Profile: A man of many certainties: John Gummer, where will faith lead him now?

Click to follow
The Independent Online
It was not a huge surprise that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should resign from the Church of England General Synod last week. His resignation was, as John Selwyn Gummer himself might have put it, consonant with his profound opposition to the ordination of women. The lack of surprise, though, for an event in Mr Gummer's life, is itself unusual: it has been a feature of the minister's career that its landmarks, particularly the promotions, have been accompanied by an audible rattle of dropping jaws.

What is it about Mr Gummer that has made his rise so unconvincing? Consider his sudden promotion to chairman of the Conservative Party in 1983, to fill a post hastily vacated by Cecil Parkinson for famously personal reasons. Mr Gummer, for sure, could be counted on not to produce another unwanted adultery scandal. But surely it was unkind for quite so many to point out quite so publicly that this was his principal qualification for the job. And when he had served his time as chairman, what was his reward? Not a cabinet post, but number two at Agriculture and Fish.

Mr Gummer didn't grumble or complain. He just said thank you very much and jumped into the job with his well-scrubbed enthusiasm. He laboured for another two years before a better offer came his way. And when, in 1989, he finally made it to Minister of Agriculture, the chorus was still in that irritating state of astonishment. What? they murmured. John Selwyn Gummer? In the Cabinet?

It's not that he is hugely disliked in the Commons, though his moral certainties, solemnly respected by his colleagues in public, inspire waspish lampooning in private. But John Selwyn Gummer somehow fails to impress. As one former minister put it, 'He has trouble being taken seriously, which is odd in a politician who hasn't been caught doing anything more serious than giving his daughter a hamburger. The word people mostly use in describing John Gummer is quite. He's quite competent, quite witty, quite useful. Not the sort of chap,' he added, 'who has a great crowd of people attached to his coat tails in the expectation of rising.'

There is one aspect of Mr Gummer's being to which the word quite does not apply. Mr Gummer is not quite involved in Christian belief. He is steeped in it, immersed in it, committed to it. If one were to seek an explanation, part of it must lie in his family: he was born in 1939, the eldest son of Selwyn Gummer, who had trained as a Baptist minister but became an evangelical Church of England vicar. Selwyn Gummer called his three clever sons after himself and brought them up, with his devout wife, Sybille, in Chatham, in an atmosphere of competitive enthusiasm and religion. The former stuck to all three, the latter to two. Peter, the middle brother, who was to become seriously rich in PR, became, after a period of Gummerish reflection, an atheist.

As John told it later, he was, at times, assailed by Doubt. But he banished it. By the time he got to Selwyn College, Cambridge, he was a convinced Anglo-Catholic. To banish Doubt he had turned to the works of the 19th-century Tractarians Keble, Pusey and Cardinal Newman.

Newman expended enormous effort in the attempt to validate the Church of England before giving up the cause as hopeless and converting to Rome. John Gummer, despite this example, emerged from his trial of faith with a firm belief that the Church of England holds to all the beliefs agreed by the general councils of the whole church. The last of these that Mr Gummer would recognise was at Nicaea in 787, before the split between the Roman and the Orthodox churches. It follows that the Church of England is a branch of the universal church, Canterbury is as important as Rome or Constantinople and, despite the pronouncements of the Vatican to the contrary, Anglican rites are as valid as those of the Roman Catholic Church. Tradition is all.

The other driving force in the young John Gummer's intellectual world was politics. He had been a member of Gravesend Young Conservatives as a schoolboy and he did, for a while, debate the relative attractions of the church and politics before settling on a mode of being that was, perhaps, more familiar in the 19th than the 20th century: that of the English politician for whom church and state are twin pillars of existence - a world in which an English monarch appoints the bishops and the English landowner the vicar.

He trod the usual path of the aspiring politician. He was chairman of the Cambridge University Conservative Association and president of the union. He left with a second class degree and an undiminished enthusiasm for life.

While he cast about for the first rung of the political ladder - he fought Greenwich in 1964 and 1966 - he worked in publishing. He was something of a figure about town, his friends remember. If the radical politics of the Sixties left him unmoved, he was, at least sartorially, touched by the decade. His dinner jacket was of dark blue velvet and he zoomed about in a Lotus sports car. That was blue, too. 'Because he was a Conservative, of course,' said a former girlfriend.

