Ex-Norwich MP defends role of faith in society
With the place of faith in society under ever-increasing attack from secularists and atheists, the agnostic former Home Secretary and Norwich South MP Rt Hon Charles Clarke, has sprung to its defence. Keith Morris reports.
In an interview in the Telegraph
newspaper and an article written for the Cathlolic Tablet
news weekly, Charles Clarke
has nailed his colours firmly to the mast.
“It’s time to talk openly, confidently and in a well-informed way about the place of faith in Britain,” he said.
“My work in inner-city Hackney in the early 1980s convinced me, despite my personal agnosticism, that the contribution of religion overall is usually a force for good. Almost every leader of the voluntary, community and charitable organisations which promoted education, social care and community strength, did it because of their own committed religious faith.
“Whatever their religion, they were not engaged in some sinister recruitment campaign. They wanted to fulfil the faith values by which they had chosen to live.
“That should be unsurprising because the main faiths of the world all promote love, understanding, respect and hope, care by the strong for the weak and societies based upon justice.”
It was the terrorist bomb attacks on the London Underground on July 7, 2005, that crystallized the issue for Mr Clarke, as Home Secretary at the time, as he told the Telegraph.
“One of the main fears that morning was that there would be massive anger against the Muslim community, with riots and attacks. I asked the main faith leaders to come together in my office that afternoon, to make a statement about the importance of living together and acknowledge that these terrible acts were not the responsibility of the Muslim community as a whole. They were delighted to do that.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Chief Rabbi and leading Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus joined together. In that moment, Mr Clarke began to realize that New Labour had missed a trick
“We as a government didn’t know how to talk about faith, or how to talk to people of faith. We weren’t clear how we were thinking about the place of faith in Britain,” he told the Telegraph.
Alastair Campbell had famously said Labour didn’t “do” God. “I’ve always thought that was overstated,” said Mr Clarke. “He was reacting against the idea that Tony Blair would claim he had a particular insight because he happened to be a Christian.”
In his home and former constituency of Norwich, Mr Clarke has seen first hand Christian organizations directly involved in social action.
During his unsuccessful campaign at the last General Election, Mr Clarke took time out to spend an evening in Norwich with Norfolk Street Pastors (now Norfolk Street Partnership) and was very impressed by the work he saw them do.
After spending a couple of hours with the Street Pastors, Mr Clarke told Network Norfolk: “The most important impression I have, having seen the Street Pastors in action, is that they try to contact and establish a relationship with people who are at various stages of difficulty or even desperation in their lives to try to help them talk through how they might find a way forward which is more constructive.
“I think that that is very good and an important thing. We have been at the Norwich soup kitchen where people, almost by definition, are people who are in difficulty in their lives in some way and that is what you are trying to do.
“I gather from talking to people that that takes a very long time and there are no instant results but I think it is a very positive thing and it is a very important part of a wider provision.”
As a former Home Secretary, Mr Clarke also recognizes the importance of faith organisations in the criminal justice system. He wrote in the Tablet: “The place of faith in prison, including the role of prison chaplains and the contribution of religious organisations to reducing re-offending, is a significant part of the criminal justice system.”
As a former Education Secretary, Mr Clarke also counters the arguments against a central role for faith organizations in education, usually based upon references to extremists in Belfast or Beirut.
“Surely it is far truer that the promoters of such conflicts abuse the label of faith,” wrote Mr Clarke. “Humanists and atheists would rightly deny that beliefs such as theirs lead inevitably to the secular totalitarianism of Stalin, Hitler or Pol Pot. They should not argue that theism leads inevitably to the damaging sectarianism they rightly dislike.”
Mr Clarke is now actively engaged in helped others to understand better the practice of religion and faith in our national life. He is one of the organizers of a series of public Faith Debates in Westminster lasting until May, all based on the latest research into the role of religion in public life and co-ordinated by Religion and Society.
Debaters include Richard Dawkins, Trevor Phillips, David Blunkett, Julia Neuberger and Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali.
Pictured above is former home secretary and Norwich South MP Charles Clarke out in Norwich with Norfolk Street Pastors.