The lead item on the BBC news website has been the reception of Tony Blair into full communion with the Catholic Church.
The move had long been expected: His wife and children were already Catholic, he had been attending Catholic services (but not taking communion) for some time, and his last meeting with the pope was rumored to include some private discussion about his personal conversion from Anglicanism.
Indeed, the expectations have been around so long that most of the recent news accounts focused on why he had delayed his move to Catholicism until after he ceased to be prime minister. In recent interviews and a BBC television program, Blair seems to have given three reasons: (1) his role as prime minister in the appointment of Anglican bishops required his continuing Anglicanism, (2) the delicate situation in Northern Ireland would have been disturbed by the conversion to Catholicism of the head of the British government, and (3) politicians who are serious about Christianity in England “get into trouble”—since, as he told the BBC, “you talk about it in our system and, frankly, people do think you’re a nutter.”
Each of these reasons is worth thinking about. I both understood and was disturbed by the open admission of the lie during Blair’s years as prime minister when the BBC reported: “Mr. Blair’s ex-spokesman Alastair Campbell famously warned reporters: ‘We don’t do God.’ He acknowledged to the program that his former boss ‘does do God in quite a big way,’ but that both men feared the public would be wary.”
It was Blair’s last reason for delay, the fear of being dismissed as a nutter, that raised the hackles of the Anglican bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, who declared that he was sorry the former prime minister felt unable to talk about his faith. “It would have led to more constructive social policy at home and principled policies abroad,” the bishop said, adding: “A Christian vision underlies all that is important about Britain: its laws, institutions, and values.”
Nazir-Ali is right, of course, about the origins and underlying support for the nation’s laws, institutions, and values. But Alastair Campbell had a more accurate view of what the reaction would have been in the media of contemporary Britain if Blair had said anything as Gladstonian as that during his years in office.
No doubt there will be more to say about all this, but here’s a prediction for the mainstream news commentary in the coming days: Except perhaps for the point about Anglican bishops (which Blair brought up), the ecclesial and theological elements of Blair’s move will receive almost no attention—and mainly because reporters simply have no clue about what the difference between the churches is. Instead, the commentary will all be about public policy on abortion, same-sex unions, etc., as though that were the fundamental reason for the lack of unity among Christian denominations. And the reporters will hunt down a few British Catholics, opponents of Blair while he was prime minister, to snarl about the Blair government’s policies and to whine that he can’t be a real convert without public repentance of his previous politics.
Update: Ah, yes, here comes the New York Times this morning, first out of the box with the predicted line. Look, I’m the last person to deny that theological commitment to the sanctity of human life should issue in the public rejection of abortion. But can’t we assume, for at least a few days in the Christmas season, that Tony Blair is sincere about his entrance into the Catholic Church?