High office, low church

It is hard to imagine a prime minister doing such a thing now, and even then it seemed rather surprising. In May 1988 Margaret Thatcher went to the General Assembly of the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland and gave what would soon be called the Sermon on the Mound. It was an impassioned statement of a certain form of Christianity. The Conservative leader stressed individual salvation over social reform, the legitimacy of moneymaking when combined with altruism, and the “responsibility that comes with freedom and the supreme sacrifice of Christ”.

In religion, as in so much else, Mrs (later Lady) Thatcher was a bundle of paradoxes. She was the last British prime minister openly and emphatically to acknowledge the influence of Christianity on her thinking, in particular terms not fuzzy ones. Her fellow Tories, John Major and David Cameron, have presented themselves as loyal but lukewarm Anglicans. “I don’t pretend to understand all the complex parts of Christian theology,” Mr (later Sir John) Major once said, reassuringly. As for Labour’s leaders, Gordon Brown inherited the ethos but not the zeal of his father, a Presbyterian minister. Tony Blair is passionately religious but was famously discouraged by his advisers from “doing God” in public because of the fear that he might sound nutty.

Precisely because she had such well-defined ideas, Mrs Thatcher was almost bound to have stormy relations with England’s established religion. In her time, the Archbishop of Canterbury was Robert Runcie, an Oxford contemporary who irked her considerably. A decorated tank commander, he commemorated the Argentine dead at a service following the Falklands war; he produced “Faith in the City”, a left-wing tract on urban blight; and he chided the government for demonising its opponents. Mrs Thatcher preferred the chief rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits, who shared her view that self-improvement, not subsidies, would relieve poverty.

She helped to ensure that Archbishop Runcie was succeeded by George Carey, an unpretentious evangelical who this week remembered her as a person of “uncomplicated but very strong faith”. That faith was nurtured by a childhood steeped in the sober, self-improving world of Methodism. As well as being mayor of the Midlands town of Grantham, her father was a lay preacher. On a typical Sunday, she and her sister would have two sessions of religious instruction and attend one or two services. The family’s social life revolved around the church.

A quiet conversion

It was never hard to see the influence of Methodism, born as a reaction to the complacency and privilege of 18th-century Anglicanism, on Mrs Thatcher. She believed in thrift and hard work, and liked the advice of John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, to earn, save and only then give as much as possible. The acts of generosity listed in the New Testament, from the Good Samaritan’s to that of the woman who anointed Christ’s feet, were possible only because the donors had money, she noted.

But in other ways, Mrs Thatcher moved away from Methodism, and it moved away from her. As she ascended firmly to the upper middle class, she began attending Anglican church. Conspicuous consumption and debt-fuelled growth, often seen as legacies of the Thatcher era, could hardly be further from Methodist values. And in her native east Midlands, Methodist communities and ministers were active in defending coalminers during the strike which she defeated. Methodism has influenced Britain’s centre-left far more than its political right.

In explaining her denominational switch, Mrs Thatcher said that Methodism was “a marvellous evangelical faith” with great music—but “you sometimes feel the need for a slightly more formal service” as well as for more formal theology. In her religious origins, she was informed by a passion that was foreign to the English establishment. But as that puritan passion propelled her into high office, its sharp edges were blunted. The Ritz hotel is an unlikely place for a Methodist woman from the Midlands to end her days.