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Interview: Richard Napier Luce, High Steward of Westminster Abbey

15 July 2016

‘I feel privileged to have had the chance to serve in so many different ways’

The historic office of High Steward is the most senior honorary ap­pointment of the Dean and Chapter. My role is as an external adviser. This involves a range of duties, such as chairing the panel to appoint new canons, taking part in discussions about policy, discussing links with Parliament, and attending the important services in the Abbey.


I’ve been most impressed by the wonderful devotion of the 250 or so full-time staff and 500 volunteers who are committed to serving God, the sovereign, the nation, and Par­liament, under the inspired leader­ship of the Dean, the Very Revd John Hall, and supported by the Receiver-General and the Chapter. The Abbey, of course, is dis­­tinctive, in that it is a Royal Peculiar, and therefore accountable directly to the Queen in pursuit of its national role.


Its mission is to serve Almighty God by offering divine worship daily and publicly, and to serve the Sovereign by daily prayer and a ready response to requests made by Her Majesty or on her behalf. It’s the place where state occasions take place, and important ceremonial, like the Battle of the Somme mem­orial service. There are other pur­poses too, of course, but it’s got to have a link with Parliament and the House of Lords — and it’s got to be a place of real, true religion in the national life.


It has developed a link with the Civil Service in London, too, and it welcomes more than a million visitors and pilgrims from all over the world — and that has a Commonwealth flavour to it, too.


Happiness in one’s work takes different forms. Being the last British District Officer in Kenya, aged 24, gave me immense pleasure. I enjoyed serving and working with Africans, who demonstrated to me the vital importance of humour in life. Being a Foreign Office Minister was the most natural area for me to serve.


I first started going abroad when I was ten. It was another age, totally different. My father was a colonial governor, and saw the need to give people independence as speedily as possible. It was he who pulled the flag down in the Sudan, and negotiated our withdrawal from the Gulf.


I did army service in Cyprus, administration in Kenya, explored the Horn of Africa on camels, travelled a great deal, and met many interesting people.


Each country is different — but I really did love serving in a remote frontier region of Kenya, and admired the spirit and humour of the Africans with whom I worked in those harsh conditions. On the whole, I’m against the Empire, but the devotion of some of those people to those they served was wonderful.


I was very unhappy in England, and ran away from Wellington. I’d been hung upside down by a dressing gown cord over the banisters four floors high by a boy who was torturing me and, instead of returning to school one evening, I turned round and made my way to my grandmother’s house in Wilt­shire, breaking in through the sit­ting room window at 3 a.m.


Grandmothers in those days were very robust. “We’ll have three days together, go for picnics, do whatever you like, and then go back to Wellington together.” She took me back and no one ever mentioned it. I started again.


Sir Anthony Seldon, who started the happiness lessons when he was headmaster at Wellington, is my suc­­cessor as Vice-Chancellor at Buck­­­ingham University. I must make it clear that I have no criticism of Wellington today.


He’s also written about mindfulness, which is common sense, really, but it’s good to have it set out for you. I’ve had chronic pain for years; so I’m extremely interested in this. I’m co-ordinating a group in Parliament to help the NHS deal better with chronic pain. There’s a debate coming up about a fit-for-work scheme, which I’m going to lead in the Lords.


I feel especially privileged to have had the chance to serve in so many different ways. I was brought up to the concept of service to others.


Given extra lives, I might like to have been, in this order, a conductor, a professional pianist, and to bat and bowl for England. But I’ve no regrets about my life — only a feeling of great privilege that so many challenges came my way.


I wanted to follow the early inspiration of Anthony Eden as Foreign Secretary. Public figures are almost always remembered for one thing: Blair will always be re­­membered for Iraq, Eden for Suez. But I’m thinking of him as an out­standing Foreign Secretary before the war. In his skills of diplomacy, and working to find peace around the world, he was outstanding. I’ve inherited his chain as a Knight of the Garter.


I’m particularly proud to have chaired the Commission for the See of Canterbury in 2012, which led to the Queen appointing Justin Welby Archbishop.


I believe we did recommend to the Queen the best man for these times. One only has to look at the speech of the Archbishop in the House of Lords about repairing wounds after the referendum. He is a leader.


I’m especially proud to have served the Queen as Lord Chamberlain. The most powerful inspiration to me is that she kept to the com­mitment — made in her broadcast in South Africa on her 21st birthday — to serve her people and the Commonwealth for the rest of her life. And how!


I’ve regularly had a difficult start in most of my jobs. But whether as Minister for the Arts, Governor of Gibraltar, or as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, I have ended each of those jobs greatly admiring the range of talents and commitment of those I have worked with.


I voted in favour of remaining in the EU. Despite my disappoint­ment, I think we have to accept the result, pick ourselves up, and work for a new framework of co-operation in Europe which en­­sures that we never again fight another war in Europe. The most moving service in the Abbey to commem­orate the Battle of the Somme, on 30 June this year, re­minded us that we must do this for the sake of all those who died in two world wars, and for the younger generation whose future it will be.


I am very proud of my father, who dedicated his career to leading the Sudan, South Arabia, and the Gulf countries to independence, and taught me all that I know about inter­­national affairs. My mother kept me going throughout my un­­happy schooldays, and inspired me to realise that you overcome shyness by looking outwards.


Without the love and support of my wife, Rose, I could not have coped with the very full life that we have been able to lead. I’m fortunate to have two wonderful sons, Alex­ander, a nutritionist, and Edward, a journalist, and a magical nine-year-old granddaughter, Mimi.


A lot of people have asked me about Miranda [Hart, his niece]. I was talking to some sixth-formers about Parliament when a hand goes up, asking about Miranda. She’s got a particular talent which gives a great deal of pleasure, but television mesmerises people. We shouldn’t be judged on whether we get publicity or not.


Music, especially Chopin — played so beautifully by my father — has made me more relaxed in times of tension. I read widely, particularly history and biography, and enjoy novelists like George Eliot.


I do get angry, but usually under the provocation of chronic pain, and usually calm down quickly.


I’m happiest at home in the peaceful countryside of Sussex, near the only Carthusian monastery in the British Isles.


The greatest influences on my life have been my parents and my wife, and Peter Carrington, with whom I resigned over the invasion of the Falkland Islands.


Normally I find myself praying that I be given greater strength to be a better person and more helpful to others, and for those friends and relations who may be suffering at that time.


Of course, I would want my wife, Rose, to be with me if I were locked in a church; but I’d be grateful also for the company of my forebear Sir Richard de Lucy. I’d want him to explain to me why, as Chief Justiciar and general adviser to Henry II, he eventually sided with the King ra­­ther than St Thomas Becket. Then we might pray together.


Lord Luce was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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