Votes : 0

Sunak is obviously the first British PM not to be at least culturally Christian

Melanie McDonagh - The Tablet - Fri, Oct 28th 2022

The just man does not fall when he’s afflicted by evil; rather, if he falls he fights on his knees.

Melanie McDonagh's Notebook

The approved response to Rishi Sunak becoming prime minister is – regardless of how you regard his party – that it is a proud day for British Asians. That was the approach taken by Nicola Sturgeon for the Scottish nationalists before retuning to party politics.

It is indeed a proud moment for the Indian community – though it turns out that his paternal grandfather was from presentday Pakistan, while his parents came from Kenya – and its ethos of hard work and commitment to family.

Sunak is obviously the first British PM not to be at least culturally Christian, probably the first not to be christened, the first Hindu. He took his Commons oath on the Bhagavad Gita, the Sanskrit text sacred to the faith. All this, of course, is symptomatic of the diverse nature of contemporary Britain when it comes to religion.

But is the advent of Sunak as a Hindu problematic for Christians? During the service of thanksgiving for the Queen at St Paul’s cathedral, the then prime minister, Liz Truss, read the lesson, where Christ promised that in his father’s house there were many mansions. It crossed my mind at that point to wonder whether it would have been possible for Sunak, had he been prime minister, to have read that lesson.

The answer, I’d say, is very much that he would have done, without turning a hair. Because Sunak is not just a Hindu of Indian family; he is the former head boy of Winchester, a public school founded by the bishop of Winchester, William of Wyckham, in 1382, for poor scholars, those whose fathers earned less than five marks sterling – less than four pounds – per annum. That was what the Church did then … it educated the poor.

Anyway, the school was once a Catholic foundation, then very much an Anglican one; chapel is part of what it does. Sunak may well have read lessons in chapel and will be familiar with Anglican orders of service.

In other words, culturally, the public school system will have done its job: the most famous Wyckhamist in Britain will be at ease with Christianity and familiar with the Church at its most urbane and attractive. In that sense, Sunak’s rise is not just a victory for an upwardly mobile ethnic minority but also for the British establishment, for whom the public schools inculcate a set of values in those who attend them with which its members can feel at ease.

For Catholics, it is very unlikely that in any overt sense Sunak would be hostile to faith rather than mildly indifferent. You might object profoundly to his party, but that’s a whole different question.


Liz Truss, the unlamented former prime minister, did have one interesting element in her farewell speech, namely a quotation from Seneca, the Roman philosopher over whose name she stumbled, trying to quote him. She suggested that Seneca would have been right behind her “Who Dares, Wins” approach to the economy. I’d say the philosopher has something else to offer someone who has been ousted from power.

Seneca belongs to that excellent Stoic tradition, which deals with the adversities of fate by insisting they actually strengthen the character of the just man. “At cui adsidua fuit cum incommodis suis rixa, callum per iniurias duxit nec ulli malo cedit, sed etiam si cecidit de genu pugnat.” In other words, the just man does not fall when he’s afflicted by evil; rather, if he falls, “he fights on his knees”. There’s something there of a piece with the Book of Wisdom; it’s small wonder that Christians found Seneca a congenial pagan. Pity about his suicide: I wonder where he now reposes … with the suicides, or with the just?


Not long ago, I visited Ditchling, famous for the artistic community established there in the 1920s by Eric Gill. Ditchling was synonymous with Distributism; it was an attempt to live a lay life in a Dominican spirit. Alas, it is now also synonymous with Gill’s priapism as well as his piety. I had hoped to visit the site of the community … but I found to my consternation, that the buildings, including the chapel, had been sold to developers and demolished in 1989. So recently? What were its custodians doing? The good news is that on the website of the museum’s excellent gift shop, it is possible to buy a Dominican tea towel, with a dog forever running with a burning taper in its mouth. Buy yours now.

share :
tags icon tags :
comments icon Without comments


write comment
Please enter the letters as they are shown in the image above.