Millennium Blues: The Third Wilberforce Address
Ladies and gentlemen, With that famous precision of mind which was so unsuited to the compromises of politics, Enoch Powell used to say that no one was really justified in calling themselves a Christian. It was impossible to know what the word really meant, he claimed. All you could say with any safety, Enoch argued, was that you were a member of a particular Church. In that spirit, I speak to you tonight as a member, by conversion, of the Roman Catholic Church who is also a Conservative, although I hasten to say that I am not a spokesman for that Church.
The difference between Christian faith and political opinions
It is very difficult indeed to say what Christianity is, and this fact should make all of us more diffident than we usually are. In such company, I certainly feel diffident tonight. Is there any connection in my mind, then, between being a Catholic or, in the case of others, an Anglican, a Methodist, or whatever - and a Conservative? At the most important level, I would say there is none. Faith is a gift of grace, not a matter of opinion. Political allegiance is merely a matter of opinion, and of habit and prejudice. Faith concerns what is perfectly true: politics is just a question of somehow, imperfectly, getting by.
Many talks to forums such as these devote themselves to seeking to show that Conservatism and Christian belief go well together. I do not want to attempt that task tonight. I am absolutely convinced that Conservatives can be good Christians, but then I believe exactly the same of Socialists. Christians can justifiably support any party which does not explicitly reject the Christian God, as Communist parties do and the Nazi Party, slightly less directly, did. There are, or have been, Christians who sincerely believe that a police state, or complete nationalisation, or capital punishment or 98% income tax, or the feudal system, or slavery, or apartheid, or the confiscation of private property can be made compatible with their religion. I do not think we can say that they are definitely wrong, as long as they refrain from saying they are definitely right. It is tolerable, though silly, to say that you think Jesus would have voted for Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair: it is intolerable to suggest that Christian belief must go with one political creed - that any political party can be holier than thou. That is one reason why I found Mr Blair's speech in Bournemouth last week so repulsive.
When Christ encountered a politician....
For the sobering thing about Christianity is how radically critical it is of all politics. There is only one phrase about politics in that document which would now be called the Mission Statement of Christianity, but which you and I know as the Creed. It is 'He... suffered under Pontius Pilate'. This event was the point in history at which divine power intersected with temporal human power. In temporal human terms, politics came off better than religion. Jesus was executed and Pontius Pilate remained Governor of Judaea. But it is an Article of our Faith that, in terms of the divine plan, politics and the world it represented were overcome, then and forever.
Poor Pilate, I feel some sympathy for him because he reminds me of a slightly cowardly British colonial civil servant in a tight spot. He is the eternal representative of politics in the great drama of the universe. He has authority: he uses it to do the wrong thing and yet he is, fundamentally, powerless. Pilate is, as it were, Tony Blair or, come to that, John Major, or if he attains office, William Hague. He is not so much Everyman as Every Minister. His only capacity which, to do him justice, he is reluctant to employ, is to inflict suffering on others. That phrase 'He... suffered under Pontius Pilate' is Christianity's epitaph for politics and politicians.
This is not because politicians are seen in Christian tradition as peculiarly wicked people. They are, rather, typically wicked people - types of the human race in its desire for power and status and for everything which almost all of us want but is fundamentally not worth having. (Editors, by the way, are another example of the same type.) Again and again in the New Testament, the valuation which 'the world' puts on things is set at nought. The Gospels encourage us to think that only the poor are truly rich, that the weak are strong, that you should turn the other cheek to your enemy, that you must become as little children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, that God puts down the mighty from their seat and exalts the humble and meek.
The dangers of using Scripture to justify political action
'The world' - that is to say, the way human beings naturally run their own affairs - cannot accept such calls. You couldn't run a society without power and money and a system by which some have more of it than others. Nor, indeed, - and this is a point Socialists miss - do the Gospels say that you can. What they do say is that such a system is far, very far from what the service of God requires. And so when Thatcherites such as myself argue that, for example, the Good Samaritan could not have been much use in rescuing the man who fell among thieves if he had not had any money, we are right, but we are also whistling in the dark to keep our spirits up. That parable, surely, is not about money, but about our absolute obligation towards people to whom 'the world' thinks we have no obligation at all.
