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.
The Christian communion was nothing to fear – or take seriously. Britons could once again relegate their faith to the margins.
What We Talk About when We Talk About Faith, Peter Stanford’s collection of interviews with believers, shows what we have forfeited by doing so. As he coaxes well-known figures into sharing their thoughts on what gives purpose to their lives, Stanford raises the big questions: what is a good life? How do we endure grief? How to find purpose in the quotidian? This territory has been taken over by philosophy, which secular bien-pensants regard as acceptable in a way religion is not. But philosophy has its own extremists and, as this volume reminds us, cannot ease the human ache to fill the God-shaped hole. That is the overarching preoccupation of Stanford’s interviewees, and their answers are varied – and sometimes curious.
Lord Longford found God in championing the most hateful and despised, as he did with Myra Hindley. Ruth Kelly, Gordon Brown’s secretary of state for education, found Him in Opus Dei. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, found Him in issuing a call to arms against those who would deny this country’s Judaeo-Christian heritage.
Some of the most intriguing interviews are with those who have retreated into a hermitage of sort. Silence characterises the solitary life that the author Sara Maitland leads in the glens of Galloway; while the celibate women (not nuns, they like to stress) in the Grail community, a secular institute linked to the Catholic Church, find God in the eight-and-a-half acres of blackberry bushes and birdsong in Pinner, a London suburb that makes for an unlikely paradise on earth. Valerie Wright, one of the Grail members, rejects the notion that she, and the other members of the community, are turning their back on the world: it just didn’t sustain their interest.
Every one of the women and men who confide in Stanford sense a spiritual dimension that elevates life from the brutish and short existence chronicled by tweets and Facebook posts. As the pianist (and Renaissance man) Stephen Hough puts it, faith makes us feel part of “a bigger world”. Everyday reality is only the beginning.
Stanford has given us a collection of brief and varied insights into the struggle of being a believer today. The reader can dip into these pages to savour now one interview, now another, to see which resonates most. As Stanford explores motivations, examines habits and exposes doubts, I found myself mourning the passing of religion as a publicly recognised resource that everyone can draw on, to build a better family, a better country and a better world. How sad that faith should now become the love that dare not speak its name.
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