Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Blair's "Baptism of Desire"?

After a decade in Downing Street, the British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced last week that he'll turn in the seals of office on 27 June.

Once he hands the reins of the premiership and the leadership of his Labour party to his sometime rival, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown -- the son of a Scottish Presbyterian clergyman -- Blair intends to stay on the backbenches until the next general election (likely to be held in 2009), and start a Clinton-esque foundation in the name of global do-goodery.

But could TB be swimming the Tiber? Speculation's long focused on the question, which would formally bring Blair into the fold which counts his wife, Cherie Booth, and four children among its membership. Technically an Anglican, the PM is known to be a regular Catholic Mass-goer, and reports in 2003 said that he received the Eucharist on attending a private morning Mass in the papal apartment celebrated by Pope John Paul II.

The Times' Ruth Gledhill reincarnates the story today with quotes from Franciscan Fr Michael Seed, the "chaplain to the stars" known to be close to the Blairs.
Seed, who is known for bringing high-profile politicians and aristocrats into the Catholic fold and who says Mass for the Blairs in Downing Street each week when they are in London, made the prediction to friends at a recent memorial service.

Last night, when contacted by The Times, he did not deny his comments, but said he did not know if Mr Blair would ever be received “formally” into the Roman Catholic Church....

Father Seed said: “He’s been going to Mass every Sunday. He goes on his own when he is abroad, not just when he is with his wife and children.”

Another church source said that many of the early saints and martyrs were not baptised. Such people were held to have had a “baptism of desire”.

He said that Mr Blair was a Catholic by desire and that this did not necessitate a formal conversion. “He is an ecumenical Catholic,” said the source. “He is a liberal Catholic. In terms of his private life, he is a Roman Catholic.”

Although technically an Anglican, Mr Blair only “darkened the door” of Anglican churches on state and other formal occasions, he added.

Downing Street would not comment on the suggestion that Mr Blair would declare himself a Catholic. A spokesman said: “This story is always circulating in one form or another. The PM remains a member of the Church of England.”

Mr Blair has always been reluctant to discuss his religious beliefs. Alastair Campbell, the former Downing Street communications chief, famously told one interviewer: “We don’t do God.” The Prime Minister has also indicated in the past that he attended Mass so that his family, all Catholics, could worship together.

To receive Mr Blair into the fold would be a triumph for the Roman Catholic Church, which has in the past two decades in particular regained its confidence, recovering from centuries of persecution that followed the Reformation.

Mr Blair has been criticised for receiving Communion at Catholic Mass. Cardinal Basil Hume, the late Archbishop of Westminster, wrote to him in 1996 demanding that he should cease taking Communion at his wife’s church in Islington, although he added that it was “all right to do so when in Tuscany for the holidays . . . as there was no Anglican church near by”.

Mr Blair made it clear that he did not agree with Cardinal Hume’s opinion, writing in a pointed letter to him: “I wonder what Jesus would have made of it.”

Writing in The Tablet, the Catholic weekly, Father Seed described how the Prime Minister had regarded his time in office as akin to a “vocation”.