I once heard a sermon by a financially prudent church minister - and perhaps it will not surprise you that this was in Scotland - who had solemnly counted all the Parables of our Lord and declared that 'no fewer than 16' (I think it was) 'concerned hard cash'. I fear the Gospel message about hard cash is less comforting that this gentleman appeared to believe. But lest anyone think this line of argument leads inexorably to socialism, I would challenge all those who make that leap so glibly. How do they know that Christ's injunction to the young man 'to sell all that he hath and give it to the poor' demands punitive taxation? By what right do they arrogate to governments the authority to impose by law a vision of a kingdom which is, in the famous words 'not of this world'? To choose to sell all that you have is quite a different thing from having it confiscated from you by the state.
No, I am being totally impartial here between Left and Right, like the BBC. My message is simply that the disjunction between a life in the service of God and a life in the practice of politics is extreme. In my view, it follows from this that the most admirable politicians will be those who handle everything touching religion with humility, and are very hesitant to enlist it in their cause. They should always remember G K Chesterton's famous poem of rebuke to F E Smith when, absurdly, he called the Welsh Disestablishment Bill - 'a bill which has shocked the conscience of every Christian community in Europe':
For your legal cause or civil
You fight well and get your fee;
For your God or dream or devil
You will answer, not to me.
Talk about the pews and steeples
And the cash that goes therewith!
But the souls of Christian peoples...
Chuck it, Smith!
I think it was Disraeli who said that he didn't mind Mr Gladstone having the ace of trumps up his sleeve, but he did object to his suggesting that the Almighty put it there. I feel rather like that about our country's current, oh-so-holy, leader.
Some of you will remember an incident just before this party's conference in the year of the great miners' strike. The then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Runcie, had given an interview in which he criticised what he thought was government harshness towards the miners. Lord Whitelaw at that time, I think, Deputy Prime Minister, was interviewed in reply and he said: 'I'd just like to say two things. First, the Archbishop was a very gallant officer in the war. Second, he's a very religious man.' At the time, I thought this was laughable. I reckoned Dr Runcie deserved a good kicking.
But that only shows how much more unChristian than Willie Whitelaw I am. Even if, as I believe, Dr Runcie was in the wrong, Willie wanted to defer to something which he knew was more important than politics. That was a tactful and dignified thing to do. Well, we have come this far, and I appear to be preaching a comfortless message. I seem to be saying that all politics is irredeemably bad and that no one who wishes to follow Christ should have anything to do with it.
Christ is needed in political life
One implication of my words would appear to be that this Conservative Christian Fellowship under whose auspices we meet is a contradiction in terms and should be wound up at once. No, not so. For I think that modern experience teaches that if there is one thing worse than a politics that drags Christianity in, it is a politics that drives Christianity out. Even politicians are representatives of the human race. They speak not only to a brief, but as participants in the continuous conversation of civilisation. If that conversation loses touch with the language and beliefs of Christianity, it becomes harsh and cold and trivial.
We can see this happening with particular clarity today because of an accident of time. We happen to be approaching the Millennium, the year which marks, slightly inaccurately, the 2000th birthday of Jesus Christ. It has been instructive, and depressing, to see how this occasion is being marked by those who govern us.
Britain has chosen to celebrate the Millennium with a Dome. This is said to be the most expensive building ever erected. It is more than twice the size of Wembley Stadium and looks - I see it every day from my office - like a space ship about to disgorge a vast alien population from another planet. As you know, there has been endless wrangling about what should be in the Dome, but the one thing all those involved have agreed it should not be is a celebration or even a commemoration of Jesus Christ. Grudgingly, they have permitted some sort of representation of something or other to do with religion, known as the 'Faith Zone'.
Even more grudgingly, and only, apparently, after the intervention of the Queen, have they permitted the Archbishop of Canterbury to say a short prayer on New Year's Eve. And they have insisted that this take place at 11.15, so as not to spoil anybody's fun at the great moment of midnight. This is, or should be, a birthday party, but what children call the birthday King will not be enthroned. The absence of Jesus is eloquent of the real concerns of those who lead us today. There will be celebrations of commerce and of media, of companies such as BT, BSkyB, British Airways and Boots. There will be rock stars and TV stars and fireworks and there will be Tony Blair. It's not far short of the Tower of Babel. And so a chance that comes only once in a thousand years will have been missed.
