(Transcript of the speech, exactly as it was delivered)
Look, a huge – a warm welcome to everybody. The Bible tells us, actually, to bear one another’s burden and you will fulfil the law of Christ; after the day I’ve had, I’m definitely looking for a few volunteers for that. But I – just a few things I wanted to say tonight.
First, how proud I am to hold this reception. Quite rightly, here in Number 10 Downing Street we hold receptions for Eid, for Diwali, we had a Vaisakhi reception and some of Britain’s most prominent members of the Sikh community here just this week. But I’m very proud that we hold a reception for prominent Christians right across our country here before Easter, the most important of the Christian festivals.
And it’s wonderful to have such a diverse range of people from so many different organisations here to celebrate that with us. I’m proud to hold a reception for Christians here in Downing Street and proud to be a Christian myself and to have my children at a church school.
I’m trying to introduce something new with my children which is a little quiz at breakfast time, sometimes about current affairs, sometimes about something they’ve learned at school, maybe even something they’ve discovered in the Gospel. But this morning I tried something different; I said, “What do we know about Prime Minister’s Questions?” And my 8-year-old son said, “Oh that’s when you shout at each other and call each other idiots and muppets.” And it turned out there had been a feature on Newsround, but he closed this conversation by saying, “I watched the feature on Newsround; I was very proud, daddy,” which I’m not sure was the right answer.
So it’s lovely to have here tonight the… vicar who looks after me spiritually in the constituency, Mark Abrey in Chadlington, who, when I often – anyone asks me about the pastoral care that many vicars carry out across the country, I remember 5 years ago when we had to mourn the loss and bury my son Ivan, I can’t think of anyone who was more loving or thoughtful or kind than Mark. And of course, Ivan would have been 12 yesterday, which has had me pause to think about that.
I also wanted to say I’m proud this year to have completed a small pilgrimage, which is I have finally made it to the place where our Saviour was both crucified and born. And it’s a very special moment the first time you go to the Church of the Holy Nativity; it’s a remarkable, extraordinary place, and I think something that will stay with me.
Now, look, there were 3 things that I wanted to say tonight about what I hope we can do more of in our country when it comes to Christianity. And as Eric Pickles said this week, we should be proud of the fact that we are a Christian country, and I am proud of the fact we’re a Christian country and we shouldn’t be ashamed to say so. But I think the 3 things I want to focus on – and I hope we can all work on this – the first is to expand the role of faith and faith organisations in our country. This has been a consistent theme of this government; I’m sure there’s more we could do to help make it easier for faith organisations.
I think we’ve made some good steps forward; free schools, allowing church schools to expand – I think these are important steps. I look around the room and I see faith organisations some of whom I’ve visited over the years and some of who are expanding relatively rapidly. Whether its providing services for children at risk of exclusion, whether it’s teaching prisoners to read, whether it’s dealing with breakdown, whether it’s provision of food banks, there are some extraordinary organisations run by faith groups and Christians in our country and I want to see the possibilities for that to expand.
People sometimes say, you know, “You talk about the Big Society; don’t you realise this is what the Church has been doing for decades?” And I say yes, absolutely. Jesus invented the Big Society 2000 years ago, I just want to see more of it and encourage as much of it as possible. And that is something I think we should all want to see: a bigger role for faith-based organisations in our society. And if there are blockages, if there are things that are stopping you doing more, think of me if you like as a sort of giant Dyno-Rod in Whitehall: I want to make it easier, I want to unblock the things that help you do what you do. So please let’s do that.
Second thing is I hope we can do more to raise the profile of the persecution of Christians around the world. It is the case today that our religion is now the most persecuted religion around the world. I think Britain can play a leading role in this. We have met our obligations in terms of the aid we give to countries around the world. We’re seen as a country which is engaged internationally, and I know that William Hague shares my view about this as does Sayeeda Warsi who leads on this issue in the Foreign Office. We should stand up against persecution of Christians and other religious groups wherever and whenever we can, and should be unashamed in doing so.
This third thing I wanted to say, which I suppose is a little bit more controversial, but I was reflecting on this meeting tonight and what to share with you and I have a thought – which is not a new thought, but I think it is a true thought –which is when I think of the challenges which our churches face in our country and when I think about the challenges political institutions face in our countries – in our country, I see a lot of similarities. We both sometimes can get wrapped up in bureaucracy; we both sometimes can talk endlessly about policies and programmes and plans without explaining what that really means for people’s lives. We can sometimes get obsessed by statistics and figures and how to measure things.
Whereas actually, what we both need more of is evangelism. More belief that we can get out there and actually change people’s lives and make a difference and improve both the spiritual, physical and moral state of our country, and we should be unashamed and clear about wanting to do that. And I’m sure there are people here of all political persuasions and no political persuasions, and I’m certainly not asking you to agree with everything the government does, but I hope you can see – hopefully more than moments, but real moments of evangelism, enthusiasm and wanting to make our world a better place.
Of course, I see my number 1 role and responsibility as sorting out the economy and turning the economy round, and I bore on and on about it and talk about my long-term economic plan. But aside from that there are some really big things that this government is doing which are about that improving state of the world and evangelism. The fact that at a time of great economic difficulty we’ve met the 0.7% target for our aid, our GNP on aid, whereas other countries have either dropped that target or failed to meet that target, I think should be a deep source of national pride. Every few seconds a child is being vaccinated against a disease because of the decision we’ve made in this country to keep our promises and to keep our promises to the poorest people in the world. That is about changing lives, and we should be proud of that.
This year we are going to pass through Parliament a bill to outlaw modern slavery. This is something, I think, that people of all faiths can get behind and get behind with real enthusiasm: that we’re going to bring together all the legislation in this area, that we’re going to toughen the penalties, we’re going to drive out the scourge that is still so present in our world and we’re going to do it on a cross-party basis but with real meaning and feeling.
Of course, many of the things that we do are controversial, not least the changes that we’re making in welfare, but I hope that even when people will disagree and challenge with this idea or that idea, there is a genuine attempt to try to lift people up, rather than count people out. That is what it’s all about, and I welcome the debate that there is with church leaders and faith communities about some of these issues because in the end, actually, I think we all believe in many of the same things. The dignity that comes through work, the support people want to give their families, not writing anyone off, always giving people a second chance – these are really important to all of us.
So let’s have that debate, but I hope that I can enthuse political institutions, my party, my government with a sense of evangelism about some of the things we’re trying to change in our country and in our world. And when I look at churches I see that the – you’re trying to do exactly the same thing, to fire up your congregations with a sense that actually, if we pull together, we can change the world, we can make it a better place. That to me is what a lot of the – what the Christian message is about, and that’s why it gives me such pleasure and is a huge privilege to have you all here tonight. Thank you.