My name is Peter and I'm a believer

George Carey may be telling Christians not to be ashamed, but devout Catholic Peter Stanford always worried that if he went public, he'd come across as a nutter. Now, he believes, it's time to lose his inhibitions

Related Topics

I have been slowly giving up on Christmas cards for years. Besides all the usual dilemmas – to send them to people I never see any more or those I see all the time, charity ones or not – and the faff of queuing up in the Post Office to get stamps, I can never resolve which designs to pick. Religious – and therefore potentially excluding the many who dismiss the whole Nativity narrative as saccharine nonsense – or secular, they are all-too-often as bland and catch-all as the words: "Seasons greetings" (or more properly, since our current Education Secretary is keen on a return to traditional standards: "Season's greetings").

It gets more complicated, because by sending a card you are inevitably saying something about yourself by your choice of illustration. Logically, since I am religious and this is when we celebrate Jesus' birth, I should send religious cards. That, at least, is the vocal demand of George Carey, retired Archbishop of Canterbury, who has distracted us from our shopping this Advent with a pamphlet demanding that this Christmas Christians "wear their faith with pride".

Awful to admit, but his words made me squirm. Part of it is a sense of failure. I am just the sort of weak-kneed, have-it-all-ways believer this robust Anglican cleric despises. If we bump into the neighbours on a Sunday morning on the way out to mass, I mumble something about going to get the papers. Church-going, I tell myself, should be a private matter and I don't want them thinking they are living next door to religious fanatics. Almost as a reflex, I hear myself qualifying any reference to my (now long ago) role as Editor of the Catholic Herald by stressing how "normal" it was – essentially a trade newspaper like any other. Lord Carey – and all those "out-and-proud" Christians who joined him earlier this month in marking Not-Ashamed Day – would not, I'm sure, hesitate for a second over sending Madonna and Child Christmas cards to their most aggressively secular friends (though I doubt they have any), in case the recipients saw it as a subtle ploy to convert them. So why do I?

Well, for a start, I do not share the profoundly defensive attitude that underpins this whole movement to prod Christians into "standing up for Jesus Christ in public life".

It is part of a wider view that sees Britain's Christian heritage as currently under siege and which therefore makes modern-day martyrs out of those who it regards as "victimised" for their faith, such as British Airways worker, Nadia Eweida, banned from wearing a visible crucifix when at work, and Gary McFarlane, a Bristol church elder who was dismissed by Relate for refusing to counsel gay couples on account of his beliefs.

There are indeed many people victimised for their faith around the globe – the example of Iraq's beleaguered Christian minority, currently being targeted and murdered by al-Qa'ida associates, springs most readily to mind. But for Lord Carey to bleat about the fate of "victims" here in Britain suggests, at the very least, a lack of proportion and potentially something wrong-headed. Wrapped up in their determination to keep Britain Christian, there is an underplaying – to put it kindly – of the role of both other faith traditions and the larger currents of agnosticism/atheism that are also part and parcel of what it has meant and still means to be British.

It is, in short, a prejudice dressed up as an appeal for justice.

Yes, we are presently struggling to strike a balance between the freedoms of different groups – especially when one person's right to make a public display of their faith tramples on another's right to hold the opposite view. And, after centuries of the Christian way being given absolute primacy over all-comers, we are now in a period of adjustment, where other voices, religious and not, are also being heard (though there are still 26 Anglican bishops in the House of Lords).

With a modicum of common sense and respect, though, such flashpoints can largely be avoided.

Marching around waving crucifixes in everybody's faces, by contrast, is the sort of counter-productive idiocy that used to be the preserve of the nutters of the Christian Union when I was university. They would hold prayer vigils outside the bedroom door of any fellow undergraduate they feared was committing the "sin" of sex before marriage. For many of those targeted, it was a kind of aphrodisiac.

Even the Jehovah's Witnesses don't take it quite so far. There is one of their Kingdom Halls on the next street to mine and its regulars often start their door-knocking at 8.30am on a Saturday in our road. I stumble down the stairs to be greeted by an array of smiles as broad as (Christmas card) reindeers and an invitation to get to know Jesus. I used to reply that I was Catholic, thinking it would make them leave me alone to crawl back to bed, but they always come straight back with: "But what about Jesus?"

