Many many years ago, I used to swim regularly in the public baths on a council estate in Islington. One lunchtime, I noticed a well-built man in baggy swimming trunks diving into the pool and freestyling his way down the lane. Only when he popped his head out of the water beside me did I recognise Bruce Kent, the Catholic monsignor and CND activist. My embarrassment was extreme: every bone in my convent-school-educated body thought priests did not belong in swimming trunks.
A few weeks later, the polemical priest who'd campaigned for nuclear disarmament from pulpits and protest placards handed in his soutane: a priest was fine in the swimming baths, but not in the political arena, it seemed. Although no one has suggested that the then Archbishop of Westminster, the late Basil Hume, gave his controversial monsignor the push, there's no doubt that the late cardinal issued a sigh of relief to see the back of the politicking padre. As did Margaret Thatcher, no doubt.
Ever since King Herod sent off his soldiers to kill babies in the dead of night, the politicos have been suspicious of the religious. Churchmen, after all, pledge allegiance to an authority that claims to control even more than Alastair Campbell - not only this life, but the next. This is intimidating stuff for the secular politician and has meant that successive prime ministers and their underlings have either picked fights with their clerics - the C of E bishops' "Faith in the City" report had Thatcher hurling abuse at the dog-collared fraternity - or sidelined them as frilly-clothed namby-pambies, good for nothing but picking the biggest squash at the village fete.
For years, everyone from woolly liberal Hampstead to outraged Tunbridge Wells accepted this as Gospel truth. No longer, it would seem. In one of the most extensive surveys of religious belief ever, the BBC has found that 82 per cent of Britons believe that clerics should speak out on poverty; 75 per cent on racial discrimination; and 63 per cent on environmental issues. Suddenly, far from wishing to see the back of the reverend, we want him to step into the political fray - and take a lead.
The clerics' resurgence is more proof that we have lost our trust in politicians. We see them - this lot like the last - as fuelled by greed and power-lust, their promises about as true as a car salesman's pitch. (And not all have the prattle down as smooth as Steve Norris.) Their ambition, for self and party, has muzzled them, tied the politicos up in little knots of fear: they must keep an eye on the Sun, the core vote, the focus groups and the Daily Mail. Seldom has a political class been at the mercy of so many masters. Their insecure, serf-like status, has prompted Labour over the past three years to take half a dozen U-turns on everything from the euro to the asylum-seeker. And with every effort geared towards survival, little wonder the message is no longer clear, the vision thing a blur.
We cannot suspect the dog-collared ones, by contrast, of being motivated by money (£14,000 and a mousetrap by the church is not exactly cream for fat cats); nor do they need to groom their media profile or win our votes. Thus they can speak as politicos once must have spoken - about what they think is right, rather than what they think will please.
While politicians live insulated from us by a cordon sanitaire of policy advisers, spin-doctors, think-tankers, and lobbyists, the man of God lives cheek-by-jowl with his parishioners. He witnesses their depression when unemployed, their struggle to stretch the dole cheque, their fear of leaving a child in the care of the only childminder they can afford - the elderly woman across the street.
Having been caught out once too many times, even the most brazen of politicians is now reluctant to make great promises or to speak in anything but platitudes; the reverends, meanwhile, deliver fearless sermons about ideals spelt in ringing capital letters - Justice, Equality and Brotherhood. No shirking here, from the leader's duty: to remind us of our obligations; to work towards a better society; and alert us to the obstacles that stand in our way. It's not a touchy-feely message that makes us glow with cosy well-being, but a call to our conscience to change a present we find wanting into a future that fills us with hope. The reverends make us uncomfortable: they are not repeating a mantra that lulls us into thinking things can only get better; they challenge us to roll up our sleeves and do something about the state we are in.
Bring back the Bishop of Durham, I say. And may the Bruce Kents of today never fear setting foot in the political arena. Or the swimming pool.