One of the (few) bonuses of reaching your mid-50s is that it gives you a sense of perspective previously lacking. In my callow youth, when I was editing the Catholic Herald in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I witnessed what I took then to be the death throes of an anti-Catholic prejudice in the public life of this country that stretched back five centuries. Much of the credit should go to the late Cardinal Basil Hume, who managed by sheer force of his personality finally to lay to rest the ghosts of the Reformation. We were no longer outsiders, I remember thinking.
Fast forward 25 years, though, and I find myself ever more aware of an unpleasant form of prejudice that today marginalises not just Catholics but all people of faith. Religion is now routinely treated in our ever more sceptical, secular and curiously intolerant times as a strange aberration which, if it is to be acknowledged at all, must be treated as a purely private matter.
Which is a counsel of utter despair. In September 2010, during his trip to Britain, Pope Benedict XVI did his best by naming and shaming it. Speaking in Westminster Hall before both Houses of Parliament, he highlighted “the failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square”.
If anything, however, things since have only got worse. The fact that our erstwhile prime minister, Tony Blair, became a Catholic once out of office has apparently done nothing to challenge the perceived wisdom of Downing Street spokesman Alastair Campbell’s infamous statement in 2003 that “we don’t do God”. Yes, we now have a vicar’s daughter as prime minister, and she goes to her local Anglican church every Sunday, yet to speak publicly about having a faith can feel like putting your head above the parapet.
It is one example among many, but when I recently wrote what I intended as a generous obituary in the Guardian of Christine Keeler – about whom I knew a good deal, having written a book on the Profumo scandal – the readers’ online reactions brimmed over not just with objections to my arguments, which were to be expected, but also with highly personal and virulent attacks on how, as a Catholic, I should never have been allowed to express an opinion on such a famous figure (no matter that Keeler died a Catholic).
Par for the course, perhaps, but two readers told me subsequently that they had complained at such naked anti-Catholic abuse to the paper’s moderator, only to be dismissed in a manner unthinkable if the attacks on me had been about my gender, sexuality or race.
You’ll probably be thinking that I am complaining too much and I know, of course, that to have a faith means, in those favourite words of St John Paul II, being “a sign of contradiction” in the modern age. Yet, even so, it is little wonder that so many people of achievement in the public eye are now reluctant to talk on the record about their faith. Undeterred, over the past 35 years, from my earliest days at the Catholic Herald and including various secular dailies I have written for since, I have nevertheless made a mission of persuading them to open up in print about their religion and how it has shaped their lives, privately and professionally.
In one sense, I have simply been doing my job, but in another what I have learnt in those encounters is that the opportunity to talk one-to-one about faith is never wasted. There is nearly always something that emerges from such conversations to resonate with my own beliefs – either to strengthen a conviction, or to make me think afresh. I am not sure where I would be now without them.
Which makes me a firm believer in the need to talk more about faith in everyday situations – not necessarily to evangelise but just to normalise belief in an age when it is increasingly seen, as one outwardly benign member of the audience at a book festival told me a couple of years back, as a mental illness for which I needed treatment.
I have taken his advice ever since, though not quite as he intended, by becoming a member of a spiritual book club. Every month we choose a title that, in some way or other, reflects seriously on faith, and talk about it when we meet. I can’t recommend the experience highly enough. It is amazing how candid you can be, and how supported you can feel, when you create a safe space (to use a much-maligned phrase) to talk unguardedly about faith.
Inspired by the book club experience, I have this Easter gathered together in one volume 44 of my interviews with people of faith – including Desmond Tutu, Jon Sobrino, Julia Neuberger, Dermot O’Leary, Sister Wendy Beckett and Richard Coles – from over the decades. What We Talk About When We Talk About Faith (the title owes a debt to Raymond Carver’s celebrated short story collection) is another way, I hope, of breaking a silence which, if it goes unchallenged, will only further marginalise believers.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Faith is published by Hodder and Stoughton at £14.99
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