One reason advanced by the authorities for this refusal to recognise that the Millennium is a Christian occasion is that this might offend other faiths. In fact, this is conspicuously untrue. Muslim leaders in Britain, whose faith, of course, recognises Jesus as a great prophet, have supported the idea of a Christian-led celebration. So, eloquently, has the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks. Men of faith nowadays have small difficulty in looking for the important things that unite them with other religions and encouraging one another. Nor is it the case, as one is often told, that there is no public appetite for the study of Christianity or the life and teaching and legacy of Jesus.
I have a small, recent experience of this. At The Daily Telegraph a few months ago, we launched, with some trepidation, a six-part magazine series called AD, which was a history of Christianity from its beginnings to the present day. Even I, who had thought up the project, had been by no means certain that it would be a commercial success. In the event, we sold 25,000 extra copies every day that we published, sold out of binders to keep the series and now, by popular demand, have brought it out in book form. This Saturday, we shall launch a free gift of the Four Gospels in the paper. People actually are hungry for such things, aware of a gap in their lives and in our culture.
Contemplating the spectacle of the Dome, one realises that 'dumbing down' is not a phrase solely to describe day-time television and the softer features purveyed in my own trade in Fleet Street. It goes to the very top. Perhaps we should call it 'Doming down'. It describes the way we are led, the whole character of our politics. Thinking of the emptiness of the Millennium Dome, the Bishop of London has declared that he wants to advertise his own Cathedral - St Paul's - with the slogan: 'the Dome that knows what's inside it'.
There is a similar problem of emptiness and evacuation and lack of faith in too many of our institutions. Why does Chris Patten feel that it can be good for the policing of part of the United Kingdom to remove the symbol of that kingdom, such as the Crown and the picture of the Queen, from the RUC? Why do MPs queue up for humiliatingly short appearances on television instead of debating the making of laws in the House of Commons? What is it, to use Shakespeare's phrase, that has 'stolen hence the life of the building'?
Britain is a post-Christian society
I would argue that part of the explanation is that we really are, at last, becoming a post-Christian society. Although church attendance has been low for a very long time, it is only in the last 30 years that most people have been brought up knowing practically nothing whatever about the faith which has shaped their culture, informed their language, given most of them their name and built a bond between them and other Christian countries. At my village primary school in the mid-Sixties, it was assumed without question that we would all study the Bible, reading the Authorised Version, and that we would learn by heart many of the collects from the Book of Common Prayer. And because it was assumed, it worked. There can't be a school in the state sector where that is true today.
The early generations of those who rejected Christianity retained many of its characteristics. The legacy of Protestantism gave them a reverence for the written word and for personal honesty and moral seriousness. That of Catholicism gave them a belief in community and in the blessings of poverty, and left vestiges of a sacramental attitude towards creation. As the Christian experience becomes more distant, though, all this decays. The decline of the quality of what is taught in schools is directly related to the loss of the belief that a particular text is sacred. If you discard the idea of the Good Book, you more gradually discard the idea of good books in general and end up with the idea that there is no real difference between good and bad books. The criterion of value goes.
When this happens, the need that religion supplies does not, of course, disappear. It simply gets ministered to in worse ways. The reaction to the death of the Princess of Wales two years ago showed a society in the grip of feelings which religious faith would have done so much to direct and satisfy. The need to blame would have been balanced by the need to forgive. The need to mourn would have been balanced by the need to give thanks. The urge to worship became for some a sort of idolatry. There was an atmosphere of superstition and hysteria typical of the religious impulse when it is separated from all rules. I thought it was interesting and encouraging that what brought a divided nation together after an extremely difficult week was a funeral service which combined a modern approachability with a more or less orthodox Anglican form. The liturgy helped to heal.
Our politicians play a part in this post-Christian drama. Some of them, individually serious Christians, evoke in a ghostly, or occasionally, ghastly way the language of belief. Was I being over-interpretative when I detected in Mr Blair's words two years ago, 'One cross on the ballot paper, one nation reborn', a tasteless suggestion that Britain had been crucified under the Conservatives and resurrected under Labour? I don't know, but I do know that New Labour exploits the appeal of religion while studiously avoiding its content. It is somehow typical, I think, that Mr Blair was discovered to have been regularly taking Roman Catholic communion while avoiding actually becoming a Catholic. He was, as it were, claiming club privilege without paying the membership fee.
