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What we Talk About When we Talk About Faith by Peter Stanford

18 May 2018

Ted Harrison enjoys a selection of interviews

THE well-respected Roman Catholic journalist Peter Stanford has collected 44 of the most memorable interviews of his career into a single volume. From Lord Longford to Michael Gove, and Sister Wendy Becket to Nick Cave, the net is widely spread, and catches politicians, celebrities, musicians, and solitaries.

The interviews are reprinted, largely unchanged, from a range of specialist and secular dailies and weeklies. The earliest is from 1984. Inevitably, as journalism, they are frequently pegged to issues of the day which seemed important to commissioning editors at the time.

The chapters are not verbatim accounts of conversations. Instead, they are impressions of Peter Stanford’s encounters, illustrated by the quotations of the moment.

The grand title, What we Talk About When we Talk About Faith, is a bit misleading. The book is not intended as an analysis of the nature of spiritual discourse. With Stanford as the intermediary, the reader is invited into a series of meetings, during which faith matters are discussed to a greater or lesser extent.

Reading the book is a bit like being at a party at which one starts one fascinating conversation after another, but is always left wishing for more time and space to talk. One or two interviewees seem a bit self-important or prickly, but most are delightful to meet: affable, honest, and sometimes, even, with a genuine touch of holiness.

Perhaps it is not surprising that an RC journalist should not have included many individual Anglicans. Indeed, of all the Church of England bishops of his time, Stanford reports on meeting only one, George Carey.

The most poignant paragraph in the whole book is not found in a reprint, but in the introduction to the chapter on Desmond Tutu. “Shortly after the interview appeared, my father died and Archbishop Tutu found out. He rang and left a message to say he would remember him in his prayers. . . A few days later he rang again. ‘I wanted to speak to you properly,’ he began, ‘to find out how you are?’” Stanford was touched by the pastoral concern of such a busy man for someone he hardly knew.

My own career as a writer on religious affairs has run in parallel to Stanford’s. I have interviewed many of the people included in this book. Journalism is an ephemeral business, but Stanford is one of those journalists whose output, as this collection demonstrates, stands the test of time.

Ted Harrison is a former BBC religious-affairs correspondent.

What we Talk About When we Talk About Faith
Peter Stanford
Hodder & Stoughton £14.99
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