Each year the Cabinet Office invites a selection of leaders in a variety of faith groups to Downing Street where the PM thanks them for their national contribution. When my turn came I nearly ended up holding baby Florence – David Cameron’s youngest daughter – while he mingled. While his faith might be a little more formal, I’m told his successor’s is personal. Here’s what she said.
‘I am delighted to welcome you to Number 10 and to have this opportunity as Prime Minister to thank you all for the service you give to our country and for the difference you make to so many lives, day in and day out.
There was some discussion about when in the Christian year we might hold this reception. I thought you might appreciate Shrove Tuesday, not just because of its position before the start of Lent – which is such an important time for all of us as Christians.
I am delighted in particular that we have here with us today people from all parts of the church and the United Kingdom – including the Black Majority Churches, the Network Churches, Parliament’s own church, St Margaret’s Westminster, and the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, who is standing down after more than 20 years.
Richard has been a great leader of Christian faith in our country – he’s not just someone with an extraordinary presence and richness of thought; he has almost doubled church membership in his diocese and established over 30 new churches. I’m sure you will join with me in paying tribute to his outstanding leadership and service – and wish him well in the years ahead.
As Prime Minister I host an annual reception for each of the main faiths in our country – and this one is of particular importance to me personally.
Growing up in a vicarage, I know first-hand the many sacrifices involved and the hard work that so many of you do, from the services and ministry in your churches to the comfort and guidance you provide to millions in our country at some of the most difficult moments in their lives.
Whether it is visiting the sick or bereaved; delivering faith-inspired projects, like the Christmas Day lunch that I join in my constituency each year; or acting as volunteers and aid workers in war-torn parts of the world – we owe you all a huge debt of gratitude and as Prime Minister, on behalf of the whole country, I want to say a very big thank you.
I believe it is right to celebrate the role of Christianity in our country, where we have a strong tradition of religious tolerance and freedom of speech. Our Christian heritage is something we can all be proud of. We must ensure that people feel able to speak about their faith, and that absolutely includes their faith in Christ.
I also believe that Christianity has an important role to play in making Britain a country that works for everyone.
Now, the Church will not always agree with everything that the government says – and the government will not always agree with the Church. But I think there are many areas where we can work together.
One is in addressing the persecution of Christians and religious minorities around the world which has been mentioned to me by some at the reception here today. It is hard to comprehend that today people are still being attacked and murdered because of their Christianity. We must reaffirm our determination to stand up for the freedom of people of all religions to practice their beliefs in peace and safety. And I hope to take further measures as a government to support this.
In the weeks ahead, as we look beyond Ash Wednesday to Easter, let’s draw confidence in our Christian faith and renew our determination to work together in the service of others.
So thank you again for coming here and I hope you will carry on and enjoy the rest of the reception.’
The Rt Hon Theresa May MP, Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street, 28 February 2017
Steve Bell is the National Director for Interserve England and Wales. A mission leader, analyst, trainer and author, Steve is a recognised cross-cultural communicator with 35 years’ experience in 100 countries. Steve is author of Friendship First, Grace for Muslims and Gospel for Muslims and co-edited Between Naivety & Hostility. Steve is married to Julia, a senior teacher and they are “owned” by a mentally deranged Siamese cat called Izzy.