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Press: Observer probes faith of contrarian Frank Field

03 February 2023


THE most moving and memorable story of the week was an interview with Frank Field in The Observer: “It’s a strange experience taking so long to die,” was the headline, and the copy, by Tim Adams, did not disappoint.

The peg was a book of argument and reminiscence that Field has just published, Politics, Poverty and Belief (Bloomsbury): “a primer”, Adams writes, “in the apparent contradictions of his political life: the tireless activist on the Labour benches, who believed in the spirit of the self-help market philosophy of his friend ‘Mrs T’. . .

“The book examines the ways Field’s Anglican faith has underpinned his contrarian thinking. He formed the conviction early on that humans were fallen creatures who must be saved from baser instincts. Some of that sense came from his tyrannical father, some from the local priest in Chiswick who gave weekly sermons on the certainty of hell for the sinners of his corner of south-west London.

“‘From the very word go, I’ve been conscious that we’ve been fallen, but from my mother I got this sense of the possibility of redemption’,” he [Field] says. ‘One of the reasons why there has been tension between me and the Labour party is that in the 1970s and 80s, they developed a very highfalutin view of human nature. And a growing part of our electorate ceased to believe in the Labour cause because they knew damn well how people behaved. They could see it in people in their own street’.

“Hence the attraction of Thatcherism, which worked with that belief in self-interest?

“‘She was wrong because she didn’t balance it. There was too much of the Fallen and not enough of the Redeemed.’

“‘Did he ever think about the priesthood as a vocation rather than politics?

“‘No, I never thought that I was good enough.’

“Good in the broadest sense?

“‘Yes, in those days I had naïve ideas that priests were all virtuous people.’ He smiles. ‘I suppose overwhelmingly they are.’”

That last touch is delightful, marking the journey from idealism, through disillusionment, to the exhausted recognition of goodness.

Field also asks Adams whether he has any faith, and the journalist replies that what little he had was rubbed away by “the synod’s cruel muddle on same-sex relationships”. Field replies that the Church is “wicked about that. . . Surely it is faithfulness one is after, and integrity. Not all those kinds of categorisations.”

This is one of the most sympathetic portraits of a serious Christian I can remember reading in the Guardian/Observer. It gives a sense of a life, and an engagement, in which sex really wasn’t the only important part of religion.

SO, NATURALLY, the headline on the paper’s coverage of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope was “Pope and Justin Welby to visit South Sudan amid tensions over LGBTQ+ rights”. There is, perhaps, a certain rough justice in this — there was a period in which Justin Welby would urge the Synod to do nothing about same-sex relationships because he had recently been standing on the site of some ghastly massacre in Africa, and realised, as he did so, that it would be wrong to upset the local church about sexuality as well.

The idea that the opinions of the South Sudanese on sexuality is the most interesting thing about them was not invented by the newspapers. But it’s still a shockingly narrow lens through which to see the world. Of the 17 paragraphs of the Guardian story, it is only the 17th which mentions the civil strife (between Christian militias) and consequent famine which have led the Western Christian leaders there.

followed the opposite policy. It seems entirely to have ignored the LLF wrangling, and instead zeroed in on the report by the Archbishops’ Commission on Reimagining Care (News, Leader comment, 27 January): “The Archbishop of Canterbury has sparked fury for demanding Brits pay higher taxes. Justin Welby called for taxpayers to be raided further to fund the creaking social care system.

“But the unelected bishop was blasted for trying to saddle workers with an even bigger burden than they already face.” And so the paper found a couple of rentaquotes to condemn him. It was only 13 paragraphs down that “Mr Welby also told Sky News he was getting ‘flak’ from activists opposed to the Church’s decision to allow the blessing of same-sex partnership.”

So, the paper that is traditionally concerned with inequality leads on sex; while the paper which is concerned with sex leads on money. The only explanation can be that the Church’s views on sex are no longer even irrelevant to Sun readers, and for them the idea that there could be any morality involved in the sexual marketplace is now too strange to contemplate. This is an extraordinary social revolution. Who could have imagined that the tone of pious outrage that distinguished the British tabloids’ handling of sex stories for the whole of the 20th century would so completely disappear, and the squawk of the love rat no longer be heard in the land?

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