Mary Wakefield: Ignore the sceptics who are blocking the road to Rome

Saturday 24 October 2009 00:00 BST

So the Pope is on the front pages, peering out at us, waving, inviting unhappy Anglicans to Rome. He's even made special provision for priests who might feel homesick and bent the rules to allow them to keep a few favourite things: hymns, the book of common prayer (in parts), their wives.

If the papers are to be believed, the poping priests will take their congregations with them, which means that there are now hundreds of thousands of potential left-footers, all shuffling anxiously around on the cliff edge of conversion, holding their noses, peering down.

Well, come on in, I say. The water's warm. I converted two years ago now, full of cowardly fear about what people might think, and to my surprise, I haven't regretted it since. But though the water is warm, I'd be lying if I said there weren't a few sharks around.

As Catholicism seeps back into Britain (St Thérèse of Lisieux's UK tour this year, the Pope's in 2010, the probable beatification of Cardinal Newman, etc), so too our national rage against Catholicism is on the rise. On Tuesday night this week there was a debate in the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster: "the Catholic church is a force for good in the world". Ann Widdecombe and Archbishop John Onaiyekan speaking for the motion, Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens against. Widdecombe was no bulwark against the secular wrath of Fry and Hitch. They took the church by the jugular like a pair of underexercised pit bulls and worried her half to death. Paedophilia, the inquisition, Hitler's Pope, the crusades, contraception – by the time they'd finished, the crowd was pulsing with anti-Catholic fury and the motion was in tatters. "If the Pope had walked in at the end, they'd have lynched him," said a priest who was at the debate, half joking, half genuinely alarmed.

But why was everybody so cross? Was it really a reasonable response? Yes, the church's history is bloody and corrupt, but so is England's, and that doesn't preclude patriotism. Like most other powerful institutions, the church has done some appalling things, but it has also championed women's rights, campaigned to end slavery, opposed the Iraq war, fed and clothed the poor and sent more and more effective aid to Africa than any other charitable organisation. There have been devious bishops but also devout ones and for every pervert priest many more who are self-sacrificing. When he calms down, even Stephen Fry knows the church does good – why else would he be hosting a fundraising event next month for the Passage, a day centre for the homeless, founded by Cardinal Hume, supported by Westminster Cathedral, inspired by the life of Christ?

As a former tormentor of Christians, especially of evangelicals, I know how enraging a goody-goody can be, but my suspicion is that the antipathy to Catholics has a different cause. It can't be about doctrine – why, in an effectively secular state, would anyone waste their time worrying about someone else's nutty beliefs? Live and let loonies live. The answer is, I think, that for most nominally Anglican or atheist Brits, Catholicism is still irrevocably alien. The mood in the Methodist Central Hall was not the righteous anger of enlightened liberals, but a reflex hostility to a foreign creed; the scaly tail of reformation revulsion, still twitching in the public mind.

After all, it's how I felt myself for years without realising it, and how my family has felt for generations. My great-grandmother felt jumpy about Catholics in the house. My grandmother eyed them warily. When I told my mother, as a joke, that papists sacrificed a goat mid-mass, she took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. She was determined to accept me, goats and all, but frankly, she wasn't surprised.

So why did I convert? The short answer is that I needed somewhere to believe. When I took my questions and doubts to the C of E, the priests looked embarrassed: "Believe? Gosh, don't bother with that!" They were nice, reasonable ambassadors for a nice, reasonable church and they left me feeling like a lunatic. So where to go? I inched towards the Catholic church, baulking like a nervy horse. From the outside, it looked crazy: a mix of dodgy doctrine and arcane ritual. But the closer I crept, the saner, the more light-hearted I felt, and once inside, even transubstantiation made perfect sense. Put it down to brainwashing if you like. Me, I'm with St Augustine of Hippo. Credo ut intelligam, he said. Believing is seeing. It would have Stephen Fry fit to be tied.

Who are you calling a sex object?

In her role as a Goodwill Ambassador, Nicole Kidman has appeared before the US Congress and complained that Hollywood portrays women in a bad light, as weak or as sex objects. "I can't be responsible for all of Hollywood, but I can certainly be responsible for my own career," she said. Why is it always women who strip off on screen who complain about sexploitation? I imagine the good congressmen nodding seriously, brows furrowed, while in their minds eye they replayed the steamier scenes from Eyes Wide Shut.

Misplaced faith in biometrics

What's the difference between Osama bin Laden and Winona Ryder? Nothing at all, if you're a biometric face scanner. A new book about all the lies we're told (Complete and Utter Zebu by Simon Rose and Steve Caplin) has an excellent chapter called "Biometrics: the billion pound confidence trick". Remember Jacqui Smith on the subject? "It's the first stage in an unbeatable ring of security" etc.

Well, in August last year, Manchester airport became the first international airport in the world to put the scanners into operation. But set on 100 per cent recognition they took far too long, so to speed up sluggish queues, officials adjusted them to operate on 30 per cent recognition, which is where they've remained, often unmanned, keeping us all safe.

And how effective is this 30 per cent recognition? Rose and Caplin point out that on this setting, the machines can't tell the difference between Gordon Brown and Mel Gibson or Osama and little Winona, left. So are they going to scrap the biometric system? Nope, it's now being rolled out in Heathrow. Hooray!

Don't get in the way of a cabbie and his rage

London taxi drivers might have reached their tipping point.

They've never been exactly temperate, but in the past few months a combination of roadworks, minicabs, bendy buses and the ongoing recession seems to have driven them properly insane.

A few days ago I was pedalling along Oxford street when a white van came by and knocked a taxi wing mirror. In a flash, the taxi driver had leapt from his cab and was banging like a madman on the white van door, swearing at him to get out. "What are you? A nancy? Come and fight." After a bit of covert rubber-necking, I skedaddled, but this is the fifth or sixth episode of black cab psychosis I've seen this year. In America, the mail men were so crazed that "going postal" became international slang. Perhaps we'll all be talking about "going taxi" soon.

Can't be seen without a poppy

Was there something a little depressing about the line-up of pin-on poppies on BNP Question Time on Thursday? Jack, David, Nick, Chris Bonnie, Sayeeda: all poppied up, a good two and a half weeks before Remembrance Sunday. I understand why they did it: fat, smirky Nick always wears one, they thought, and we can't have him looking like the only person who cares about Our Boys.

But somehow that row of poor poppies summed up everything that was wrong with the whole affair. Not just nasty Nick, but all the politicians and Dimbleby too, desperate to come across as national champions, parading their bogus concern for real heroes.

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