Bishop Sarah’s Maiden Speech to the House of Lords
Location: House of Lords
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their warm welcome and am grateful for the practical support I have received from the officers and staff. I am humbled by the knowledge and wisdom represented in your Lordships’ House and I am very conscious that it is a privilege to be a Member. It is a responsibility that I will take seriously. I pay tribute to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, my predecessor as the Bishop of London, and his service in this House. I am glad that he continues to serve in his new capacity on the Cross Benches.
When it was announced that I was to be the 133rd Bishop of London, my friend, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury, said that I was a nurse to my fingertips and a modern Boadicea. In this speech, I will try to channel more of the former and suggest that noble Lords speak to my right reverend friend about the latter.
I became a Christian as a teenager so my choice of career as a nurse was a vocation. It was an opportunity to reflect the love of God that I had come to know. I specialised as a cancer nurse and became a ward sister at the old Westminster Hospital just around the corner from here, and then later the director of nursing at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital on the Fulham Road. In 1999 I was appointed the Government’s Chief Nursing Officer for England. While in that role I trained for ordination in the Church of England.
When I moved into the Church of England, I continued to contribute to health, first as a non-executive NHS board member and more recently as a member of the council of King’s College London. I am a passionate supporter of the NHS. It has touched my life in many ways: as a parent; at the time of the death of my parents; and, of course for many years as a nurse. I have seen examples in this country of world-class care and, as we celebrate 70 years of the NHS, I pay tribute both to those who had the courage and vision to set up the NHS and to those who continue to care within the NHS today.
They say you can take the nurse out of nursing, but never nursing out of the nurse. I am the Bishop I am today because of that first vocation to nursing, and compassion and healing are constants at the heart of who I am. I would not go so far as to say that this House needs a ward sister, for fear of being taken the wrong way; but I hope that in my time here and with my background, I can bring as much to this place of the pastoral and spiritual as I can of the professional.
I worked in London both as a nurse and as a priest before moving to the south-west as Bishop of Crediton in the diocese of Exeter. The people of Devon are thrilled that, as the Bishop of London, I come to your Lordships’ House with some understanding of rural life. Alas, the diocese of London has fewer farms. We serve a population of four million, covering 277 square miles of Greater London, north of the Thames and west of the Lea, from the Isle of Dogs in the east to Staines in the west and as far north as Enfield. Your Lordships will be delighted to know that you are sitting in my diocese.
London is of course world-facing. It is multicultural and multi-faith. It is a city of energy and diversity, open to all. But it is also a city of inequality and deprivation. As we have seen most recently in the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, it is also a city where people can feel ignored, marginalised and—often justifiably—angry. I am the Bishop of London, but I intend to be a bishop for London. And I will do so alongside those other distinguished bishops for London in this House, my right reverend friends the Bishops of Chelmsford and Southwark.
Along with celebrating 70 years of the National Health Service, I have been delighted to celebrate 70 years of the Paralympic movement. At evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral earlier this month we watched a demonstration of wheelchair fencing under the dome. It was a reminder of how sport can enable people with disabilities to flourish. We should not lose sight of the fact that in the UK, one in five of the population has a disability of some sort, the majority of those people acquiring their disability in later life.
Our churches, like our society, need to up their game when it comes to being welcoming and accessible places for people with disabilities. There are some good examples, including the Disability Advisory Group at St Martin-in-the-Fields, here in London. The driving force for their mission is to change attitudes towards those with disabilities—as not simply people presenting pastoral or practical challenges, but equals who bring unique potential to aid our renewal and mission as a church. In wider society, unlocking potential for those with disabilities brings benefit to us all.
As we celebrate 70 years of the NHS I am aware that for people with disabilities, going into general hospitals can be one of their biggest challenges, because their specific needs—such as their spinal needs—are often not met. Therefore, hospitals disable them. I know that as we move forward, there will be more challenges for the NHS and more difficult decisions, which is why I welcomed the recommendation in 2016 of the Equality Act 2010 and Disability Committee, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, which called for a cumulative impact assessment of the decisions made in the public sector on disabled people.
I am immensely grateful to all who have welcomed me today, and look forward to the rest of the speeches in this debate, and the many debates to come.