The MP on folk Masses, Tony Blair and why he wants Left-wing Catholics to join the Tories
Jacob-Rees Mogg did not enjoy attending Mass as a child. As the son of the journalist Lord Rees-Mogg, he was taken every week to the Church of the Holy Ghost in Midsomer Norton, Somerset, where he grew up. “I didn’t particularly like going when I was little,” he recalls, “and I remember one week we had to go in London because we were there for the weekend, and I was very puzzled, somewhat put out, because it said every week in the Creed that we believed in ‘one holy Catholic church’. I couldn’t understand how that allowed us to go in London. I though I was being swindled and I should have got a weekend off.”
At the age of 44, Jacob Rees-Mogg now regularly to-and-fros between London and the south west, as the MP for North East Somerset. Fortunately, he is now reconciled with attending a number of churches for Mass in the metropolis and the countryside, providing there are no guitars.
Media stereotypes of Rees-Mogg initially made the prospect of afternoon tea with him terrifying. It is, after all, an occasion riddled with codes of etiquette. He was educated at Eton and read History at Trinity College, Oxford, where he was president of the University Conservative Association. He is married to the heiress Helena de Chair and is referred to by parliamentary sketch writers as “the Honourable Member for the Early 20th Century”. He achieved notoriety when he canvassed a working-class neighbourhood in Fife, in 1997, accompanied by his nanny.
Although the Bertie Wooster comparisons hold some truth – he was, after all, catechised by his governess – Rees-Mogg is a highly affable and down-to-earth chap who simply loves the Church.
“If it’s available I like going to the Extraordinary Rite,” he tells me over tea in the House of Commons. “We’re very lucky we get it in Somerset once a month. The more you go the more you will find that it is a good thing to go to. You get some time to think and it’s not all noisy – and there’s no risk of guitars. I think Mass can be too noisy and guitars should be banned.”
While silently debating whether it was proper to put the milk in my teacup before or after pouring the tea, I ask him why he is so opposed to guitars at Mass, as the topic repeatedly crops up.
“I’m not,” he laughs. “It’s just that we have had an outbreak of them in Somerset and I find them disagreeable.”
A sense of humour is invaluable armour for any politician. It’s soon clear that Rees-Mogg’s capacity to breezily separate his personal relationships from his politics is an enviable networking skill.
When I reminded him that once in the chamber he referred to the Labour Party as “sanctimonious hypocritical humbugs”, he laughs it away as if it were mere banter: “Most Labour MPs I like very much,” he says. “I think they’re very good, honest, sincere people with whom I disagree on the way of getting things done. I think Tony Blair was sanctimonious in tone, but I’ve never met him. If I met him I’d probably think he was a frightfully nice man. I’m a bit wet like that.”
But Rees-Mogg believes that the Labour Party is “pretty much institutionally against Catholic moral teaching” and claims that Catholics would be happier within the Conservative Party.
I ask him how Catholics can be feel at home in the Conservatives, given the efforts of senior Tories to legalise same-sex marriage. “The leader isn’t the party,” he assures me. “The party is more than the leader.”
But the leadership succeeded and same-sex marriage passed, I point out. “Yes, it did,” he replies, “because the socialists and Lib Dems are in favour of it. But more Tories voted against than in favour. So, again, all these Lefty Catholics should come over to the Tory Party, as we are much more Catholic in our base than anyone else.”
Is he concerned about the same-sex marriage Bill’s possible impact on lay people such as Catholic teachers? As a father of four, how does he feel about Catholic schools being expected to teach that a man can marry a man? “I think this is going to be a matter for the leadership of the Church,” he says. “Are they willing to take a strong view on what they believe is right? Or are they going to go along with secularism?”
Drawing an analogy with the bishops handling of the closures of the Catholic adoption agencies, Rees-Mogg says: “I am a loyal son of the Church,” and that “it’s not for me to tell clerics what to do”. But he adds: “I just note that some bishops took one view in their diocese and some bishops took another view. Some were more willing to go along with secularism and others simply closed down the adoption agencies. And that is a choice the hierarchy of the Church will have to make if they come under difficulty concerning how they’re expected to teach in Catholic schools.”
Rees-Mogg tells me he is far more concerned about attempts to legalise assisted suicide than the re-definition of marriage. “We have Bills coming before Parliament on this issue and I am very concerned about this because I think it’s very easy to use the very troubling cases to allow for exceptional circumstances which you find, quite quickly, become the norm. And then people are pressurised into ending their lives early because they’re a burden on their families and so on.
“Whether our motives are religious or practical people who are nervous about euthanasia need to be very well prepared to stop that going exactly the same way as abortion, which went from being something specifically about the mother’s health to being a variant form of contraception.”
Rees-Mogg’s repeated emphasis on his lowly status as a mere layman also means that he is “a fan of all popes”, including Pope Francis, who is a “great thing”. “My great hero is probably Pius IX,” he says, “because of his traditional view of the state and the Church and his Syllabus of Errors was a clear view.” He then appears to qualify this, saying: “He’s probably not really a great hero of mine but he had his admirable qualities.” He adds that “Pope Benedict was a wonderful inspirational pope for the Church both as a cardinal and as Holy Father”.
I had suspected, given that Rees-Mogg is rightly reputed for high sartorial standards, that he would be missing the Pope Emeritus a great deal. I ask him if tracksuits in Mass horrify him and whether a dress code should be introduced for congregations.
“Certainly not,” he says. “I think it’s better that people should go than what they’re wearing. We’re not the Puritans. As long as the priest is correctly robed I’m not worried what anyone else is wearing. But I do believe the priest should be properly robed and that Mass should be carried out according to the norms.”
The riddle of Rees-Mogg is that he clearly strong opinions and makes no attempt to dilute them when performing with ferocity in the House of Commons. But as a loyal lay Catholic, though flashes of the resolute still emerge when he discusses Church politics, these are quickly tempered by a readiness to submit to the Church’s authority and the hierarchy’s judgment.
“The difficulty with being a relatively High Church member of the Church,” he says, “is that I have to accept what the Church does within its own ambit as a matter of its own authority and if it’s legitimate within the Church’s teaching it’s not up to me to say whether or not they should do it.” But there is one cause for which Rees-Mogg would no doubt fight the entire College of Cardinals.
“On guitars I’m on solid ground,” he insists. “Pope Benedict said that he was against guitars – and didn’t like them either.”
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald, dated 26/7/13