On the other mores of the Sixties, the evidence is mixed. His brother, Peter, has said of him: 'There is something about John which is almost other-worldly. I remember him taking strong moral positions on every issue. . For instance, premarital sex in the early Sixties was the burning issue. John took a firm, biblical point of view about it, which was extremely unpopular.' Perhaps. But by the late Sixties, as a close friend put it, 'John was having a lot of fun as a bachelor.' 'He was very moral about things,' said the girlfriend. 'But it wasn't exactly chastity. Monogamy would be more like it.'

In 1970, John Gummer entered Parliament as MP for Lewisham West. He lost it in 1974, but inherited a safe Suffolk seat in 1979. In the early Seventies, he was an ardent supporter of Edward Heath and contributed his mite to the Heath cause through a high-Gummerish body called Christians for Europe. In 1977, he was to marry Edward Heath's former secretary, Penny Gardner.

Tremendous, if serial, loyalty has been a feature. Mr Gummer was passionately loyal to Edward Heath, then to Margaret Thatcher - he wept - and now to John Major. They rewarded him, though not munificently, with posts in which he has performed with an enthusiasm that seems to inspire unkind remarks, even from his own side. When Mr Gummer was Conservative Party chairman, Lord McAlpine threatened to resign over 'this mediocre school swot', and Sir Edward du Cann once described him as 'an inconsequential little creep who has never grown out of student politics'.

For those not on his side, his tendency to attack the political opposition with a religious cosh had a peculiar power to enrage. For John Gummer, Conservatism seemed to be God's will in temporal affairs. As Mrs Thatcher's minister for local government, he described the poll tax as a 'morally superior tax', and wrote in 1987: 'Our fundamental Christian attitude, enjoined upon us in the Gospels, is to spread the privilege of choice to the many instead of abolishing it for the few. Now that is surely the spirit behind Conservative philosophy.' The bishops of the Church of England who had the temerity to doubt that the Gospels and the spirit of free-market Thatcherism were entirely at one were not spared his wrath.

There are those who would trace Mr Gummer's position to that moment when Elizabeth I resolved to put an end to the religious controversy that her father's actions had unleashed by imposing a liturgical compromise on the nation and making it clear that further questioning would be very bad for the health.

People being what they are, intellectual activity did not cease at this point, but remained uneasily confined within the limits she had imposed. That which was no longer available to the challenge of philosophy was wrapped in the authority of tradition.

Mr Gummer is a man of many certainties, both political and religious. He is convinced that the Conservative Party is the party of the whole nation, and when it comes to the church is fond of quoting St Vincent of Lerins when pressed to account for his religious certainty: Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est - that which has everywhere, always and by everybody been believed. As the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church explains, 'By this triple test of oecumenicity, antiquity, and consent, the Church is to distinguish between true and false traditions.' To those within his circle of belief, his case is extraordinarily convincing. But those who, oddly, feel themselves not one of St Vincent's 'everybody' find it exasperating.

Mr Gummer, says the Conservative MP Emma Nicholson, whose only disagreement with him is on women's ordination, is not a misogynist and may be agnostic on the substantive question of whether women are up to ordination. His complaint is that the Synod has no authority to take the decision. 'Mr Gummer,' observed the former Dean of St Paul's Alan Webster, 'has made it clear that the only authority he recognises is that of the Roman Catholic church. But he recognised the authority of the Synod by becoming a member of it and debating doctrinal matters as a lay member.'

'Surely,' said another critic, 'if he thought that the Synod did not have the authority to decide this issue, the time to resign was when the Synod began to debate ordination, not when the vote went against him.' Mr Gummer's problem, in common with many traditionalist Anglo- Catholics dismayed by the Synod decision, is where to find a congenial home for religious beliefs that depend upon a tradition which has become the faith of a dissenting minority within the Church of England. Perhaps he will finally satisfy what Emma Nicholson described as 'that great longing for Rome'. But it can be a difficult conversion. 'The trouble comes,' she said, 'when they go to Rome and are bewildered. Some remain bewildered for ever.'