This winter, Channel 4 is screening The Bible: A History, a seven-part series looking at the story of the “good book” and the role it has in the modern world. Foremost among the programmes is Ann Widdecombe’s investigation into the story of the Ten Commandments.
The film sees her investigate the origins and influence of the Commandments, before she confronts forceful opposition from atheists Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry, and meets a mother who helped her critically ill son to end his life.
It is the Maidstone MP’s second foray into this area for Channel 4, having presented a programme on the Reformation in the acclaimed series Christianity: A History in 2008.
Here, Miss Widdecombe talks about the programme, robustly sets out her religious conviction, and argues that modern society could do with observing the Commandments a little more closely.
Religion has always played a significant role in your life, hasn’t it?
I was brought up in the Church of England. I was sent to a Catholic school. I did, in later years, go through a period of agnosticism. Then I returned to the Anglican faith, and in 1992 I left the Church of England [primarily over the ordination of women], and in 1993 I became a Roman Catholic.
Has your faith had a major influence on your political beliefs?
Well, inevitably, if you have faith it’s going to affect every single thing you do. It’s bound to.
You met the Pope after your conversion. What was that like?
I met the Pope in January 1996 – the late Pope, not the current one, obviously. It was tremendous, because I went along expecting to be part of a general audience, and in fact I had an individual audience with him, and it lasted almost 20 minutes, so it was as long as any head of state.
What did you talk about?
We talked about a range of things. Obviously we talked about the position of the Church of England at the time, but we also talked about women in politics, about abortion, that type of thing.
Now you’ve made a TV programme as part of the Bible series for Channel 4. What’s it all about, in a nutshell?
Channel 4’s making a history of the Bible, as you know. My particular episode is about Moses and the Law, and it’s looking principally, but not exclusively, at the Ten Commandments, and how they came to underpin Western law, and how they’ve stayed relevant. And at the end it asks the question “Are they still relevant today?”
Politicians work incredibly hard, and you’re very busy at the best of times. Why did you want to take the time to make this programme?
For the same reason that I wanted to make last year’s programme on the Reformation. I think this is a tremendously important subject, it’s one that I’ve got a natural interest in. I like making religious television, and so naturally enough I said yes.
A lot of this programme is about how the Commandments have shaped British society and British law. How important have they been in doing that?
They’ve been massively important. If you think about it, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour, these things are very, very central to our law. But to our society as well. Thou shalt not commit adultery – adultery may not be a crime in the legal sense, but it’s still regarded as undesirable and immoral.
Do we not essentially live by them as it is?
Do we? What about Thou shalt not covet and bankers’ bonuses? What about Thou shalt not commit adultery and the complete breakdown of marriage? Honour thy father and thy mother, and nowadays we stick granny in the nearest residential home.
You took part in a public debate, organised by Intelligence Squared, with Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens about the Catholic Church being a force for good in the world…
If you can call it a debate, yes.
Why do you say that?
Because it was a heavily biased audience right from the start, really seriously so. Hooting and whooping for Hitchens, and being very, very sneering at Archbishop Onaiyekan, who spoke for the Catholics. I thought it was much more of a rant than a debate. I wasn’t at all impressed. If that’s Intelligence Squared, then all I can say is I shall practise avoidance cubed.
After the debate you interviewed both Hitchens and Fry…
Well, Stephen Fry ranted, rather, and I think actually Stephen Fry at heart is not convinced of his own argument. Christopher Hitchens is a different cup of tea altogether. He has elevated objections to the Ten Commandments to a militant campaign, and on that basis there was never going to be any meeting of minds. And there wasn’t.
Do you ever feel downhearted, or feel like you’re fighting a losing battle, in such a secular society?
No. The fact is Christ said “Blessed are ye when men persecute and revile you for my sake”.