LONDON – Christians across the United Kingdom have been paying tribute to outgoing Prime Minister Tony Blair who announced Thursday that he will step down from office on June 27 after 10 years in power.
Blair announced his departure in a speech to party members in his Sedgefield constituency in which he said it was up to other people to decide whether he had made mistakes, but said he had always done what he thought was “right.”
“I may have been wrong. That's your call,” the prime minister said. "But believe one thing if nothing else, I did what I thought was right for our country. And I came into office with high hopes for Britain's future, and, you know, I leave it with even higher hopes for Britain's future.
"Actually I've been lucky and very blessed. And this country is a blessed nation,” he added.
"The British are special – the world knows it, in our innermost thoughts we know it. This is the greatest nation on earth.”
The Christian Socialist Movement, a political faith-based lobby group in London, praised Blair for speaking openly about his Christian faith throughout his time as prime minister. Despite his strong will to keep religion out of politics, Blair, an Anglican, has been one of the most publicly Christian prime ministers in Britain for more than a hundred years.
“Tony Blair has made no secret of his Christian faith and its importance to him, and Christian values have clearly informed government policies in the area of the minimum wage, giving pensioners, children and working families a better deal, and tackling global poverty,” said CSM Director Andrew Bradstock.
"Even where Mr. Blair’s actions have drawn criticism from the churches – for example, over Iraq – he has clearly shown himself to be a ‘conviction’ politician, driven by a concern to do what he believed to be right.”
Church leaders have also paid tribute to Blair, particularly for his achievements in Northern Ireland, although Iraq has remained a sore point with many.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, said: "The Church of England, in common with all people of faith, is grateful that over the past ten years the prime minister has refused the demands of some to close down the space in our society within which both vigorous debate and the full diversity of religious conviction can find voice and be expressed.”
And while the Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu, said that he “fundamentally disagreed” with Blair over the invasion of Iraq, he praised the prime minister for upholding the right to public debate.
"Tony Blair always welcomed what he termed ‘prophetic wisdom’ from the Church on matters of state, even where such wisdom took the form of criticism or disagreement,” Sentamu said.
"Such disagreement should not detract from many of the remarkable things Tony Blair has achieved in office, not least among which was the peace settlement in Northern Ireland, where he ensured that past prejudices and failures were not allowed to get in the way of constructive dialogue and peace.”
The head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, meanwhile, said, “For my part, I want to recognize and thank Tony Blair for his dedication and whole-hearted commitment to the service of his country.
“In particular, I would warmly commend his efforts in securing peace in Northern Ireland and his constant concern for the eradication of poverty in Africa.”
The moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Rt Rev Dr Alan McDonald, also said Blair's efforts in Northern Ireland should be a particular source of pride.
“Tony Blair’s achievement in leading the United Kingdom for ten years is remarkable,” he stated.
Though McDonald noted there were “matters of great regret” including “the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, the attachment to American foreign policy, and the decision in favor of a new generation of nuclear weapons,” the church moderator said he would rather “concentrate on positives."
“The provision of undreamt of resources for education and the health service, and the speed with which the promise of devolved government was delivered in Scotland and Wales, should be a source of pride for him,” McDonald commented.
"Above all, history should remember him for the peace process in Northern Ireland.”
Blair's June 27 departure means the mantle will likely pass to Britain’s treasury chief, Gordon Brown, whom Blair has formally endorsed to be prime minister. Brown, who faces no serious opposition after waiting more than a decade for his chance to lead the country, launched his campaign to become Britain's next prime minister on Friday, pledging to learn from the mistakes of the Iraq while honoring "our obligations to the Iraqi people."
It remains to be seen how close Brown and U.S. President George W. Bush will be.