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Row over Anglican Blair's bid to become Catholic - The Times Of India

L.K. Sharma ()
March 15, 1998

Title: Row over Anglican Blair's bid to become Catholic
Author: L.K. Sharma
Publication: The Times Of India
Date: March 15, 1998

London as Prime Minister Tony Blair tries to capture Britain's
soul, some others have launched a battle for his soul. It all
started when Blair was spotted attending Mass alone at
Westminster Cathedral.

This perfect plot for a Graham Greene novel fired the imagination
of a few, but the established Church of England was not amused.

Mr Blair's presence in an eastern-looking building known for
sacramental quality of worship sparked speculation that the prime
minister may be thinking of converting to Roman Catholicism. The
very thought of the first-ever Catholic prime minister of Britain
provoked the believers and unbelievers alike in this Crhistendom
which was once the subject of Rome Rajya.

Mr Blair is an Anglican with a Catholic wife, bringing up their
children in her faith. The Church of England is concerned
because, of late, some high-profile politicians, royals and
socialites have defected to Rome under the guidance of a priest
at Westminster Cathedral. The self-confidence of the Church of
England is low. Some labour M.P.s frequently threaten it with
disestablishment. While Anglican churches keep closing down by
the dozens, the attraction of Rome's liturgical worship is
growing. Once the Roman Church was associated with Irish
immigrants and servant clases but under the leadership of
Cardinal Basil Hume, it has become chic, somewhat like in an
earlier period when writers such as Evelyn Waugh and Graham
Greene had converted.

There is no constitutional bar on the British Prime Minister
becoming a Catholic though the British monarch does not enjoy a
similar freedom. Still, when an Anglican prime minister of a
country, where law have historically discriminated against
Catholics, goes alone to Mass in a Catholic church, it does cause
a stir.

Ironically, the Church of England spoke to Mr Blair through the
voice of a Bishop of Pakistani origin. Michael Nazir-Ali publicly
counselled Mr Blair against defection. Nazir-Ali should know all
about religious conversions and is justified in praying the
loudest. It is yet another case of the Empire striking back.

Nazir-Ali wrote in The Times that a committed Anglican such as
the prime minister should not even contemplate becoming a Roman
Catholic. Reasons the Bishop: New Labour says it is committed to
democracy but the Roman Catholic church is one in which
government remains firmly in the hands of the Vatican, and to a
much lesser extent with bishops. There are no established
institutions for consulting clergy or laity on important issues.
Even when Priests are able to meet, they are not allowed to
discuss controversial issues such as the celibacy of clergy or
the ordination of women. There is no "open" government.

The bishop asks the prime minister whether a modem democratic
leader can order his spiritual life in a dogmatic framework since
papal authority is still exercised by the Vatican. It insists
that the truth of papal teaching is not established by its
perceived consonance with scripture and tradition but simply by
the fact that it is papal teaching.

According to the bishop, this becomes very important when it
comes to the Roman Church's teaching in the area of personal and
family morality. The teaching seems obsessed with the sexual act
both in the case of contraception and artificial insemination and
fertilisation. The bishop goes on to Point Out problems with the
church's approach to divorce and abortion and its attitude to the
place of women in the family, society and the church. He
criticises the Roman Catholic Church's refusal to ordain women
and asked the prime minister whether the leader of a party
committed to equality for women really belong to a Church which
denies them this equality in a central aspect of its life.

The bishop concludes that in the past 40 Years, the Roman
Catholic Church has changed dramatically but in the meantime, the
message to Mr Blair must be: "You should not become a CAtholic
(or, at least not yet)."

Some Roman Catholics ciiticised the Bishop for mixing up church
teaching and a political culture. Harsher critics question the
"democratic" and "modem" credentials of the Church of England
which also remains a class- based institution. The bishop is
also being told that Church is not a debating society. To such
critics, Michael Nazir-Ali's article has only confirmed Cardinal
Newman'S observation: "I do not disguise the fact that
Catholicism is a different religion from Anglicanism." This is a
debate that would run.

It has been said that Mr Blair's spiritual journey towards Rome
or in any direction must remain a private matter. But in a
country where Camilla's sleeping arrangements in Prince Charles'
house were made public last week. This argument will not do. The
public probing of the prime minister's religious faith is not an
intrustion too far because Blair himself has proclaimed his
Christianity very often.

Before the general election, Mr Blair was even attacked by his
secular critics for inducting religion into Politics. Of course,
he was not trying to inflame communal passion or woo minority
votes. All that he said was that Christianity and Conservatism
did not go together because the latter was based on greed and
free market excesses. It was like saying that Hindu party cannot
aim for high growth rate.

But when a politician prays, some suspect his motives. One unkind
critic is sure that if , Mr Blair goes over to Rome he will
probably want to be the next Pope. Confessional jokes have
started doing rounds. Critics would like to see Mr Blair
identified with a sense of sin rather than a state of grace.
They may ask whether Mr Blair, the Christian, is following an
inner call or Mr Blair, the politician, is trying to be all
things to all men. May be, Mr Blair the moderniser, wants to deal
a symbolic blow to anti-Catholic discrimination and to the 500
year old post-reformation protestant tradition of treating Rome
as "the other".

For long, the Church of England was considered to the Tory Party
at prayer. However, when some radical clergymen attacked the
harsher face of Conservatism, the relations between the party and
the church deteriorated.

Irritated Tory leaders began to denounce inconvenient clergymen
as lefties. Margaret Thatcher asked them to keep off, saying that
the Church was for spiritual redemption, not social reforms. A
few of the clergy echoed Paul Tillich, the theologian, who said
that "socialism is the only Possible economic system from
Christian point of view.

Mr Blair began to portray new labour as the embodiment of
Christian values. In a way, he is justified since British
socialism stemmed from Christianity rather than from Marxism.

However, religion and politics are not matters of doctrines
alone. Sectarian Politics can kill. It happened again last week
in Northern Ireland. Two friends, a Catholic and protestant, were
killed. They were victims of bigotry which made them live across
the divide and made them die across the same.

Thus, whatever be the force of his religious impulses, Mr Blair
can hardly ignore the impact of any move by him on the Northern
Ireland peace talks. Protestants in Northern Ireland would be up
in arms if a non-Protestant were to occupy 10, Downing Street.

Thus, there are limits to Blair's, ecumenical fervour or leap of
faith. Northern Ireland will not be ready to bury sectarianism
in the near future even if a modern Britian somehow gets ready to
tol- erate a Catholic or a Hindu prime minister.

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