Prime Minister, Do You Think You Could Occasionally Visit and Anglican Church; Anatomy of a Prime Minister

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), June 20, 2004 | Go to article overview

Prime Minister, Do You Think You Could Occasionally Visit and Anglican Church; Anatomy of a Prime Minister


Byline: ANTHONY SELDON

In the final part of his biography, Anthony Seldon tells how Blair sought help from church leaders ...

then ignored them all

No Prime Minister since Gladstone has been as influenced by his religion as Tony Blair. It is no coincidence that Cherie, too, is a believer. For the 11 years after their marriage in 1980, Blair's faith remained largely a private matter.

But by his second party conference in 1995, he wanted to share his faith with his party.

Wherever he is, his office ensures there is a church nearby. When Cherie is with him, it will be a Catholic one. 'My wife is Catholic, my kids are brought up as Catholics . . . I have gone to Mass with them for years because I believe it's important for a family to worship together.' Blair would indeed be happy to worship in any denomination of church, as long as it was not aggressively fundamentalist. He specifically asked for the ecumenical service at the start of the Labour conference in 1997 to include communion for the first time, in which representatives of Methodist, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches would take part.

Blair's relationship with Catholicism has aroused particular interest.

In Sedgefield, the Blairs have forged a close relationship with the local Catholic priest, Father John Caden, who baptised the Blairs' children.

When the family lived in Islington, Blair regularly took communion with them at St Joan Of Arc Catholic church. A change of priest, and new guidance from the authorities on who was eligible to receive Catholic communion, prompted the late Cardinal Basil Hume, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, to ask Blair to restrict his practice, except when on holiday if there were no Anglican church nearby. Blair wrote back agreeing, but made his disapproval clear: 'I wonder what Jesus would have made of it.' In March 1998 the Press Association reported, to No 10's fury, that Blair had attended Mass alone at Westminster Cathedral. This prompted the then Archbishop Of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, to write: 'As you know, I have no difficulty personally with your worshipping regularly with Cherie and the children at Roman Catholic worship . . .

[but] I know there are many who are deeply troubled by a view being disseminated by the Press that you are about to "convert".' Dr Carey's hope to Blair was that he would 'be seen, occasionally, at an Anglican or free Church act of worship'. Blair replied to reassure him he was not about to 'defect', explaining that he should have been joined at the Mass by his family, but they were delayed.

But rumours of a conversion refused to die down. Later that year, Monsignor Gaetano Bonicelli, Archbishop of Siena, Italy, reported a private conversation where Blair had told him he felt 'very close to the Catholic Church'.

Speculation was reignited by his visit to Pope John Paul II on February 22, 2003, on the eve of the Iraq war. Cherie was granted an audience and the invitation was then extended to include Blair. 'He was very moved to be seeing the Pope,' said an aide.

Blair, about to take the most important decision of his life, one on which he had been praying deeply, had found the accusation that an Iraq war would be immoral difficult to bear, and he hoped it would help to talk it through with the highest Catholic authority on Earth.

And so the family attended a private Mass given by the Pope. But Blair did not receive the solace or the understanding he sought. The Vatican released a statement saying the Pope had urged Blair to do everything to avert 'the tragedy of a war'.

But Blair was convinced of his rightness, and shrugged off even the Pope's opposition. Indeed, he was used to ignoring the advice of religious figures, however senior, if he did not agree with them. But for all that, it was one of the loneliest times of his life, and to have been so comprehensively rebuffed must have been a bitter experience. …

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