Sex, violence, and the trouble with Islam
On Wednesday afternoon in Birmingham a young Muslim woman found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. The doors of St Chad’s Cathedral opened and hundreds of men surged out, their yellow robes flapping in the sunshine. She, in black robes, glanced back, alarmed, and broke into a run.
She had better keep running. Last out was the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols, agitator-in-chief and hot tip to be the Church’s next leader in Britain. He had just blessed the priests of his diocese, urging them to fight a culture that he said was becoming “aggressively antireligious”.
Name a controversy where politics and religion meet and invariably the Archbishop’s name pops up. Faith schools? It was he who forced the Government to back down on admissions quotas. Gay adoption? His views made him the liberals’ punchbag.
So why, we asked as we met after the service, did he think that Britain had become so antireligious? He thought for a moment and his gentle Liverpudlian accent at first beguiled us to the strength of his opinions. It turns out that it is the Muslims’ fault, because the unease the West has with them gives other faiths a bad name.
“The acts of terrorism have shaken people’s perception of the presence of faiths in this country and around the world and I just wish there was a bit more differentiation in the reflection about the role of faiths in society.”
Some politicians jumbled all faiths into one. “Sometimes the anxieties that are expressed around faith schools are actually to do with Islamic schools. And when you press a politician they say, ‘Well of course we don’t mean Catholic schools and we don’t mean Church of England schools’, but they still hesitate to move away from the umbrella phrase of faith schools.
“Then there are others who relish this opportunity to say, with aggression, religious faith is a corruption of human nature and we would be better off without it.”
The Archbishop thinks that Islamic schools must integrate into the state system. He explains with a provocative thesis on life in Britain today.
“The deep roots of our contemporary secular culture lie in Christianity and there is, in Christianity, an instinctive understanding about the notion of the rights of the human person.
“There is now a clear understanding that politically democracy is the best way of organising the use of power in this society. There is, devolved from Christianity, a notion of justice and courts, of the police and supervision of society, of hospitals and of education.
“All of these things come, if you like, from the root of the Christian heritage of Europe and of this country. But Islam is a newcomer and therefore the whole process of welcoming and integrating and understanding needs to be far more explicit and far more open and far more measured. At the same time, society without its roots will lose some of those qualities.”
Did he believe that Islam threatened those deep roots? “I think it remains to be seen.”
Phew! This bishop is not afraid of controversy, and in Birmingham, too, with its large Muslim population. “There are real signs, I believe, certainly through the central mosque [in Birmingham], of Islam trying to understand what it means to live out of an Islamic society and in a secular, multi-faith society. That is a long process.”
Put in the context of the riots provoked when the Pope cited a Byzantine emperor’s belief that Islam was evil, it is hard to gauge his intentions. Is he naive? Or braver than politicians who preach the benefits of multiculturalism without admitting its problems?
He is no stranger to politics. He was one of the bishops behind a Catholic preelection manifesto in 1996 that, with its emphasis on social justice and minimum wage, was interpreted as backing Tony Blair. So did Labour deliver? The Church had no political allegiance, the Archbishop said. But “. . . it seems to me it is very difficult to hold together an agenda which is based on a coalition of special interest groups. There is a need in political life to dig deeper and find the foundations, aspirations and values. My sense is that broad fundamental platform, with its moral values, had been neglected.” That sounded like a “no” to us, but he had not finished. “To me, one of the most remarkable features of the last ten years is the number of new criminal offences that have been created. I read somewhere that we are talking over 700 new offences. Now that speaks to me of a moral vacuum.
“If you’re trying to replace some shared moral values, a sense of conscience is something that pulls us together. If you try to replace that with legislation, you run the risk of not building on a strong foundation.”
He elegantly declined our invitation to back David Cameron, but suggested that the Tory leader might be on the right track. “Some of the Conservative Party’s thinking about the family, about the responsibility of parents, about how we build a community and all the pressures that a family is under have to be responded to.”
When he was a boy he wanted to be a long-distance lorry driver, but as a teenager he started to have private, unwanted, urges to become a priest. “I’d gone to watch Liverpool and stand on the Kop at Anfield, and say to God, ‘Why don’t you just leave me alone? Why can’t I just be one of a crowd?’ ” We asked if this gave him any insight into the isolation felt by teenagers wondering whether they were gay. He didn’t take offence. “I think there must be some similarities, yeah.”
But he added that when he confided in a priest he was told that he had a choice. “It’s my understanding that somebody who grows into an awareness of their sexual orientation doesn’t have a choice,” he said.
This idea of gay men being born not made is refreshingly modern, especially after he struggles through a tortuous defence of the Church’s position on gay adoption: that if, in extraordinary circumstances, it is better for a child to be in a single-sex household, it would prefer the child to be brought up by a single parent, gay or not, rather than a gay couple.
He said that he had no regrets about the celibate life. Yet he sells God — and there is no other way of putting this — by making him hot. As he had told the congregation that day: “The Almightly awaits our ‘Yes’ just as much as a young bridegroom awaits the yes of his bride . . . He longs to draw us to Himself.” They should “be filled” by God, “with the recklessness of lovers”.
Steamy stuff. The Archbishop insists that faith should be physically passionate. “Why not? The crucifix is pretty physical, a physical expression of love. In that sense religion is not so abstract. It’s maybe not physical in a genital way, but sex is more than intercourse, it’s the whole thing that says we two belong to each other.”
He worked with Cardinal Basil Hume for many years. “He was actually a very good politician. He knew when to keep quiet. I’m not always sure I’ve learnt that yet.”
Would he like to be Pope? He laughed. “No thank you!” Would he like to follow Cardinal Hume to become Archbishop of Westminster? “No thank you!” But what if he were asked? “That’s a different question. I do what I’m asked.”
Heaven may not be stuffed with politicians, but Cardinal Hume, looking down, would be proud.