Pope Starmer and the lapsi pre-sacrifice. Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty

November 19, 2020   5 mins

The year is 251 AD. A terrifying pandemic, the Plague of Cyprian, is ravaging the Roman empire. And in a bid to fortify the rapidly dissolving centre of traditional religion, the Emperor Trajan Decius issues an edict. All Roman subjects – excepting Jews – are required to make sacrifices to the pagan gods before the local magistrate, and will be issued with a certificate (a libellus) to prove they have done so.

This was a loyalty test to the Pax Romana, targeted especially at Christians, for whom pagan sacrifices were inherently sinful. Failure to sacrifice to the ancient gods was punishable by torture and death. Some Christians refused and were martyred, including Pope Fabian himself. Others went into hiding. Some went through the motions, made the sacrifice, and so were excommunicated.

After the persecution died down, a furious row erupted within the church concerning the re-admission of the lapsed. Some maintained there was to be no readmission whatsoever. Others were content with a simple confession and repentance. An ideological war broke out between these sides, both electing their own bishops, both setting up a church within a church to battle it out with each other.

Some church leaders, notably St Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, tried to steer a middle path. He was largely successful, not least because of the credit he had established on both sides through his widely appreciated pastoral response to the pandemic that came to be named after him. But despite his success in ameliorating a divided church, there was one principle on which he wouldn’t budge, and his formulation of it became a central feature of Roman Catholic doctrine: extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. Outside the church there is no salvation. The fallen had to be re-admitted to the church because outside the church there is only eternal damnation.

Parallels with the current travails of the Labour party are hard to miss. Pope Starmer has re-admitted the lapsi, based on a flimsy expression of repentance, hoping the fact that he is generally perceived to be having a good pandemic will distract the No Readmission party. And it may. But although these parallels are something of a historical parlour game, the principle that lies behind them remains as strong and as contentious as ever it was: extra Ecclesiam nulla salus – outside the party there is no salvation.

To many of us, who just don’t care about party politics as much as those within the Westminster bubble, the comings and goings of Corbyn, or indeed of Cummings for that matter, are nowhere near as important as they are to the true believers. Corbyn protested his suspension by re-affirming his total loyalty to the party of which, he reminded people, he has been a member of for 54 years. Nor could he bring himself to update his Twitter profile: “Labour MP for Islington North.” Life outside the party would be unimaginable for him. In a Cyprian-like compromise, Starmer has now allowed Corbyn back in to the Labour Party; though, for the time being, without the party whip. It doesn’t make much sense. But that isn’t really the point. Like Cyprian, Starmer is trying to manage some bitter divisions, and a messy compromise is the obvious path to tread.

Of course, there are many who have flourished extra Ecclesiam. Ed Balls reinvented himself through sequins, from a party hack with something of a hard man reputation, to become a personable almost national treasure. Something similar happened with Michael Portillo and trains. There is, it seems life beyond the party. Politics isn’t everything. Indeed, it is precisely by accepting that idea that some find rehabilitation, new life.

And here we come to the heart of Corbyn’s fundamental weakness as a politician. He is too much in love with the party, with its ideology, with its internal struggles, to connect up with those for whom politics is not everything. One just cannot imagine him outside the Labour party, and nor, it seems, can he. And because of this, he has missed his opportunity for redemption.

This is what he should have done. He should have put on his wellington boots and settled down on his allotment to tend his leeks. A period of silence would have been welcome. And a more genuine act of contrition. But above all, he, like so many politicians, just needed to discover who he is outside of the confines of his narrow little church. I don’t know what the secular equivalent to this is, but he needed to spend a bit more time on his own with his God.

Princess Margaret was given a very perceptive line in the new series of The Crown. Invited to a weekend up at Balmoral, Mrs Thatcher continued to work on her dispatch boxes rather than go out stalking with the royal family. No time for fun, Thatcher insisted tartly. But she might find something much more important than fun out on the moors, the Princess shot back. She might find “perspective”. And in that single word, the princess captured so much that can be lacking in the professional politician.

Everything may be political, but the political isn’t everything. Most people have far more important things going on in their lives – their loved ones, their families (not necessarily the same thing), doing the shopping, listening to music, yes, even watching Strictly and The Crown. Generally speaking, the Conservatives tend to understand this much better than the Labour party. They are often the political party voted for by those who do not think that politics is the most important thing in the world. It is significant, for instance, that the Conservatives have something like just 190,000 members, whereas Labour has well over half a million, most of them having joined after Jeremy Corbyn became leader.

This is often seen as a Labour strength, and, of course, having activists turn out and bang on doors, is a real campaigning advantage. But it comes with its downside too. For when a political party is dominated by true believers, perspective narrows and it becomes obsessed with what Freud called the narcissism of small differences. It’s not unlike that with church. Yes, it is good to have people who make the church their life. Indeed, it is hard to imagine the church being able to continue without such people. But this also is true: too much religion is bad for your faith. What begins as a life transforming dialogue with the infinite can all too easily end up being a bitter row with the flower arrangers, or about who gets to sit in what pew.

That is what Corbyn did to the Labour party. Yes, his lazy and complacent attitude towards anti-Semitism – even complicit attitude – has damaged the party for a generation at least. But there was something else that he got badly wrong: he seemed to act as though his party was more important than the country that he apparently wanted to lead. And he inspired others to think the same. Party above all things. That is why his suspension from Labour was so impossible for him to bear. He is a man who has nothing left outside the party, a man whose identity is so consumed by left wing ideology that there is nothing remaining when that is gone. Corbyn without Labour was the shell of a man. And very few ordinary voters can identify with such a view.

The greatest ever Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, offered a very different perspective to that of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. He argued that the church is “the only organisation that exists solely for the benefit of non-members”. It’s a great line — though it is not only churches that work like this, and indeed, a great many churches don’t. Under Corbyn, the Labour party retreated down the rabbit hole of increasing ideological purity, obsessed with their own inner workings. And what many members still fail to grasp is that, unlike them, most people don’t like politics. And these are the people whose votes they need. This is a kind of paradox: to really succeed in politics you have to care more about things beyond it.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.