SIR PETER BOTTOMLEY: Commonwealth for all

Commonwealth flags in Parliament Square
Commonwealth flags in Parliament Square

The weekend began with the positive conference on housing and homelessness called by Worthing Homes and the Worthing Churches Homeless Projects.

Contributions were made by many, including councillors and council officers. Tim Loughton MP gave a video presentation; I spoke too.

I was glad to sit by Father Ben Eadon who has served Durrington’s St Symphorian’s congregation for the past two years.

Ben reminded me of a curate we knew 40 years ago at a south London church: he went on to appointment as the Dean of Westminster.

In the 1970s and early 1980s I worked on effective policies for families with the legendary Roman Catholic priest, later Bishop Eamon Casey whose death aged 89 has been announced this week.

Eamon did so much with the Catholic Housing Aid Society to help young couples to buy or to rent. He also became chairman of the charity Shelter.

On Monday Dean John Hall welcomed Her Majesty the Queen to the Abbey by Parliament Square, joining the multi-faith Commonwealth Day Service.

One third of the congregation were below the age of 16. The remarkable Commonwealth of 52 nations is relevant for the future.

The night before, the Dean had led a more informal Service of tourists and other Abbey visitors.

Between the hymns and prayers, he talked about how the Commonwealth brought together over two billion people around the world. A few English-speaking countries got away.

Perhaps the United States of America and Ireland will make late applications to join? Burma and Aden did not join. Zimbabwe is presently not a member.

The largest and smallest democracies, by population and land area, together with countries rich and poor are united by self-governance and by decolonisation of the British Empire as an intergovernmental organisation. It operates by consensus. It dates formally from the London Declaration in 1949.

Queen Elizabeth spoke of a new mission in her 1953 Christmas Day broadcast, seeing the Commonwealth as built on the highest qualities: friendship, loyalty, and the desire for freedom and peace.

Member states have no legal obligation to one another. Wikipedia rightly states that we are united by language, history, culture and shared values of democracy, free speech, human rights and the rule of law.

The first independent country within the British Empire was the confederation of Canada in 1867, though Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949, having been a separate dominion for a time.

The expression ‘Commonwealth of Nations’ was used by Lord Roseberry on a visit to Australia in 1884.

During parliamentary activity on the European Union, I thought our relationships in Europe could have more of the Commonwealth qualities.

This is the week when MPs join the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace in a simple chapel. It was a joy to sing hymns without accompaniment.

Over the decades, I have known each Archbishop and each leader of the Methodists and the Roman Catholics.

We are fortunate in those who lead our churches and faith groups nationally and locally.

It is not possible to agree on everything with everybody at all times. I do understand that some decisions I take and that some things I say are upsetting to individuals and to groups.

Usually, if there is the opportunity for discussion, we can appreciate different perspectives and understandings.

In church, in the constituency and in the country, as well as in Europe, understanding can and should lead to better working together.

That was the purpose of the local housing conference. It is the way elsewhere too.

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