Jonathan Wynne-Jones, Telegraph (London), December 26, 2010
John Bercow has backed the creation of a team of multi-faith chaplains, which will also include representatives of the Hindu, Buddhist and Jainist religions.
Members of the House have expressed surprise at the move, which some have described as “an exercise in politically-correct box ticking”.
It could mean that religious leaders of non-Christian faiths will take part in parliamentary ceremonies, though there would need to be constitutional reform to allow them to read the daily prayers.
At present, the Speaker’s Chaplain is the only person allowed to say the prayers before each day’s sitting and the role has been filled by an Anglican cleric since the office was created in 1660.
The proposal to introduce a multi-faith chaplaincy was made by the current chaplain, the Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin, who was appointed by Mr Bercow against the wishes of the Very Rev John Hall, the Dean of Westminster.
Mrs Hudson-Wilkin has fought for greater recognition of ethnic minorities in the Church of England and said she was excited by the move.
The new chaplains will not receive a salary and their role is yet to be specified, but she said they will help to ensure everyone’s pastoral needs are cared for.
“Hospitals and prisons already have this type of chaplaincy system so it’s no big deal we’re now doing the same,” she said.
“As I move around the House I discover people from all walks of life and this seems like the responsible thing to do.”
However, MPs have questioned whether there is a need to set up a multi-faith chaplaincy.
“I welcome the news that this is being introduced if there is a demand for it, but until now I haven’t been aware of such a demand,” said David Amess, the Conservative MP for Southend West.
“I’m puzzled by it as I can’t imagine who has asked for this.”
While there are now eight Muslim MPs, there are not thought to be any Jains, Bahá’ís or Zoroastrians.
“It smacks of an exercise in politically-correct box ticking,” said one MP.
Ann Widdecombe, the former minister, said: “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it if a number of staff want a visiting chaplain, but it starts to become ridiculous if you have every last religion.”
The move has been backed by the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, who has previously talked of the benefits of having a multi-faith chaplaincy.
“Parliament is increasingly diverse in its make up, reflecting the changing face of our country,” he said.
“The Chaplaincy service needs to evolve as well.
“I can see her [Mrs Hudson-Wilkin] playing a very creative part in assembling a team of Chaplains from the nine major world religions to serve both the Speaker and those who work here.”
Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions and has had a presence in Britain since 1723.
The first three ethnic MPs elected to the House of Commons are believed to have been followers, but there are now less than 200,000 of them worldwide.
Zoroastrians believe there is one God called Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord) who revealed the truth through the Prophet, Zoroaster.
There are around 6,000 Bahá’ís in the UK, who believe that Bahá’u’lláh is the most recent in a long line of divinely inspired prophets, including Jesus, Muhammad and Buddha.
In contrast, there are now up to 2.4 million Muslims in Britain who are playing an increasingly active role in politics with leading figures including Baroness Warsi, the Conservative chairman, and Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice minister.
A spokesman for the Speaker said: “It has long been established practice at the Palace of Westminster for the Speaker’s chaplain to invite individuals from different denominations to visit on an occasional basis to be available to Members and staff.
“The Speaker’s chaplain, following discussions with the Bishop of London, is looking at ways to widen the pool of visiting clergy to include individuals from different faith groups.
“This is to better reflect the range of beliefs held by Members and staff in the House.”