November 25, 2007
The Church in England: Downright Un-American
By GEOFFREY WHEATCROFT
LAST week, Tony Blair outlined his plans for easing the economic crisis in Gaza, in his role as a Middle East facilitator. And that's all he is these days, a long step down from the prime minister's office, which he resigned last summer. The point was made bluntly then by a State Department spokesman, Tom Casey: "There's certainly no envisioning that this individual would be a negotiator between the Israelis and Palestinians."
Learning to accept such slights with humility is said to be one of the consolations of religion, and Mr. Blair is evidently about to take an important step on his personal path, which he discussed with Pope Benedict XVI, it was reported, on his last visit to Rome as prime minister.
The authoritative Catholic paper The Tablet of London now writes that, some time before Christmas, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair will at last be received into the Roman Catholic Church by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales.
The historical resonances and political overtones of this are as significant as the event itself — which also illustrates again the great trans-Atlantic gulf. Not only are the English now a notably irreligious people; in striking contrast to America, religion plays no part in British political life.
For years it has been rumored that Blair would one day convert, the culmination of a journey that began when he discovered religion at Oxford. An Australian clergymen named Peter Thomson introduced him to the work of another writer. "If you really want to understand what I'm all about, you have to take a look at a guy called John Macmurray," Mr. Blair has said. "It's all there."
Little read now, Macmurray was an academic theologian and proponent of "communitarianism" who died at 85 in 1976. Not everyone was as enthusiastic as Mr. Blair. George Orwell, for one, was suspicious of Macmurray as a "decayed liberal" who was even susceptible to totalitarian rhetoric.
However that may be, Mr. Blair joined the High or "Anglo-Catholic" wing of the Church of England, whose adherents, from John Henry Newman on, have been inclined "to pope" (as they used to say) and go the whole way. His wife, Cherie Booth, is a Catholic, and for years he went to Mass with her and their children, even taking holy communion, irregularly and sacrilegiously in Catholic eyes.
All of which sets him far apart from his compatriots. When an interviewer once tried to raise the question of faith, Mr. Blair's press officer, Alastair Campbell, snapped, "We don't do God," and on that occasion at least he was quite right.
By contrast with the United States, whose First Amendment prohibits any establishment of religion, there is a Church of England "by law established," with the queen as its supreme governor. And yet, while polls indicate that nearly half of Americans go to church each week, services of this established church are now regularly attended by fewer than 2 per cent of the English population, while the total for all Christian churches is around 7 per cent. (Islam is another matter: Muslims attending Friday prayers in Great Britain may soon outnumber all churchgoing Christians.)
We British not only don't do God, we are effectively a pagan nation — and that goes for our politicians. Even when England was truly Protestant, that was more in terms of hostility to Catholicism than theological precision or zeal, and to this day the public displays of piety that are normal enough in America would be embarrassing here.
No British prime minister has been a Catholic, and it would have been politically very difficult for Mr. Blair to convert when he was in office (think of Northern Ireland, apart from anything else). A neglected footnote to our history is that a majority of prime ministers for the past century were by origin Protestant Dissenters, in the old term, from outside the Church of England: H. H. Asquith
grew up as a Congregationalist; David Lloyd George a Baptist; Neville Chamberlain a Unitarian; Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher Methodists.
More to the point, only a minority of 20th-century prime ministers were Christians as adults, having any serious personal religion. The impious majority includes Winston Churchill. His "Macmurray" was Winwood Reade, who wrote a once-famous book published in 1872. "The Martyrdom of Man" was called "a bible for secularists," though Nietzsche-and-water might be better: Churchill learned from Reade that God is dead and that man is master of his own destiny in a cruel world.
Of course, Churchill paid lip service to the outward forms — christenings, weddings and funerals in church — and he would invoke the Almighty rhetorically. But neither he nor other British pols ever made an open parade of faith, certainly not in the way that United States presidential candidates are obliged to. And it's very hard to imagine an American equivalent of Norman Tebbit.
As cabinet minister and Conservative party chairman in the 1980s, Mr. Tebbit was one of Mrs. Thatcher's most effective lieutenants, a tough, populist right-winger — and a self-proclaimed atheist. Even the believing prime ministers kept politics and religion separate: Harold Macmillan was a pious High Churchman, and he used to say that if the people want moral guidance they should get it from their bishops, not their politicians.
For centuries, England was certainly infused with political Protestantism, in the sense of antipathy to the Roman Church. In 1780, London was swept by the "No-Popery" Gordon Riots (see Dickens's "Barnaby Rudge"), and in 1850 Lord John Russell tried to prevent the re-establishment of a Catholic hierarchy in England. That tradition lingered longer than you might think.
In 1945, Labor won a landslide election (to the astonishment of the defeated Churchill), sweeping every industrial district and large town, with one exception. Labor had acquired a large Irish-Catholic vote, while the Conservatives held on to the ultra-Protestant constituency. And so it was that in that year of Labor's triumph the Tories still won a majority of seats in Liverpool (Cherie Booth Blair's native city), thanks to the anti-Catholic "Orange vote" there.
Today, that kind of sentiment is quite vanished outside Ulster, and there will be no vehement demonstrations against Rome's latest illustrious convert. Still, what Tony Blair has said is his strength has also been seen as a weakness.
"Far from lacking conviction," said the late Roy Jenkins — the Labor politician who became a founder of the Social Democrats, and who originally admired Mr. Blair — "he has almost too much." Mr. Blair has nearly admitted as much: "I only know what I believe." And those words may indeed explain a great deal about him, well beyond his new ecclesiastical affiliation.