Card-carrying Catholics

Catholics are being encouraged to carry a 'faith card'. Could it catch on?

I'm intrigued by the proposal, revealed yesterday by the Telegraph's Martin Beckford, to issue all one million regularly practising Catholics in England and Wales with credit-card-sized "faith cards". One side carries a quote from the recently beatified John Henry Newman, while the other lists six things that good Catholics ought to do (number one is to share the faith, incidentally) and carries the injunction, "in the event of an emergency please contact a Catholic priest."

I assume that this refers to a medical emergency, rather than to a sudden crisis of faith or to a difficulty encountered while trying to explain the finer points of the doctrine of transubstantiation to an incredulous atheist.

Launching the scheme, Bishop Kieran Conry put the card in the context of modern society, in which it is common to carry cards "which reflect something of our identity and the things that are important to us." But it would surely have appealed to the fifteenth century Franciscan preacher St Bernardino of Siena, who used to carry around a plaque inscribed with an IHS logo, the better to impress congregations with reverence for the name of Jesus. He's now the patron saint of advertising.

According to the bishop, the card will remind Catholics of their faith and encourage them to share it. It isn't, though, a membership card. There's no suggestion that it would be necessary to show it before receiving communion in an unfamiliar church, for example. Perhaps they're missing a trick, there. Given the complexity and specificity of the rules surrounding who is and isn't permitted to receive the sacrament, it might be considered surprising that the system continues to function largely on trust. A smart card would provide an excellent way of keeping track of which Catholics were in good standing with the Church, as well as preventing Anglicans from surreptitiously availing themselves of communion, as Tony Blair used to do while he was prime minister.

Nor is it, yet, a loyalty card, although I can imagine enterprising Catholic-friendly businesses offering discounts to its bearers. It's not uncommon, after all, for some clubs and societies to negotiate discounts on behalf of their members, or universities on behalf of their alumni, while many businesses spontaneously offer discounts to students, pensioners or local residents. At a time when the Catholic Church is seriously worried about falling congregations (the pope himself warning the other day that "in large parts of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame that has no more sustenance") some such incentive scheme might prove useful.

More seriously, it was interesting that bishop Conroy chose to make the point about identity. The Catholic Church doesn't have an obvious marker of faith identity, like the hijab, turban or the Jewish skullcap. There's the crucifix, of course, but not all cross-wearers are Catholic, or even Christian, and wearing one has never been a religious requirement. The bishop claimed that carrying a faith card "takes courage, it signals to others, every time you use your wallet or purse, that you believe in God, that your life has a purpose." But unless you choose to wave your wallet in front of people's noses, the message is only being communicated to the bearer. Or to a thief.

It's as a spur to evangelism (or evangelisation, as Catholics prefer to say) that the "faith card" is most likely to make an impact. I was somewhat reminded of the five-point pledge cards that the Labour Party distributed at the time of the 1997 election. Indeed, there's a space on the card in which the believer is supposed to inscribe his or her name, turning the front of the card into something of a to-do list. In that context, it's worth noting that "love my neighbour as myself" is at number four, behind not only sharing the faith but also praying and attending the sacraments. Jesus himself put it second, just behind loving God (which on this list is nowhere).

And why six principles of Catholicism? Perhaps just to go one better than the Muslims, who since the seventh century have made do with Five Pillars of Islam. They would fit nicely on a card, come to think of it. Now all we need is something for card-carrying atheists to carry.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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To the Commonwealth, "Global Britain" sounds like nostalgia for something else

And the former colonial subjects have a less rose-tinted view of the past. 

Earlier this month, Boris Johnson became the first British foreign secretary to visit the Gambia since independence. His visit came a few days before the inauguration of the Gambia's new President, Adama Barrow, who has signalled his intention to re-join the Commonwealth - an institution that his dictatorial predecessor had left in protest at its apparent "neo-colonialism".

Accusations of neo-colonialism, regrettably, seem to be of little concern to the foreign secretary. After Johnson committed himself to facilitating the Gambia's Commonwealth re-entry, he declared that "the strength of our partnerships show that Global Britain is growing in influence and activity around the world". 

