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Mark Fox: The Bishop of London did Mrs T proud. The nation owes him a debt of gratitude.

Mark FoxMark Fox is a political commentator and former Parliamentary candidate.

After all the debate, hype and controversy it has fallen to the Bishop of London to pull together the life of Mrs T and to bring out the human being that has been obscured by the –ism, the mythmakers and the critics.

In a magnificent sermon at St Paul’s Cathedral, Richard Chartres pulled off the almost impossible task of successfully summing her life up, reminding us of her humanity and explaining to us the fundamental importance of her Christian faith. He did so without quibbling about or endorsing any of her politics, but paid tribute to the courage and conviction she demonstrated throughout her public life.

Central to that human being was Christian faith. These days it is not fashionable or comfortable to talk about personal faith in the public square. The Bishop reminded us that Mrs T did not shy away from doing so. He drew out her qualities of personal kindness and thoughtfulness.

“One thing that everyone has noted,” he said:

“…is the courtesy and personal kindness which she showed to those who worked for her, as well as her capacity to reach out to the young, and often also to those who were not, in the world’s eyes, ‘important’.

The letter from a young boy early on in her time as Prime Minister is a typical example. Nine year old David wrote to say, ‘Last night when we were saying prayers, my daddy said everyone has done wrong things except Jesus. I said I don't think you have done bad things because you are the Prime Minister. Am I right or is my daddy?’

Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that the PM replied in her own hand in a very straightforward letter which took the question seriously.”

Or the occasion when he was engaged in a discussion with her on economic issues and she expressed concern for his diet:

“I was once sitting next to her at some City function. In the midst of describing how Hayek’s Road to Serfdom had influenced her thinking, she suddenly grasped my wrist and said very emphatically, ‘Don't touch the duck pate, Bishop – it’s very fattening.” 

But it was her faith that she spoke about with conviction and with a genuineness that still reaches out to us many years later.

He spoke of how she “described her own religious upbringing in a lecture she gave in the nearby church of St Lawrence Jewry”:

“She said: ‘We often went to church twice on a Sunday, as well as on other occasions during the week. We were taught there always to make up our own minds and never take the easy way of following the crowd.’” 

During his sermon Bishop Richard made three pointed political (not party political) points.

The first was when he reminded us that it was Methodists – to whom, he said, this country owes a great debt – who challenged “the political and economic status quo in nineteenth century Britain.” And it was Methodist lay preachers who led the Tolpuddle Martyrs not “proto-Marxists.” 

The second was tackling head on the untruth that she had ever said there was no such thing as society. He quoted her saying that:

“Christianity offers no easy solutions to political and economic issues. It teaches us that there is some evil in everyone and that it cannot be banished by sound policies and institutional reform … We cannot achieve a compassionate society simply by passing new laws and appointing more staff to administer them.”

Bishop Richard told us about her awareness of the fact that:

“…there are prior dispositions which are needed to make market economics and democratic institutions function well: the habits of truth-telling, mutual sympathy, and the capacity to co-operate. These dispositions are incubated and given power by our relationships.”

Or, in her words:

“…the basic ties of the family are at the heart of our society and are the very nursery of civic virtue. Such moral and spiritual capital is accumulated over generations but can be easily eroded.”

This was a very pointed reminder by Bishop Richard of the importance Mrs T attached to these values.

She knew, he said, that:

“Life is a struggle to make the right choices and to achieve liberation from dependence, whether material or psychological. This genuine independence is the essential pre-condition for living in an other-centred way, beyond ourselves.

The key word Margaret Thatcher used at the time was “interdependence”:

“She referred to the Christian doctrine, ‘that we are all members one of another, expressed in the concept of the Church on earth as the Body of Christ. From this we learn our interdependence and the great truth that we do not achieve happiness or salvation in isolation from each other but as members of Society.’”

Her later remark about there being no such thing as “society” has been misunderstood, he said, and refers to some impersonal entity to which we are tempted to surrender our independence.

In recent days a lack of perspective, proportion and balance has manifested itself on all sides. Admirers and critics alike have seemed to miss the point. One senior member of the Cabinet said to me, this week, that he thought you could have Thatcherism without faith and that that was what the Conservatives needed to aim for. The Dean of St Paul’s got himself into a tangle, and various Bishops have made an attempt to make themselves look foolish in the media. Mrs T herself demonstrated you could not do what she did, be what she was, without faith, and the Bishop of London explained why.

Earlier in the day the Chief Rabbi had elegantly and effectively paid tribute to her on ‘Thought for the Day’ on Radio 4. Between them these two religious leaders have brought insight, balance and perspective to a great life where politicians and other commentators have seemed incapable of doing so. Her legacy will continue to be debated energetically, but today the nation owes the Bishop of London and the Chief Rabbi a debt of gratitude.


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