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A history of miracles

· A conversation with Shirley Williams, one of the best loved politicians in Great Britain ·

Despite being a baroness and being entitled to be called “Lady” she does not like titles: “I belong to the House of Lords to do a job and not out of honour”. She is also Catholic in an Anglican country and is not afraid to say so: “I go to Mass every Sunday because I believe in Christianity’s goals. Christ’s work has become ever more important in my life”.

Your father used to read to you passages of Thomas Aquinas’ “Summa theologica” when you were only a little eight-year-old. How do you view your education today?

I was a lively child. I climbed on everything that could be climbed on, from my father’s bookshelves to curtains or bridges! I never accepted to be second to my brother. And in my family it was never presumed that he would attend a better school than me or that I should devote myself to manual work. Before I was thirteen I had never realized that most people thought women less intelligent, less courageous and less capable than men. I really loved the discussions at home, where so many international guests would gather. From my youth I was interested in politics. It might be said that my mother made me a Christian and my father, a Catholic. He was a very intellectual man, a professor of political science. He became Catholic as a young man because he was convinced by John Henry Newman’s work.

Why did you become a Catholic and not an Anglican like your mother?

Through my father. He was convinced that the only Church which could justify its existence as a permanent source of thought and Christian dogma was the Catholic Church. Besides, the Catholic Church was international whereas a merely national Church, as was initially the Church of England, was contrary to the Church’s mission. This does not mean that my father was not critical. He discussed theology with me at length and I became a Catholic when I was 18. In speaking to me of St Thomas, he put his religion and his politics together.

What is the combination between the two?

Politics must be the implementation of certain precepts of Christianity. Matters such as the education of children from underprivileged families or good relations between the different races spring from Christian principles. However these are not implemented unless a way is found to transform them into laws. If I believe in the absolute equality of races it is thanks to the Christian vision that each and every human being, man or woman, black or white, have the divinity of God in their hearts. They are all divine creations. Politics puts theory into practice; without it Christianity becomes hypocritical.

Your political wisdom has been influenced by Catholicism. And your social wisdom?

The element of Catholicism that I have always found very attractive is the social doctrine of the Church. In the 1970s I was in Latin America: I thought that liberation theology was Christianity put into practice. The sad thing about liberation theology is that in certain cases it became inclined to Marxism that churned out its own new élite. I then understood the danger of liberation theology: individual human beings lost their divinity, the infinite quality of having being created by God. In any case, several of the more interesting recent political leaders have come from Latin America: Lula da Silva in Brazil and Michelle Bachelet in Chile. They are involved in the fight against poverty, at times running great risks themselves. They identify with simple people, common workers. And from this a richer form of Catholicism emerges that does not depend on power. It is encouraging for the Church that the Pope seems to being going to the very heart of the Vatican structure and is asking difficult questions about the Church. Does it concern power or love?

Must the Church be involved in politics?

It is absolutely essential, but in the sense of pursuing the principles by which Christians must live. To give an example: Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, insisted on belonging to the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards where he asks fundamental questions about the moral compass of the banking sector. Thus, effectively, an important ecclesiastical figure is bringing the rules and principles proper to the Christian Churches to the world of politics and is saying: “You must live according to moral standards!”.

What are your favourite Bible stories?

Strangely, the stories in the Bible do not really attract me; but what did have a strong impact on me was a book about the passionate God that gave me a friend. The subject of this book refers to the biblical narratives in the New Testament which involve women, where the Apostles say to Christ “Why are you wasting time talking to that woman?”. Again and again we see Christ treating men and women with equal dignity. Once we stray from Christ’s path we see women driven to the second level. And this is true today: in the Church itself women are not represented in important positions.

In your autobiography you tell of your experience during the war. Was it tough?

I was sent to America because both my parents were on the Gestapo’s Black List. My mother, Vera Brittain, was a famous writer, but she was also a pacifist. The American President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife were great friends. My father was an academic who had persuaded the United States to join the war against Hitler. My parents were one of the few non-Jewish couples on the list of those who were to be killed immediately if Germany invaded. In 1940, when France had fallen, everyone believed that the invasion would occur in three months at the most. My parents wanted to stay in Great Britain but they also wanted to protect their children. So it was that my brother, who was 12 years old, and I, who was nine, were sent to some friends of theirs in Minnesota, where we stayed for three years. To go home we took a neutral ship that suffered bad damage during a storm and so we landed in Portugal. The aeroplane that was to take us home had on board a famous actor, Leslie Howard. It was shot down and everyone died. We were therefore detained in Portugal for two months.

Was it then that you realized the world was not all beautiful?

For a long time I thought simply that it was terribly beautiful. I had always thought that the Creation was a wonderful thing. After the war, the British Labour Government of the time sent various young people to Germany to see if they could build a new relationship for the post-war world. I was one of them and I crossed the whole of Germany in rubble by car in order to go to the first Social-Democrat Conference of post-war Germany in 1948 in the city of Hof, located in the American sector of Germany. For the first time I saw the total devastation of Germany, people who lived in holes, churches and ruined buildings. I began to feel that the first goal must always be the end of war. I am not a pacifist but I believe deeply in reconciliation.

Can you give us some examples?

In my life I have seen four fundamental political miracles. The first was Gorbachev, who made the collapse of the Soviet Union possible without anyone being killed. Then there was the demolition of the Berlin Wall. Then the surprising release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa and, more recently, the measures to permit Eastern Europeans to join the European Union. And, until the drama of Ukraine, everything has happened in a completely peaceful context. I say so because people are very cynical about politics, but in politics there is in fact an extraordinary history of miracles that succeed one another.

Who is God for you?

Fundamentally I see God in terms of Creator, as in Michelangelos’s fresco in the Sistine Chapel: the touch that gives life to human beings. I also see God as closely linked to the immense force of nature. In more personal terms, for me the life of Christ is the journey towards some kind of understanding of God. I think that in a certain way the Church has been a disappointment – too materialistic, too power conscious – but the life of Christ is the enduring centre of my religious faith. I hope that the institutional Church comes closer to the life of Christ, that she does not put power at the centre but rather love; and I consider that there are signs that this is beginning and happening now.

And as one of the best loved politicians in your country: what is your secret?

One of the things a politician needs to learn is humility when listening to the stories of so many ordinary people. I don’t have a secret. The important thing to do is to listen and not to turn other human beings away, since Christ dwells in each one of them.

Shirley Williams (London, 1930) is one of the most popular politicians in the UK. Among the first women to become a minister of the Labour Government in 1974, in her autobiography, Climbing the Bookshelves (2009), and in God and Caesar (2003) she tells of the foundation of a new political party, the Liberal Democrats. She is a Professor emeritus of the Kennedy School of Government at the University of Harvard and an active member of the House of Lords in the Parliament of the UK.

Lucette Verboven

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