It is my honour to introduce His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to Westminster Hall and, through this fine location, to the Palace of Westminster as a whole. It is the first time that a pontiff has visited this place, a fact that alone invests today with deep historical significance. It is a measure of the distance we have come and the dialogue which we have created over the past few decades that an event which in years gone by would have been thought inconceivable can occur and seem wholly natural.
This hall is the oldest structure of its kind in Europe and the home of many memories. It is, inevitably, associated with trials and condemnation to death – as was the fate of Sir Thomas More, one of my 156 predecessors as Speaker of the House of Commons, and of King Charles I, long after considered a martyr by many Anglicans. Yet it would be a mistake to think of Westminster Hall only in these terms, when it has been as much a stage for robust debate as for sheer intolerance.
That tradition of debate has roots far deeper than those of contemporary democracy. It was here in 1374, for example, that a notable discussion occurred between three religious thinkers – a Franciscan, a Dominican and a Benedictine – on the precise relationship between the papacy and the temporal affairs of their kingdom. Suffice to say that no consensus was reached on that occasion. Nevertheless, it is the right to ask such questions, and to deliberate the merits of alternative answers, that makes for freedom. Naturally Parliament contains Members with a wide range of views on great ethical issues. However, as is well known, the House of Commons and the House of Lords, over decades, have taken positions on social, scientific, and sexual issues which are different from those of the Vatican. It is surely right to have robust but respectful debate on such issues within Parliament, between our institutions, and throughout civil society. A very difficult past, and a turbulent present, need not be a barrier to an enlightened future.
History means that those of us privileged to serve society as its elected representatives arrive in this Palace of Westminster to be immediately reminded of the relationship between church and state. We are conscious of a healthy tension in this relationship as we seek to do our business. Your presence, Most Holy Father, adds to the rich tapestry of the past and provides further reason for the many hundreds of thousands of people who come here every year to contemplate the character of this building and what has been witnessed in it. Faith is not a relic either in political discourse or in modern society but is embedded in its fabric.
The warmth of the greeting extended by Her Majesty The Queen yesterday to the Holy Father was notable. Today, in this hall, which sits at the heart of our democratic tradition, are gathered many elected Members of Parliament, Members of the House of Lords, and numerous other distinguished guests from all walks of life and all parts of the United Kingdom. On behalf of everyone here, I warmly welcome you and invite you to address us.
Image: Parliamentary copyright