ABC speaks in House of Lords about UK riots

A full transcript of the Archbishop’s speech follows, or listen to the podcast [7Mb].

My Lords, along with all of the members of Your Lordship’s House, I wish to associate myself with the tributes that have been paid to the work of the police force in recent days, and the work of the emergency services. These are people who have put themselves at risk in a very costly way in order to minimise the risk to others, and we are reminded by what we have seen in recent days of the crucial role that these services play in our society. I believe there are indeed questions about the right level of policing that is appropriate to a complex and troubled society like ours, and I hope that those are questions that will be seriously addressed in the days ahead.

I wish also to express the deepest sympathy to those who have lost members of their family, who have lost their livelihoods, who have in some measure lost hope and confidence in recent days. And it is perhaps that loss of hope and confidence that is the most serious, the most long-term issue which we have to address as a society. In the events we have seen in recent days, there is nothing to romanticise and there is nothing to condone in the behaviour that has spread across our streets. This is indeed criminality – criminality pure and simple, perhaps, but as the Prime Minister reminded us, criminality always has a context, and we have before us the task of understanding that context more fully.

Seeking explanations, it is worth remembering, is not the same as seeking excuses, and in an intelligent and critical society, we do seek explanations so that we may be able to respond with greater intelligence and greater generosity. My Lords, one of the most troubling features, as I think all would agree, of recent days, has been the spectacle of not only young people, but even children of school age, children as young as 7 taking part in the events we have seen. And surely, high on our priorities as we respond to these circumstances must be the question of what we are to do in terms not only of rebuilding the skills of parenting in some of our communities, but in rebuilding education itself.

Over the last two decades, many would agree that our educational philosophy at every level has been more and more dominated by an instrumentalist model; less and less concerned with a building of virtue, character and citizenship – ‘civic excellence’ as we might say. And a good educational system in a healthy society is one that builds character, that builds virtue.

In the wake of the financial crisis a few years ago, we began to hear more discussion than we’d heard for a very long time about the need for a recovery of the virtues. The need for a recovery of the sense of how character was to be built in our society, because character my Lords, involves an awareness not only of the connection between cause and effect in my own acts, but a sense, a deepened sense of empathy with others, a deepened sense of our involvement together in a social project in which we all have to participate.

There are indeed, as we’ve been reminded, no quick answers here. And I believe one of the most significant questions that we ought to be addressing in the wake of these deplorable events, is what kind of education we are interested in, for what kind of a society. Are we prepared to think not only about discipline in classrooms, but also about the content and ethos of our educational institutions – asking can we once again build a society which takes seriously the task of educating citizens, not consumers, not cogs in an economic system, but citizens. Yesterday I was speaking to a friend who teaches in higher education, who said that she had been overwhelmed with the number of messages she had received from the young people she was involved in, expressing their anger and their frustration at what they had seen on television. They believed that their own generation was being betrayed by the activity of many young people.

And that, My Lords, is simply a reminder that the young people of this country deserve the best. The reaction of so many of them to the events of recent days has been, as we’ve already been reminded, an inspiration. Just as has been the reaction of so many in our communities – generous, sacrificial, and imaginative. My Right Reverend Brother the Bishop of London has already spoken in other contexts about the way in which communities have rallied, and the place of churches and other faith communities in that rallying, to provide support, to provide emergency help, and simply to provide a quiet space for reflection. Communities deserve the best, and above all, let me repeat it My Lords, young people deserve the best.

I would hope that in our response to these events we shall hold in mind what we owe to the next generation of our citizens – and I underline that phrase “the next generation of our citizens”. What we have seen is a breakdown, not of society as such, but a breakdown of the sense of civic identity, shared identity, shared responsibility. The Government has very rightly made a priority of building community cohesion in what it has spoken of in recent months. Talk of the “Big Society”, of which we have heard a great deal, has focused precisely on the rebirth, the renaissance, of that civic identity. Now we need to see what that is going to look like. Now we need – all of us, without any point-scoring from a partisan approach – we need all of us to reflect on what that building will require in terms of investment in the next generation – in formal education, but also in the provision of youth services, imaginatively and consistently, across the country.

My Lords, I’ve spoken a little about the way in which communities have responded, not only volunteer bodies, but local businesses and also individuals, building new friendships, new networks. People have discovered why community matters. They’ve discovered why solidarity is important. They have begun to discover those civic virtues that we’ve talked about in the abstract. In other words, My Lords, I believe that this is a moment which we must seize, a moment where there is sufficient anger at the breakdown of civic solidarity, sufficient awareness of the resources people have in helping and supporting one another, sufficient hope (in spite of everything) of what can be achieved by the governing institutions of this country, including in Your Lordship’s House, to engage creatively with the possibilities that this moment gives us. And I trust, My Lords, that we shall respond with energy to that moment which could be crucial for the long-term future of our country and our society.

© Rowan Williams 2011


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