Edward Leigh MP
I will not condemn any other man’s conscience, which lieth in their own heart far out of my sight.
Sir Thomas More
Thomas More, who was declared by Pope John Paul II to be patron saint of statesmen and politicians, is a man all MPs should celebrate, whatever their religious convictions. It is to him that all members of Parliament owe an eternal debt of gratitude, for it was he who, as Speaker, won for us for the first time the right to freedom of speech in debating any subject. This is nowadays known as ‘parliamentary privilege’. Because of him, we can, in Shakespeare’s words from King Lear ‘speak what we feel, not what we ought to say’.
Thomas More really is a saint for our time. One doesn’t need to descend into hagiography to see him as a fine example for all politicians. Of course he had his faults. After all he was a successful lawyer and politician. Is it possible for anyone to rise in our professions without any blemish? Nor do we need to go to the other extreme and dismiss him as a narrow-minded bigot and burner of heretics. True, he did burn some, as his modern-day detractors keep reminding us. But to condemn him for that is to take him out of his context and his century when religion was central to everyone’s life and government was a kind of theocracy. The authorities felt they had to enforce orthodoxy. Before we get too critical perhaps we could recall those modern-day magistrates who enforce laws against racist comments on the grounds that the equilibrium of society is upset by them. Or consider the laws against Islamist preaching that inspires terrorism. Heresy was then seen as a threat of that order and worse. In Germany an uprising inspired by Protestant notions, known as the Peasants’ War, led in More’s lifetime to terrible bloodshed.
But enough of this carping. The true genius of Thomas More’s memory and why he is immortalised is because he stood up for what he believed in. In a sense his stand and that of Fisher is all the more extraordinary because what Henry VIII was proposing was not so outrageous. After all it was considered one of the greatest disasters that could befall a nation for a girl to inherit the crown. Henry knew that if Mary was to succeed him and marry say the heir to France or Spain, England and her freedom would literally be her dowry. The sensible course for Catherine would have been to retire quietly to a convent after failing in her most important job of providing a male heir. Only two great public men, More and Fisher, stood against the notion that England must have a male heir. Their obstinacy in the face of all their peers is glorious. No doubt too the prospect of execution concentrated the minds of many of their friends, and the fact that alone of all the courtiers and bishops More and Fisher refused to renounce their beliefs even if it led to the scaffold has ensured that they are remembered when all the others are forgotten.
One last canard should be laid to rest. It is alleged that More wanted to be a martyr. In fact he used all his lawyerlike skills to put off the evil day. One is left with the inescapable conclusion that he was just a sincere man who could not renounce his religious beliefs for a political, even a national, convenience. Why can we not delight in and applaud him and hold his memory sacred?
Recently More has become more topical as once again the state starts to impose its morality on the churches in order to stop what it sees as discrimination.
At the heart of Henry VIII’s great matter was an issue concerning marriage and the family. This is not the place to debate the merits or otherwise of the Blair government’s insistence that the Catholic Church open its adoption agencies to gay couples. Suffice it to say that Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham came out with a Fisher-like statement that needs preserving for posterity:
Those who are elected to fashion our laws are not elected to be our moral tutors. They have no mandate or competence to do so. And the wise among them would not wish it either.
In the context of the dispute the Archbishop of Canterbury famously declared that ‘Rights of conscience cannot be subject to legislation.’
But there’s a broader reason why modern politicians should celebrate the life of Thomas More. We live famously in an age of spin. But we are more worryingly in an age where Parliament is remarkably quiescent to the executive. Most MPs appear more interested in the dubious delights of office than in speaking their minds. Perhaps this has always been so, but at least in the past there were more MPs of independent means. Now more and more MPs have had no career outside of Parliament. They have little alternative earning power, no second career, and often no managerial experience, so becoming one of the Queen’s Ministers is their only real chance of making a mark.
Very few – in fact only two – men in public life, More and Fisher, were prepared to stand up for their beliefs against Henry VIII. Sadly very few today are prepared to stand against the orthodoxy of their own parties. That’s why more and more people are becoming bored, disillusioned and apathetic about politics. It seems to make no difference. All the parties seem much the same.
More shouldn’t then just be the patron saint of politicians. He should be the patron saint of politicians who are prepared to sacrifice ambition for what they believe in. He is then very much a saint for our time.
The above text is an extract from ‘St John Fisher and St Thomas More – the bluntest of bishops and the most outspoken Speaker’, a chapter by Edward Leigh and Alex Haydon in English Catholic Heroes, published last month by Gracewing. It is available via the publisher’s website on the link below.
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