Amid the outpouring of grief over the murder of David Amess, one aspect of his life may not yet have received its due. Sir David was a Catholic. Not one of the biggest, with roots in old refractory families, but a working class Catholic. His father was an electrician and his mother a tea lady; it was in a Catholic high school, St Bonaventure in Forest Gate, that he was encouraged to get into politics. He lost his Cockney accent thanks to therapy necessitated by a speech impediment, but Sir David never forgot where he came from. He didn’t care to be seen as an Essex Man, one of the new Thatcherite Tories who burst onto the scene in the early 1980s. What mattered to Amess was to improve the lot of his constituents, for example. all possible means. This too was an aspect of his faith.
The Catholic Church gets bad press these days, and we are reminded almost daily of its many flaws and failures in the news. But we know less about the other side of the coin, so beautifully illustrated by Sir David. The inexhaustible appetite for charitable causes, to restore dignity to those who have been stripped of everything but the bare essentials: these are virtues which in theory belong to all Christian denominations, but in the practice of which Catholics stand out very often.
Some of the causes he has embraced have become deeply unpopular with the liberal establishment. He was a staunch defender of even old-fashioned Church teachings: on abortion he was consistently pro-life; he had a traditional conception of marriage; he was anything but awake. Yet his kind of compassionate conservatism did not exclude anyone: he took seriously the biblical axiom that we are all created in the image of God. His decency and open-minded generosity, to which all who knew him have paid homage, was a mild reproach to those who see Catholicism as a closed, rigid and ritualistic religion. He reminded us of what we risk losing by driving conscientious Catholics out of public life, unless they renounce their beliefs.
We don’t yet know why David Amess was killed, let alone what role his faith may have played in making him a target. It is possible that the Somali legacy of the man currently under investigation by counterterrorism agents is significant and that he was radicalized by al-Shabab jihadists, who frequently attack Christians, in especially Catholics. None of this is certain and other reasons, including mental illness, may be more relevant.
What we do know, however, is that a Catholic priest was denied access to Sir David by police as he died. This meant that he could not receive the Sacrament of Anointing the Sick, also known as Extreme Unction, which Catholics believe brings comfort, peace and courage to those at the end of their life. If, as in this case, it is too late for a confession, the priest can also pronounce absolution, or forgiveness of sins, as part of the sacrament.
In the reporting of this refusal to allow what the media invariably refer to as the “last rites”, there was widespread misunderstanding. The priest was not asking to be allowed to “read the last sacraments”, but to administer a sacrament. It’s more than saying prayers, although prayer is certainly part of it. The anointing is followed, if possible, by viaticum, or last communion, although it is unlikely that this would have been possible in Sir David’s case. What is certain, however, is that he would have liked to receive the sacrament and that the refusal of the police could only be justified by a grave necessity, even if he had already been declared dead – which does not appear. have been the case.
In a statement, the police spoke of the need to avoid contamination of the crime scene and interference in the rescue work of medical personnel. There is a contradiction here: if the paramedics were given priority, despite the risk of contamination, then the presence of a priest should also have been possible, as would be the case in the hospital. But the deeper problem here is that the spiritual needs of the victim, unlike their medical needs, were not given any weight. Forensic science is of course vital in any murder investigation. Since they are not looking for anyone else, however, the police could have used their discretion in this case to allow a priest to provide the only remaining comfort to the dying man and no small consolation to his family. Perhaps this agonizing aspect of the tragedy will prompt a reconsideration of police protocol and training. Justice, after all, must always be tempered with mercy.
Regardless, the life and death of Sir David Amess have sparked introspection among people of all faiths and none. Catholics will mourn one of their own, but also parliamentarians and the many other “little platoons” to which he belonged. Former MP and Minister Alistair Burt writes about his friend and colleague here on The article and others too will pay homage in the days to come. He was a man of such transparent kindness, who had touched countless lives, that the impact of his untimely death must strike a chord far beyond his party, his constituency, and his fellow believers. For the latter, it is a matter of recalling that “Catholic” properly means “universal”; Catholicism is an inclusive faith, or it is nothing. David Amess understood this instinctively: his compassion extended even beyond the human race to include animals, for whose well-being (especially on the issue of the transport of the living) he tirelessly campaigned.
Sir David was a gentleman, but he was more than that: a Christian who followed in Christ’s footsteps. “There is no greater love for a man than this,” says Jesus (Saint John, 15:13), “that a man should lay down his life for his friends. David Amess regarded every being on earth as his friend, even those sad creatures who saw him as their enemy. Grant him eternal rest, O Lord, and let everlasting light shine upon him.
A message from the article
We are the only publication that is committed to covering all angles. We have an important contribution to make, which is needed more than ever, and we need your help to continue publishing throughout the pandemic. So please donate.