14 MARCH 1998, Page 9


VICKI WOODS While I have no wish, during this Lenten season, to make windows into men's souls, I feel we have received so many mixed messages from the High Tory press about our temporal leader's spiritual faith that I've decided not to leave God and Mr Blair to muscle it out between them but to work it out for myself. Is he a Catholic or not? It's a fair question — not like prod- ding a chap about freemasonry. If the Supreme Governor of the Anglican Church herself can ask the Way Ahead group to Juggle the possibilities of the next king but one marrying a Catholic, then the low hea- thens running the focus groups in Downing Street should stop being embarrassed about Mr Blair's proclivities and come clean.

When Tony went to Mass at West- minster Cathedral unaccompanied by his Catholic family, the Daily Telegraph (among other papers) trod carefully amid the thick- ets of ecumenism. The Telegraph decided that attendance at church — Catholic or whatever — is reassuring in a modern lead- er. But for an Anglican to partake of Holy Communion in a Roman church would be, they implied, less reassuring, if not worry- lug. Father John Caden promptly wrote to the editor in robust defence of his parish- ioner, Mrs Blair's husband. He has known the member for Sedgefield since 1983, dur- lug which time Tony has attended his Catholic church hundreds of times, and has often read the lesson, but he has never shown any sign of wavering from his Anglo- Catholicism. We can infer from Father Caden's words that the Anglican half of a loving and affectionate mixed marriage has been displaying family solidarity for the last 15 years, not slouching towards Rome.

Father Caden assured an anxious nation (or an anxious gaggle of heathen spin-doc- tors) that Tony has never attempted to receive Holy Communion. Well, I can see why he wouldn't. It would be socially awk- ward to attempt to march up to the altar rail in front of a parish priest who has known him as an unwavering Anglican for 15 years. It would be like telling your wife You are having a long-term affair with the village team's opening batsman. But on a Sunday morning last June, during the G7 Conference in Denver, Tony Blair accompa- nied his wife to Mass at Our Lady's church in the city. And it was Cherie who turned to someone sitting behind them and whis- pered, do you think it would be all right for Tony to take Communion? The nod said Yes. They duly took Communion, he and she, among the delegates from France and Italy and the other Catholic countries. In our house, we just know that Tony Blair is a Catholic. He married a Catholic, his children are Catholic, he lives like a Catholic and he looks like a Catholic, espe- cially to people for whom these things mat- ter, i.e. Scots and Irish. I've been married for 20 years to a cradle Catholic, born in Glasgow to a priest-ridden Scottish-Irish mother. My husband was an apostate before I met him, and after 27 years in the soft South, he retains little of his back- ground except an inability to pronounce either blouse or squirrel in anything approx- imating English. But one thing he does retain is the impressive party trick of being able to pick out all the Catholic faces in a room full of people unknown to him. Around the dinner tables of my north Oxford friends, say, this is a reasonably amusing social skill. Husband: You're a Catholic, and you're not, and you're not, nor you, but your wife is; you're — er . . . er . . . hang on a minute. . . . Visiting aca- Castro voted Cartoonist of the Year by the company of line and half-tone operatives demic: I am Swedish Jew! Ha ha ha! I am the winner, I think! Assembled company: Ha ha ha! But in the Glasgow of my hus- band's youth, or in the Liverpool of Cherie Booth's youth, this wasn't so much a party trick as a necessary survival technique, as it still is in Northern Ireland.

Some Catholics I know wondered why Tony had been embarrassingly caught out by attending Westminster Cathedral in the first place. A prime minister is attended by an entourage, and an entourage is easily spotted, even among the travellers, waifs and strays who are the sort of people who attend the Sunday night evening Mass at any big-city Catholic church. You could ask the hotel doorman for your nearest Catholic Mass and he'd come straight out with Westminster Cathedral, six o'clock. If he wanted to be discreet, why didn't he slip up to Farm Street, one Sloaney Catholic wondered. Westminster Cathedral's so obvious: he must have stuck out like a sore thumb among all the French tourists and tramps and Spanish au pairs. But my most devout friend knew why he'd gone to West- minster Cathedral. The Blairs had just spent an excruciating week helping the American President out of his bath of sleaze. They flew back by Concorde, where- upon Cherie — the working mother went straight home to spend what was left of the weekend with her young children. Weekend or not, the Prime Minister had to go to Scarborough for all the thrills and spills of the local government conference and he didn't arrive back in London until Sunday evening, too late to accompany Cherie and the family to their habitual Sun- day Mass together. Cherie is the kind of rooted, believing Catholic who couldn't let a Sunday go by without going to Mass, and seeing the children to Mass. She couldn't start a Monday without Mass on a Sunday. So here's Tony, limoing back to London on his lonesome, badly in need of a shriving after a week spent slipping on Clinton's sleaze, and why wouldn't he nip into the comforting, bustling anonymity of the evening Mass at London's biggest Catholic church for a spiritual wash and brush-up? (Whether or not he took Holy Communion on this occasion I don't know.) He'll convert, says my devout friend. Cherie's Catholicism is central to her life, and they're close. It isn't feigned. They like each other a lot; you can see it from their body language when they're together. They are a Catholic family. He didn't care whether he was seen or not. Cherie vaut bien une messe.