What We Talk About when We Talk About Faith

by Peter Stanford, Hodder, 256pp, £15

The British, my Italian father warned me when he waved me off to boarding school in north Oxford, do not talk about money or religion. It wasn’t so much a lesson in etiquette as an introduction to an alien culture. In my native Italy, references to God, the saints, and especially Our Lady, peppered every exchange and decorated buildings and street corners. Theological discussions were no more contentious than talk of politics or football. In my adopted homeland, America, God was on every dollar bill and on the telly, a benevolent influence schoolchildren paid tribute to every morning. After this God-fearing upbringing, was I venturing into a secular wasteland?

Mindful of the paternal advice, I self-consciously skirted around the subject with my new English acquaintances. I found the Fawlty Towers-ish “don’t mention the war” behaviour frustrating, as religion was at the heart of this country’s narrative. It had rent families asunder and destroyed ancient allegiances and monuments. This was no tame pastime, about which people could chit-chat innocently – it was a fever that had infected the masses, disfiguring history and private lives. The British could sweep it under the carpet – but it was bound to resurface.

My suspicions were borne out when I turned religion into a career, as editor of the Catholic Herald in 1990-4. When Church of England bishops voted to allow women priests in 1994, theological arguments fuelled vicious accusations and counter-accusations that, for months, filled the pages of national newspapers. Christianity was at the centre of national debate, and even the rigidly secular media recognised that this was no spent force.

It was the last time the Catholic and Anglican churches were the focus of public discussions. After September 11, 2001, the consensus was to concentrate our attention instead on Islam, whose fatal attractions risked threatening our way of life.

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