The Staying Power lecture series has been hosted by the Westminster Abbey Institute throughout March, using speakers from around Parliament Square to attempt to “revitalise moral and spiritual values in public life.”
Taking inspiration from the Benedictine heritage of the Abbey, the theme of the lectures was the constant replenishing of the vocation of public service.
As a former classicist, I must confess, throughout the Westminster Abbey Institutes’ Staying Power lectures, I have had in the forefront of my mind, not bible verses, psalms, and parables of Christianity. Instead, noble Cicero comes to mind, and in particular his reminder: “we are not born for ourselves alone; a part of us is claimed by our nation, another part by our friends”. From a secular perspective, while I attended the talks I felt urges to contribute quotes from civic minded Romans, democratic Athenians, or perhaps even more distant Chinese political philosophers.
As an indication of just how successful the Institute’s Staying Power lecture series was, I don’t think a secular perspective would bother the Institute one bit, on the contrary, they might rather like it.
In many respects the lectures have courted a deliberately transgressive way of looking at government. The Institute wants to do the unusual task of convincing everyone that the Abbey’s nearest neighbours (The Houses of Parliament, Supreme Court, Civil Service, and Metropolitan Police) aren’t as bad as everyone makes out.
Bringing together audiences which are 80% MPs, peers, and the Westminster “great and good”, created a charged atmosphere at the every lecture. It is an uncommon pleasure to sit in an audience of people who have experienced and even shaped some of the 20th centuries most politically influential events. And this is the main triumph of the Westminster Abbey lecture series. Every talk, dialogue, lecture, and seminar had an audience to match the intelligence and significance of the billed speaker.
Talks by the General, Lord Dannatt, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Met Police commissioner, Mary McAleese, the eighth President of Ireland, and Lord Speaker of the House of Lords, Baroness D’Souza looked at how the institutions around Parliament Square can revitalise the role of public service.
As Mary McAleese said in her lecture which drew the series to a close: “When you look at a divided community it is important to look at what they are divided by.” By starting from a constructive position, with issues like “building bridges” between divided factions and “building stronger national and local communities,” allowed even the most partisan audiences to take a step back and look at public service as a vocation, not a war.
The Westminster Abbey Institute will be hosting a new series of talks in the Autumn, taking as its focus the role of the media on public service. As a part of the hack profession I will be anxiously waiting for what promises to be another fantastic lecture series.