His comments are the latest example of the government's Brexit mission-creep in its foreign engagements. Theresa May mentioned "Global Britain" no fewer than ten times in her Lancaster House speech last month, reminding us that Britain "has always looked beyond Europe to the wider world" and emphasising the UK's post-referendum desire to "get out into the world". Ministers' repeated subsequent referencing of Global Britain has almost come to the point of re-branding Great Britain itself. But now the government seems to be directly equating Global Britain with the Commonwealth, the organisation comprising most of the former territories of the British Empire. If the Commonwealth is wooing back former members and seemingly growing in stature, that must mean Global Britain is doing the same. The Gambia's proposed re-admission to the Commonwealth is reconfigured as a victory for British clout and prestige in the face of the Brexit naysayers.

But the Commonwealth cannot be a vehicle or front for Global Britain, on either a technical or political level. The Commonwealth emphasises that it is an organisation of 52 equal member states, without any preference in decision-making. India (population 1.26bn) and Tuvalu (10,000) are treated the same. The organisation is headquartered in London, receives the most money from Britain, and its members share elements of history, culture and political systems; but it is not a British organisation and will not take orders from the British government. Commonwealth states, particularly poorer ones, may welcome UK political, financial and developmental support, but will reject the spectre of neo-imperialism. Diplomats remark that their countries did not leave the British Empire only to re-join it through the back door. 

And yet, shorn of influence following the decision to leave the EU, and the single market so instrumental to British jobs and prosperity, the government is desperate to find an alternative source of both power and profit. The members of the Commonwealth, with their links of heritage and administration, have always been touted as the first choice. Leading Brexiter Dan Hannan has long advocated a "union with the other English-speaking democracies", and Liam Fox has been actively pursuing Commonwealth countries for trade deals. But the Commonwealth cannot replace the EU in any respect. While exports to the EU account for just under a half of Britain's total, the Commonwealth receives less than 10 percent of our goods. The decline of UK trade with the Commonwealth was taking place long before Britain joined the EU, and it has in fact revived in recent years while being a member. The notion that Britain is restricted from trading with the Commonwealth on account of its EU membership is demonstrably false.  

The EU, the beloved scapegoat for so many ills, cannot fulfil the role for much longer. Indeed, when it comes to the Commonwealth, 48 of the 52 members have already completed trade deals with the UK, or are in the process of negotiating them, as part of their engagement with the EU. Britain could now be forced to abandon and re-negotiate those agreements, to the great detriment of both itself and the Commonwealth. Brexiters must moreover explain why Germany, with a population just 25 percent larger than ours, exports 133 percent more to India and 250 percent more to South Africa than we do. Even New Zealand, one of Britain's closest allies and a forthcoming trade-deal partner, imports 44 percent more goods and services from Germany, despite enjoying far looser cultural and historical ties with that country. The depth of Britain's traditional bonds with the Commonwealth cannot, in itself, boost the British economy. The empire may fill the imagination, but not a spreadsheet.

The British imperial imagination, however, is the one asset guaranteed to keep growing as Brexit approaches. It is, indeed, one of the root causes of Brexit. Long after the empire fell into history, the British exceptionalism it fostered led us to resent our membership of a European bloc, and resist even limited integration with it. The doctrine of "taking back control" for an "independent Britain" speaks to profound (and unfounded) anxieties about being led by others, when in our minds we should be the ones explicitly leading. The fictional, if enduringly potent victim narrative that we became a colony of someone else's empire, has now taken hold in government. The loss of our own empire remains an unacknowledged national trauma, which we both grieve and fail to accept. The concept of being equal partners with like-minded countries, in a position to exert real, horizontal influence through dialogue, cooperation and shared membership of institutions, is deemed an offence to Britain's history and imperial birthright.

The relentless push for Global Britain is thus both a symptom and cause of our immense global predicament. Through an attempt to increase our power beyond Europe, Brexit has instead deflated it. Britain has, in truth, always been global, and the globe has not always been grateful for it; but now the government preaches internationalism while erecting trade barriers and curbing migration. After empire, Britain found a new role in Europe, but with that now gone, Global Britain risks producing global isolation. Despite the foreign secretary's rhetoric, the Commonwealth, geopolitically and economically, has moved on from its imperial past. It is not waiting to be re-taken.

Jonathan Lis is the deputy director at British Influence.