One of the key tests of a Christian is witness. Indeed, the original meaning of the word 'martyr' is witness. One of the tests of witness is whether your Christianity leads you to do something to your personal disadvantage because of what you believe. How does Tony Blair look against that test? He says he is against abortion, but he votes for it. He sends his children to a traditional Catholic school, but when the headmaster, deprived of grant by Labour's educational reforms, asks parents to contribute money, our Prime Minister's press secretary is authorised to brief against the man and say how lucky he is that Mr Blair has made him famous. Speaking as a journalist, I have never seen a British government so constructed around black propaganda and lies. I don't expect our Prime Ministers to be saints - indeed, it annoys me that Mr Blair never travels without his halo - but I do expect them not to let untruth be their chief currency of communication. So the more Mr Blair talks of his moral crusade the quicker I start counting the spoons.
New political challenges for Christians
No, we cannot look to our leaders - not even to the redoubtable Ann Widdecombe - to Christianise our politics. Like early Christians in a hostile environment, we surely have to go back to the core of our faith as it relates to the world in which we live. To do this we must concentrate again on the Incarnation. The fact that God took on human flesh, actually became a man, is the most explosive and distinctive aspect of Christianity.
In the 19th century, the force of this doctrine led many to become Christian Socialists. They wanted to see Christ's love translated into the actions of the state and visible in the condition of the poor. We today may think them naive, but we must recognise that they were asking the right questions. As the 21st century approaches, the challenge of how to bring out the Christ-like dignity of each human being takes new forms. In the West, at least, we are no longer so beset with problems of hungry mouths and premature deaths and disgraceful housing. Jesus' claim that the poor are always with us, has become, in purely economic terms, very nearly untrue. Instead, human dignity is assaulted by different threats. I will select three and leave it at that.
The first is the growing notion that there is no moral difference between human beings and animals. This sounds like a kind view, leading to good treatment for animals. In fact, it leads to a denial of our duty of stewardship, and a persecution of good people whose living involves the rearing, training or killing of animals. It is not a coincidence that Jesus lived on earth as a Man rather than a hedgehog or an elephant. Mankind has a unique responsibility, and the more we deny this the crueller we will become to one another. Nor is it a coincidence that those who wax most sentimental about animals often have an anti-Christian contempt for people. Hitler abolished foxhunting at much the same time as he began systematic persecution of the Jews.
The second threat is the perversion of science. The wonderful advances in knowledge, good in themselves, have led some people to believe that human identity is a meaningless concept. I notice that misinterpretation of discoveries about genes is leading people to say that no human being is anything more than as particular programming of a genetic code. They say that moral choice is therefore meaningless, and that it is the job of society to 'produce' - they always like the mechanical language of production - to produce people suitable for its wants. People with the wrong shape or colour or sex or brain or other genetic predisposition would be screened out of our species, in the supposed interest of the rest of us. Christians in the 20th century are used to standing up for the preservation of human life. In the 21st century, they will have to fight for its very definition.
Finally, I turn to what is known as political correctness. Much of this creed presses Christian phrases into service and is supported by some sincere Christians. Justified hatred of the oppression of black people or of women has led some to support anything that appears to advance their cause. Their good motives should be respected.
But the truth about political correctness is very different. It is part of the totalitarian campaign, which, having lost the battle of economics, has opened up another front. In the old days, socialists wanted to nationalise the means of production. Today, they want to nationalise people. Indeed, given what I said earlier about the march of science, they see people as the key means of production. Politically correct politicians - and they dominate the Labour Party - want to control the way people are - what thoughts they have about race and sex and class and nation, how they bring up their children. They want a 16-year-old boy to be free to have sex with a 40 year old man but to be punished for smoking. They want foxhunters to go to prison but IRA terrorist murderers to go free. They speak a great deal of 'human rights', but they approve only of certain categories of human being.
And so when I heard Tony Blair tell his conference last week that in the 18th century our main resource was land, in the c19th and c20th it was plant and capital, but that today it is people, I'm afraid I did not rejoice. People are not a 'resource' for politicians. They are the race in whom God took shape on earth, and each person is unique.
Mr Blair said last week that his party offered 'the nation's only hope of salvation'. The only hope? As we approach the 2000th anniversary of the moment when our salvation came down among us, we are justified in echoing G K Chesterton and saying 'Chuck it! Blair'. As individuals, Conservatives are no better and no worse than socialists. But our political beliefs do at least make it harder for us to sustain a complete arrogance about our role in the life of our nation. So here is a good task for an Opposition party. Let us put down the mighty from their seat, and magnify the Lord at the same time.