The Tablet Interview
Slaying the secular dragon
This week Sayeeda Warsi, the first woman Muslim Cabinet Minister, stepped on to the global stage with a speech at the Vatican about “militant secularisation”. But first she spoke to Tablet editor Catherine Pepinster about faith in the public square and why she gets on with Catholics
Visiting the House of Lords is rather like stepping into a living tableau of contemporary history: a prominent QC here, a former diplomat there, old political hands everywhere. As I idle away the time, awaiting the summons to the office of Cabinet Minister Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, along come two other women life peers – Conservative Virginia Bottomley and Labour’s Helena Kennedy. There are no divisions between them today: both start talking critically about the Catholic Church and its attitude to women.
Kennedy, a Catholic, has just penned a piece for the Radio Times on the need for the Church to ordain women; Bott omley, an Anglican with Catholic in-laws, is polemical in tone too: how can a Church which opposes birth control and refuses to treat women as equals appeal to the younger generation? “Something must be done. What about a debate in the Lords, Helena?”
There could be no grea ter contrast with Baroness Warsi, who speaks warmly of “the value that the Catholic Church brings to mankind all over the world”. Since she came to prominence on the national stage, Sayeeda Warsi has become the chief political champion of faith’s role in public life, regularly blasting critics of religion, and never more than this week during her trip to Rome, speaking of secularism being “deeply intolerant”.
Just two days before Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain in September 2010, the Minister without Portfolio – not only the first Musl im woman member of the Cabinet but also the co-chairman of the Conservative Party – made her celebrated “This Government does do God” speech, a dig at the New Labour years when Tony Blair’s press secretary, Alastair Campbell, wanted religion strictly off limits.
This week Baroness Warsi headed an unprecedented seven-strong British ministerial delegation to the Vatican. And speaking to The Tablet the day before she left, she made it clear that problems with the place of women or sex in the Church was not on her agenda.
“Whenever we talk about faith, the debate always comes back to religion versus sexuality. But when we go to the Vatican that is not the important issue. There are so much more pressing ones,” she said. So forget the hot-button issues of the domestic agenda such as samesex marriage. Instead she and her delegation spoke about climate change, poverty in the developing world, the environment and inter-faith dialogue.
But above all, Baroness Warsi was using the two-day visit to express her conviction that religion must have a clear role in public life and must not be pushed to the sidelines. In a speech to the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, the school for papal diplomats, sh e endorsed Pope Benedict’s call for religion to have a place in society’s discourse. But the language she used was far more sensational than his, talking of “militant secularisation” gripping Europe. The day before, in her office at the House of Lords, though, her language was a little more thoughtful when she said: “I’m arguing for faith to have a seat at the table, for it to be a voice amongst other voices. More and more other voices are heard and the voice of faith is not heard.”
Some would argue that a country with an established C hurch, bishops in Parliament, and national holidays that still mark the major Christian feasts, hardly excludes religion. So what is her critique about? Is she claiming the voice of faith is somehow not heard? Or maybe people of faith don’t have enough guts?
“It’s a combin ation. Aggressive secularism is pushing faith out of any public place. Europe would not try to erase the church spires on our horizons; then why would you try to erase our religious history or the role of Christianity in the development of values of our nations? Europe needs to be more in tune with its Christian identity.”
The Vatican visit reflects the warmth that has developed between the United Kingdo m and Rome since the 2010 papal visit to Britain, and marks 30 years of the restoration of full diplomatic relations with the Holy See. While the Coalition Government pushed the boat out with its large team of Minis ters, Rome responded not only by according Sayeeda Warsi the honour of being the first foreign Minister to address the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, but by hosting a dinner for the delegatio n and accommodating it at the Santa Marta, an official residence normally used by visiting cardinals.
“Britain and the Vatican are global players with a global voice and I felt it was i mportant to widen that relationship. And bring to the table what I feel is important – inter-faith dialogue and the place of faith in the public sphere,” said Baroness Warsi.
The visit also included a private audience with the Pope – the second time that Baroness Warsi had met him. The two talked briefly during the papal visit. It seems she received the papal thumbs-up. “The Holy Father had been briefed on my speech on doing God. He congratulated me on my defence of faith and asked me to continue,” she said.
So is she at one with him on religion in the public square? “The Holy Father is a spiritual leader; I am a politician who is of faith. I am not speaking as some kind of proxy grand mufti of the UK; I’m a Cabinet Minister. My disc ussions are not theological
4 | THE TABLET | 18 February 2012