What is it they think Catholicism is about? Actually don't answer that – I know what you are going to say.

Another element stopping me "wearing my faith with pride" is that catalogue of outrages by "my" Church. When other parents asked me, quite reasonably, in the immediate wake of the revelation of child sex abuse by priests and its cover-up by the church hierarchy, how I could bear to send my children to a Catholic school, I struggled to answer. In fact, I heard the question most often at the gates of my daughter's Catholic primary school from other parents: "What are we all doing?"

The answer, we agreed, was that the school is a warm, loving, outward-looking, tolerant and entirely safe place, far removed from the institutions exposed in the reports of paedophile priests and abusive nuns, now largely closed.

Moreover, the Church today has rigorous systems in place to make sure that there will be no repeat of the culture of abuse and secrecy. Yet that is a pragmatic position, not an impregnable argument with which to silence questioners. Hence a certain reluctance I recognise in myself to stand up and be counted as Catholic.

It strikes most often at chattering classes' dinner parties. It is just easier to blend in and let the barbs about organised religion go, especially since often there is something in them. And I also tend to shrink from confrontations with the new breed of militant atheists, though I did recently manage to find myself sharing a stage at a literary festival with arch-church bashers Richard Dawkins and AC Grayling in a debate on faith schools.

In response to their damning portrait of training camps for intolerance and emotional arrested development, I concentrated on my positive experience of the reality of current practice in them. Not that such a cautious approach did me much good. As well as being lambasted by Professor Dawkins for being "wicked" – the first time anyone had used that adjective of me in my 48 years – because I was violating my children's human rights by inflicting a religious education on them, I was also hauled over the coals by a member of the audience who wanted to know why I wasn't speaking up more forcibly for God.

Ah, yes, God. Not so much the God delusion, but the God dilemma. Like many believers, I've never been that good at talking about God, probably because my own religious beliefs don't stretch to easy definitions of the divine. Faith is about searching for clarity, not achieving it. Which is a half-hearted sort of excuse for not doing what the gospel unambiguously demands of all Christians – to go out and spread the "Good News". Christianity – and indeed Islam and other religions – calls on its members to evangelise. Yet it is the bit that most of us find trickiest because evangelisation inevitably involves stepping on others' cherished beliefs and so has been the pretext throughout human history for so many conflicts, that all but the Jehovah's Witnesses tend today to play it very low-key. Almost the only public figures standing up for Jesus today on public platforms are Ann Widdicombe, now that she's done with dancing (or dancing is done with her), and Tony Blair, most recently losing out to Christopher Hitchens in Toronto in a debate before an audience of 2,700 on the motion "Religion is a force for good in the world".

Compared with my own vacillation in the face of other militant atheists, I can only praise Blair's courage is agreeing to undergo such an ordeal by fire, though he may have his own reasons – the zeal of the convert and what seems, despite his denial in his autobiography, to be a sort of crucifixion complex over the Iraq war.

Without the guilt of Blair, the narrow vision of Carey or the imperviousness to rejection of the Jehovah's Witnesses, though, is there anything attractive to be said for casting off inhibitions about religious faith in the public arena? Before Pope Benedict arrived in Britain this autumn, there was a lot of focus on the abuse scandal, yet when he got here he managed, more or less, to win a grudging respect from his audience – religious or not – by his transparent sincerity and by touching a nerve over concerns about the pace of secularisation. If you could bottle the essence of his success during those four days in September, it would be summed up in the phrase: "Don't be so shy about your faith".

Benedict used his visit to shine a light on the undeniable benefits faith and the faithful bring to society, by going to church-run old people's homes, and by sharing a platform in Hyde Park with community groups working with the poor, the needy and the marginalised. That is something all believers should feel proud to trumpet.

Not being shy is, moreover, quite distinct from Lord Carey's call not to be ashamed. In its essential defensiveness, the latter feels like an act of aggression. Making religion less invisible, on the other hand, allowing its role in the lives of individuals, communities and society to be acknowledged and discussed, is more nuanced, more achievable, and does not necessitate doing anyone else down into the bargain. It is also undeniably vaguer, which may be a comfort for we spiritually shy, but not for long.

