Religious Intolerance and Prejudice - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:29 pm on 17th October 2018.

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Photo of Lord Patten Lord Patten Conservative 8:29 pm, 17th October 2018

My Lords, any objective observer in the Public Gallery, looking down and listening to this debate, will sense that our tight little Chamber has worked itself up into a fine old consensus. It is not a consensus I dissent from at all, I agree with it all, but I will disappoint your Lordships by not going round the same arguments that I think we all agree on. Indeed, I will go off-piste a bit to say that sometimes I think that it is okay, with restraint, to be disobliging and attack religions—I think in particular of my own, Roman Catholic religion in this country—and to be a bit intolerant sometimes. I think a bit of intolerance is sometimes richly deserved, even by the cassocked ones.

I also think we must be very wary of thinking that the situation here is terrible, that there are terrible problems facing the Jews and terrible problems facing the Muslims—which I abhor. My noble friend under the skin, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, knows my feelings and my strong support for the Jews, and I have close Muslim friends who know of my support, so I shall not to reiterate it. However, knowing of someone in the Indian subcontinent who has been waiting a long time for trial for blasphemy on the grounds that they drank water from a particular well, they would think they were in a heaven of tolerance in the United Kingdom by comparison to what they face. We also have to be careful not to endlessly extend the margins of victimhood in this era of identity politics. I do not mean party politics, but everyone forming into little groups—me too here, me too there. There is a danger that we may well, by seeking to be tolerant, become intolerant. That is something I would abhor and I warn against.

I think it is terrible that certain groups in this country do not feel safe and want to leave this country. That said, we have to be robust and not push the frontiers of victimhood too far. My noble friend Lady Warsi talked about casual dinner party conversations: I am now very fearful of the dinner party police perhaps recording what I say and what I think, as I am very cautious in the financial services world, where I work, and, indeed, in the political world, where I talk to that most dangerous group of people, the political journalists, from time to time. I very much agree with my right honourable friend the Prime Minister’s words in her Easter message last year, when she spoke about the importance of the shared values of compassion, community and a sense of mutual obligation.

It is not easy to condemn nor lecture, for example, a Pakistani, or a Minister in Pakistan, for their lack of tolerance to words about non-Muslims, so it will certainly be a challenge for my noble friend Lord Ahmad. I too, like other noble Lords, welcome his appointment on 4 July this year to be a special envoy to the rest of the globe promoting interfaith respect. It is very interesting: a few years ago, under a previous Administration, he would have been called a tsar, but he is now called a special envoy, doubtless to deal with sensibilities in the Russian direction. Whatever his title, no one will do this better than my noble friend Lord Ahmad, despite the difficult situation he will find himself in when he goes round trying to promote interfaith respect. For example, in Pakistan when he asks, “Why do you imprison those people who allegedly blaspheme?” the likely response, very quickly, from his Pakistani vis-à-vis will be, “Well, your Excellency, before I answer that, please tell me why the recent unfettered surging anti-Semitism and what about the most recent figures showing a soaring number of attacks on Muslims in the United Kingdom?” He has a difficult road to travel.

Whatever the answer, it is clear to me that Christians of all branches in the United Kingdom need to keep on their sense-of-humour armour about the attacks that Christianity sometimes gets, particularly from jokers and stand-up comics. The mass media rather stopped that sort of comic remark about Jews or Muslims, and certainly about Hindus—I have never heard a good joke against or for a Hindu in that respect. We have to recognise that a lot of unfortunate remarks are still made about the Christian church at large, but my response to that is, “Hey-ho. I am going to shrug this off and not worry about it: I am not going to be a victim”. Not being a victim is extremely important. I am slightly worried about the sense of spreading victimhood in some of the speeches I listened to this afternoon.

What we cannot do is shrug off increasing intolerance towards us. Here, the us I am talking about is the Roman Catholic Church, not any other Christian church in this country. I am entirely talking about intolerance, although I think that a certain amount of intolerance at the moment in our direction is deserved. Let me illustrate this with the story of a few weeks ago when someone I greatly admire, Monsignor Rod Strange, one-time head of the seminary for mature would-be priests in Rome, the Beda College, and now a distinguished professor of theology at Saint Mary’s, Twickenham, told of a fellow clergy coming out to start his day, walking through the door of his presbytery with a bounce in his feet and his clerical collar on to be met by a direct spit hit by a woman, exploding with, “Here comes another paedo priest”. That is the damage that has been done, sometimes, by the Roman Catholic faith to itself. This sort of lamentable but understandable intolerance is made manifest in the sometimes slow response by the hierarchy of my Church to decades of institutional abuse of little boys in Roman Catholic schools.

One of the great things about the Roman Catholic Church, embedded in the Vatican, is that it is an ancient outfit, embodying splendid durability and long-term vision, not responding to every tweet or critical remark with some instant reaction to what the 24-hour media says. This is generally a good thing, but there is no excuse for the sometimes tardy grasping by the hierarchy that there is a problem. Just weeks ago, it was announced with a slight roll of Vatican drums that there to be a great, global inquiry into child abuse globally. It was an urgent matter, so urgent that it will come in the first quarter of 2019, so we have a long time to wait for this.

In the UK Church, we have been listening to the outpouring of well-meant, holy apologies, sometimes expressed in somewhat clericalist language, for what has happened to children in this country at the hands of Roman Catholic priests. There have been lots of calls for prayer and fasting—all good stuff—but, of stable-clearing action and prevention plans there has not been very much. No wonder that we Roman Catholics in this country have lost a bit of respect. This may be one of the reasons why so very few young men now go into our seminaries. That twitch on the thread of a possible vocation from the Almighty is counterbalanced by the self-searching of whether this is—or perhaps is not anymore—a respectable profession or calling to go into. It must explain why, where we live in the West Country, there are less than a handful of likely-to-be-ordained priests during the next five years. It is why where people go to Mass, they are closing down. Times are changing.

Yet, in many abbeys, there are good, holy, ordained monks. Not every monk—such as the unfortunate priest who was spat on by the lady—is remotely a paedophile. These abbeys were the epicentres of some terrible. admitted abuse, so much so that monks are kept away from the schools that they once set up, which are now entirely in the hands of laity. It might be a good public and practical act of penance to decide to mothball their own buildings; to realise that the intolerance being shown towards the Catholic faith is reasonable, and to go out into the parishes, many of which no longer have the priests they used to—some are in their 80s—to keep Mass going of a Sunday.

The Roman Catholic Church in the UK cannot preach tolerance for others, or about itself, when some see it as inactive in demonstrating practical intolerance of what they have unknowingly presided over. No more can we politically preach about what goes on in the Muslim bits of Pakistan, when some of their brethren are having such a rough time today in the United Kingdom.