Recently my grandson, who is in his second year reading history at Trinity College, Oxford, invited me to Formal Hall on a Friday night. It was a typical college hall, with long benches for undergraduates, high table for the dons and worthy portraits of eminent alumni on the panelled walls. My grandson, looking unusually smart in a suit and gown, pointed out a senior Fellow who has a keen interest in claret.
Scanning the room, full of animated and noisy conversation, I saw in a far corner the college portrait of Cardinal Newman, who had been an undergraduate at Trinity in the early nineteenth century.
I know he grumbled about the excessive drinking of his fellow students (not in evidence during the occasion I attended); but what else might he have thought about the gathering if he had happened to enter a different century, returning to his old college today?
In his own student days he was a serious young evangelical Christian, not yet a convert. Yet almost all of his contemporaries would have subscribed to the Christian faith, if not so fervently as Newman. This, to my mind, would have been the most signal difference he would have experienced: the lack of a shared common faith, language and culture.
These thoughts have been stimulated by reading Jack Scarisbrick’s article in the Herald for 29 January under the heading, “Abortion has no future”. Scarisbrick is the well-known co-founder of the LIFE organisation, as well as being a substantial academic figure: a distinguished professor of history at Warwick University and an authority on the Tudors. I have always wanted to ask him about the relationship between his position on “High Table” in the Warwick History faculty and his Catholic faith, because unlike some other public and political figures he has never made a distinction between private faith and public position.
So I ask him if it had been difficult to be obviously pro-life in the history faculty and how he had been viewed by his colleagues. He tells me that LIFE began in 1970, soon after he arrived in Warwick. His appointment had not been welcome to all the other members of staff “because I was primarily interested in traditional English political and religious history, whereas the department prided itself on being “European” and committed to social history. The latter was then in vogue. For some it was more than the latest fashion: it was the higher truth. And of course it was aggressively Left-wing.”
Scarisbrick adds, “That I was also a Catholic simply made my appointment yet more unpalatable. And then came LIFE! That was the last straw for my poor colleagues.”
However, he is quick to emphasise that “The subject was never mentioned. Despite everything the Department became a pretty happy one and I think my colleagues came to think of my pro-life proclivities as simply one of those quirks which can come with early middle age.”
He reflects: “Some of my female students found it difficult to cope and asked not to be assigned to my seminar groups. I am also pretty sure the Vice-chancellor received complaints about me. He replied that as far as he knew, I was not abusing my position and that what I did off-campus was not his business.”
Scarisbrick is keen to add that his wife, Nuala, was in daily charge of LIFE “and was its public face and voice. I was in the background. But I had to be careful to be sure I was giving only my legitimate leisure time to LIFE.”
I tell him that I think his recent article in the Herald is rather over-optimistic about the chances of changing the culture of abortion in this country in the short run. He agrees. “I wish I had said in that article that we are in for the long haul. Abortionism has become so deeply entrenched in our post-Christian society and doctrinaire feminism is so self-confident.” He believes that “society has to undergo a conversion”, yet adding that “if I had been around, say, in the mid-1790s and said that within ten years the Atlantic slave trade would be abolished and within 40 years slavery itself, in British colonies, many people would have thought that preposterous.”
Warming to his theme, Scarisbrick reminds me, “Who would have predicted in the early 1970s that the Russian Communist Empire would have collapsed and the Berlin Wall would have fallen within a decade? So with one half of me I do believe that if we “hang on in there” the pro-Life cause could win the day sooner than seems possible in today’s darkness.”
Could there be more unity among the pro-life organisations in this country to achieve this object? Scarisbrick reflects soberly, “I wrestle with this one. All pro-lifers must examine their consciences! Of course there is strength through unity. We have tried hard – but you cannot stop people doing their own thing and there can be virtue in having different approaches. However, there is a very important principle at stake here: I deeply believe – and this is the reason LIFE was set up – that the duty to speak out against the wrongdoing of abortion and to campaign against it, must go hand in hand with providing the positive alternative, i.e. a loving, non-judgmental care service.”
He adds with conviction, “We have no right to condemn unless we are prepared to roll up our sleeves and help people “not to”.
The anti-abortion position can so easily seem to be anti-women. Pro-life campaigning/educating and prolife care need one another.” He is proud of the fact that LIFE has “matched its anti-IVF stance with its FertilityCare programme” and that its “daughter” charity, Zoe’s Place Trust (for which he received an MBE) “provides the positive alternative to eugenic abortion and neonatal euthanasia.”
I ask if LIFE has begun to reach out to immigrant women and he agrees that the organisation “should do much more to recruit support here”, adding that “there is a huge need to reach migrant women who become pregnant. Abortion agencies like Marie Stopes are hard at work bringing their services to such women, many of whom live in shocking conditions. The challenge is huge and to be frank, we hardly know how to tackle it, how to find the necessary resources.”
I tell Scarisbrick that I am part of a monthly pro-life prayer vigil outside our local hospital. What is his view on such activity?
He agrees that there is a place for it but adds a caution: “It must be done by very special people, so as not to seem to threaten or intimidate. I am very nervous of anything that looks like picketing. I fear that marches are now counter-productive: they can make pro-lifers look like fanatics or misogynists. We must always ask ourselves whether we are winning hearts and minds or alienating people.”
On a more positive note, Scarisbrick tells me that LIFE has helped around 6000 women since it opened its first house in 1973. “In those distant days free pregnancy testing was bringing us plenty of girls and the national helpline was receiving lots of calls. Alas, numbers have now declined and we are looking for new ways to reach those who need us. A major recent development has been the opening of LIFE charity shops, which include counselling rooms.”
I do not know if Newman enjoyed claret; but I think he would have found fellow-feeling and a shared language with this deeply sincere man, who has had the courage not to conceal his deepest convictions, despite his professional standing as a respected academic within secular society.