At the same time as Lord Carey published his booklet, Catholic bishops of England and Wales were meeting to discuss how to build on the papal visit. One idea was to restore the traditional practice of abstaining from meat one day a week – best, if inaccurately, remembered as "fish on Fridays". When it was dropped in the 1960s, it was felt to stigmatise Catholics and was seen as an unnecessary obstacle to them participating fully in the secular world. However, times have changed and there may now be a place once more, wrote Bishop Kieron Conry in an Advent pastoral letter to his diocese of Arundel and Brighton, for "one of the most obvious signs of Catholic identity".

It would mark Catholics out, he said, but not as "odd", simply as "different". And difference is a positive.

Recent history in this field, of course, has been all about removing differences – by, for example, abandoning blasphemy laws that only protected Christianity, or dropping some of the blocks that had existed since the Reformation on Catholics holding high office. And as part of that Catholics – and other believers – have increasingly embraced the idea that they are indistinguishable from everyone else, with positive benefits in terms of an almost seamless integration into all areas of national life. But perhaps something has been lost in the process and we now need a touch on the tiller – slightly less inhibition alongside a willingness to embrace difference. So, religious Christmas cards it must be. Now it just remains to sort out who is on my list.

Peter Stanford's Why I Am Still A Catholic is published by Continuum

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Construction Solicitor – Surrey

Excellent Salary Package: Austen Lloyd: This is a rare high level opportunity ...

Construction Solicitor NQ+ Manchester

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: This is an excellent opportunity within...

Corporate Finance

£80000 - £120000 per annum + Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: US QUALI...

Banking / Finance Associate - City

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: Banking / Finance Associate - We have an exce...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Enjoy the sushi and hot noodles while you can, Barack – the Chinese will remain cold

David Usborne
David Moyes has been backed by Sir Bobby Charlton to succeed at Manchester United  

It's not David Moyes I pity, but the other over-50s facing unemployment

Simon Kelner
Migrants in Britain a decade on: The Poles who brought prosperity

Migrants in Britain a decade on

The Poles who brought prosperity
Philippe Legrain: 'The eurozone crisis has tipped many into disillusionment, despair and extremism - we need a European Spring'

Philippe Legrain: 'We need a European Spring'

The eurozone crisis has tipped many into disillusionment, despair and extremism - this radically altered landscape calls for a new kind of politics, argues the economist
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj
Judith Owen reveals how husband Harry Shearer - star of This Is Spinal Tap and The Simpsons - helped her music flourish

Judith Owen: 'How my husband helped my music flourish'

Her mother's suicide and father's cancer also informed the singer-songwriter's new album, says Pierre Perrone
The online lifeline: How a housing association's remarkable educational initiative gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression

Online lifeline: Housing association's educational initiative

South Yorkshire Housing Association's free training courses gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression
Face-recognition software: Is this the end of anonymity for all of us?

Face-recognition software: The end of anonymity?

The software is already used for military surveillance, by police to identify suspects - and on Facebook
Train Kick Selfie Guy is set to scoop up to $250,000 thanks to his viral video - so how can you cash in on your candid moments?

Viral videos: Cashing in on candid moments

Train Kick Selfie Guy Jared Frank could receive anything between $30,000 (£17,800) to $250,000 (£149,000) for his misfortune - and that's just his cut of advertising revenue from being viewed on YouTube
The world's fastest elevators - 20 metres per second - are coming soon to China

World's fastest elevators coming soon to China

Whatever next? Simon Usborne finds out from Britain's highest authority on the subject
Cityfathers tackles long-hours culture that causes men to miss out on seeing their children

Cityfathers tackles long-hours culture

The organisation is the brainchild of Louisa Symington-Mills, a chief operating officer who set up Citymothers in 2012 - a group that now boasts more than 3,000 members
Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home

It's not always fun in the sun: Moving abroad does not guarantee happiness

Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home
Migrants in Britain a decade on: They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire

Migrants in Britain a decade on

They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire
Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

The 'Thick of It' favourite thinks the romcom is an 'awful genre'. So why is he happy with a starring role in Sky Living's new Lake District-set series 'Trying Again'?
Why musicians play into their old age

Why musicians play into their old age

Nick Hasted looks at how they are driven by a burning desire to keep on entertaining fans despite risking ridicule
How can you tell a gentleman?

How can you tell a gentleman?

A list of public figures with gallant attributes by Country Life magazine throws a fascinating light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world