” she told peers. “I retain a deep love for Iran and her people, and a desire to work for reconciliation across all the divides we create as human beings.”

As for Zaghari-Ratcliffe, she had been used as an innocent pawn, Chelmsford said, in the power struggles between Britain and Iran. She appealed to the government to apply the “British values of compassion, tolerance and justice” and settle the financial debt that Iran claims it is owed. If Britain acted with integrity and decency, she said, Iran would reply with honour and respect. 

“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” she concluded, quoting the Prophet Amos, words adopted by Martin Luther King. Few would disagree with the sentiment. The problem is that the river of justice and righteousness has a frustrating habit of running into the dam of politics. 

Patrick Kidd is editor of The Times diary column and author of The Weak Are A Long Time In Politics

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Read the most recent article written by Patrick Kidd - Lords reform: Backwards, not forwards