Arriving in Newcastle lifts the soul for those of good taste and good faith. The Central Station, once decaying and spattered in pigeon dung, has been transformed into an uplifting cathedral for trains. Thanks to the new Japanese locomotives that shoot you to and from London in less than three hours, both the places I call home feel closer than ever.
Opposite the station is St Mary’s Cathedral, which I have attended since my teenage years. The comforting figure of Cardinal Basil Hume welcomes arrivals to the city. Whether making a pilgrimage northward for the football, the nightlife or the rolling Northumberland countryside, sticking your head into St Mary’s will imbue you with its warm dignity. The cathedral is the work of Pugin, architect of the Palace of Westminster. His style captures the best of this island’s heritage and grandeur.
St Mary’s has hosted several poignant moments for me, including the recent funerals of two of the finest Geordies in my family: Winifred Sanderson and Carol McKenna. Both attended Mass at there for years, having drifted from their local parishes. They were devoted believers throughout their long lives but eventually found solace in the heart of the city. My fondest memories of these two are not sitting sharing sermons or candlelit services, but in the coffee shop. After Sunday Mass, our family would occupy a whole corner to share breakfast, scones, teas and coffee. It may not be the most theological of motivations, but these are the memories that draw me to Catholicism.
The twin aspirations of family and togetherness are making a comeback in politics. Two Conservative MPs in the new intake, Danny Kruger and Kieran Mullan, used their maiden speeches to speak about regaining the lost sense of belonging in British society. Here is a creed with an appeal beyond party politics, one with the potency to bring the country together. The dramatic votes of recent years suggest that, believers or otherwise, the electorate is yearning for a better sense of community.
It was Newcastle’s Cardinal Hume who, when Tony Blair was prime minister, ordered him to stop coming forward for Communion. (Blair became a Catholic after leaving office.) The former PM, who has been out and about again telling the Labour Party hard truths it refuses to hear, famously adopted an approach summed up by his spokesman as “We don’t do God.” MPs still struggle with Catholicism in politics. Jacob Rees-Mogg was probed on the Good Morning Britain sofa on whether his party or religion came first. Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the Commons, has spoken almost as much about his allegiance to the Church as to Brexit – and has squeamishly attempted to make peace between them. While the former is central to his persona, his belief in the latter saved his Cabinet position in the recent reshuffle.
The latest MP to encounter this test is Rebecca Long-Bailey, the socialist contender to be the next Labour Party leader. She has spoken of how her Catholicism provides the “moral values in me to care and look after the people around me”. Throughout the party’s excruciatingly long contest to find a new leader, she has encountered similar troubles to Rees-Mogg’s. Yet as with her Tory rival, it is her personal politics rather than religion that affect her hopes of leading the country. Voters are savvy enough to distinguish between private beliefs and what measures the candidate is proposing to govern the country better.
Others at the top of government are aware of the challenges facing Catholics at Westminster. Speaking to my friend Katy Balls on her “Women with Balls” podcast, Cabinet member Thérèse Coffey said her faith would probably limit her career progression. “I can imagine that it will be very hard for anyone who is a full-on practising Catholic ever to get selected as a party leader or elected,” Coffey said, observing that Britain was “a very secular society”.
Ironically, our current Prime Minister is the first baptised Catholic to sit in Number 10. Like much else about Boris Johnson, his views on religion are hard to pin down. On moral issues, his arch-libertarianism will triumph over any residual affection for Catholicism or Anglicanism.
There is an odd ritual of discovery when someone you know well reveals themselves as a closet papist. Typically, it stems from chat about schooling, when you discover you were both educated under a saint’s banner. Then comes the uplifting discovery that your friend has shared so many important life experiences. This happened again last week with one of my closest Financial Times colleagues. “Wait, you were raised a Catholic too? I was, but I’m more of just a guilty Catholic these days.” We both laughed and smiled, with that innate appreciation that there really isn’t any other kind.
Sebastian Payne is Whitehall correspondent for the Financial Times