It does religion no favours when you have to say grace not once, but twice

Many people and places still follow religious traditions - but sometimes take them too far.

Chris Bryant
Friday 19 October 2012 20:02
Dr Rowan Williams
Dr Rowan Williams

Saddlers' Hall, Gutter Lane, Cheapside. I know – it sounds like a Dickens chapter heading. Not the regular haunt of the MP for the Rhondda. But as my husband Jared is a Liveryman, I was there as a consort on Thursday evening at the Installation Dinner for the new Master of the Worshipful Company of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators.

The Liverymen run apprenticeships and support plenty of charities, but even for a denizen of Westminster it felt like stepping into another world, with a slow hand-clapped Master's procession and an elaborate loving cup ceremony that involves one neighbour protecting your back while another flamboyantly removes the top from a vast double-handed goblet so you can take a sip of fizzy red wine.

We also had not just one grace before the meal, but another one, sung, after. I understand why they do this. The liveries were founded in an era of omnipresent religion. God, or at least belief in him, answered every question. Theology was the queen of sciences. And doubtless several people at the dinner were either convinced or casual Christians. But in the here and now – even in the rarefied here and now of Gutter Lane – a second grace sung uncertainly to an unknown tune felt just ever so slightly curious.

The historical accretions of religion still hang around our constitution like an irritating relative who refuses to leave a party long after all the other guests have gone. Don't get me wrong. I still have a faith, and the deep complexities of long-pondered heartfelt religion can provide far more than a warm blanket of consolation in times of pain. I have found most of the religion-free funerals I have attended rather arid affairs. Only Robin Cook's had an exuberant air about it. But the adherence to the forms of religion merely for tradition's sake is as much of a dead weight on good religion as it is on society.

The courage of Rowan Williams

I didn't get to the meeting, but Rowan Williams was in Westminster this week for what was cheekily billed as "an audience" with MPs. Soon he will be released from his near decade-long ordeal – and the Crown Nominations Commission will send two names for the next Archbishop of Canterbury to the Prime Minister, who will recommend one to the Queen. Under the extraordinary archaic rules of the Commons we will not be allowed to ask the Prime Minister any questions about this process. Nor, for that matter, can we ask about any names that the Prime Minister recommends for knighthoods, peerages or other honours. It's not that I necessarily expect Mr Cameron to answer the questions. He showed his disdain for answering questions earlier this week. But a little bit of transparency would end the conspiracy theories that abound.

Rowan, incidentally, has great courage. When I was in the midst of a media storm in 2003, I attended a carol concert at Lambeth Palace, and he ostentatiously hugged me, declaring, "Don't let the bastards grind you down" in the face of Paul Dacre.

Dinner when the bullets flew

I gather there was quite a lively dinner the other night at Quirinale in Westminster, hosted by the UK Defence Forum, which tries to bring MPs and peers of all parties together with senior figures in the Armed Forces. This time the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards, was answering questions. One of the MPs, Dave Watts, who happens to be chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, asked what most people thought was a tame question – whether the Government's defence cuts would mean that the Armed Forces would be unable to do something that they currently do. Whereupon the 2010 intake MP for Hendon, Matthew Offord, apparently launched into a diatribe against him, calling him a "gobshite".

Four Labour members felt they had to leave the restaurant and several Tory MPs subsequently apologised to Dave. I tell this story not particularly because of Dr Offord's antics (he has a PhD, don't you know), but because in the normal course of things this is precisely the kind of moment when the Chief Whip would want to invite him in for a "meeting without coffee". No wonder Andrew Mitchell, below, who, as one Tory MP told me had "about as much authority as wee Jimmy Krankie", had to go.

MacDonald's dodgy legacy

The Palace of Westminster is full of portraits, busts, statues of the great and the good from previous decades and centuries, but one of my colleagues was commenting in the tearoom that there aren't many of Ramsay MacDonald, despite his being the first Labour prime minister. All he gets is a bust in the Members' Lobby. This may, of course, be because of his abandonment of Labour in 1931 and formation of the National Government with the Tories.

With the notable exception of Churchill, the floor-crossers can end up with few friends to say their obsequies or fund their memorials. Wayne David, the MP for Caerphilly, told me that when he was a member of Aberavon constituency Labour Party, where MacDonald had been the MP, the treasurer would make passing reference at the AGM to the "secret account". He eventually owned up that ever since MacDonald had betrayed the party and taken the Aberavon party finances with him, astute local treasurers had kept a "secret account" just in case the local MP did the same again. I wonder if the Sheffield Hallam Lib Dems have something similar in case Nick Clegg finally joins the Tories.

Twitter: @ChrisBryantMP

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