Monday, 26 October 2009

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition

Are 400,000 Church of England laypeople, 2,000 clergy and 50 Bishops imminently going to go RC, just to capture the predicted numbers in various Fleet Street Organs? I very much doubt anything like that number are sufficiently into fear, surprise and and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope, but we’ll see in a couple of years time.

Ben Hecht once suggested

trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock.

Indeed. One interesting take has come, not from a journalist, but Oxford Church History professor Diarmaid MacCulloch in the Observer:

John Paul II and Benedict have created the most centralised regime that Catholicism has ever known – a far cry from its state in either the medieval period or the Counter-Reformation. It is with an anxious ear for those alternative voices, not much different from those of mainstream wishy-washy liberal Anglicans, that Pope Benedict seeks to encourage those who think like him beyond the walls, and to bring them inside the fortifications.

Much is left unsaid amid the present triumphalist crowings of those Catholics who see this as a victory over a feeble, tottering Anglicanism, since Anglicans are temperamentally disinclined to blow their own trumpets. The Church of England is not about to disintegrate, as anyone who knows its day-to-day life, rather than listening to what journalists say about it, will be aware. Most Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals are fed up with all the name-calling, intolerance and calls for revolt...

There is one killer fact about the pope's present move. "Traditionalist" Anglicanism is a shotgun marriage between incompatible groups: extreme Anglo-Catholics and extreme evangelicals...

Their alliance with the traditionalist Anglo-Catholics has been one of convenience, because both sides cannot stomach women in positions of clerical authority (for entirely opposite reasons) and hate the idea that homosexuals might be just part of the spectrum of boring normality in God's creation. (Anglo-Catholics are more muffled in their outrage on this one, given how many of them are gay themselves.) So the pope's move will split the traditionalists down the middle and reveal how fragile their alliance is. The best law in church history is the law of unintended consequences.

In one sense, this is a storm in a teacup, stirred by an elderly cleric in the Vatican with a private agenda and a track record of ill-thought-out policy moves. In another, it is a fascinating moment in a confrontation as much a struggle for the soul of the Church of Rome as of the Church of England. Once we have got past the screaming headlines, we should keep an eye open for the real story.

The Church of England has always functioned as more of a coral reef than a model trainset, mainly because that’s how Christianity was usually done in these islands before the sixteenth century, and the English were characteristically averse to clericalism and control. For Protestants unsatisfied by such pragmatism, there were New World colonies. The people with get-up-and-go got up and went, especially after the Civil War, leaving the rest of us a rather pragmatic, unassuming, and messy lump. Since the 1830’s, those sufficiently scared of the modern world to be attracted by New Model Ultramontanism usually ended up by becoming Roman Catholics. Thus all the Vatican politics behind the denunciation of Anglican orders in 1893 — a quaint marketing ploy for a different, positivist, age.

Anglo-Papalism, an idea that first appeared in the last quarter of the 19th Century, only takes in a small section of Anglo-Catholics in the C of E. They may be colourful people, but any historical assessment has to take into account everybody else. Something similar could be said of extreme Prods. The vast bulk of the Church of England has always been more multifaceted, its Protestants closer to Richard Hooker than Walter Travers — boring, but true.

It could be that a Coral Reef Church, with an open and creative base in the Creeds, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, might eventually turn out to be as sound a home for faith and holiness, as one predicated on Imperialism and control. Like Professor MacCulloch, I suspect this question will be answered over the next hundred years or so bottom-up, rather than top-down.


berenike said...

I think it's important to bear in mind that the English are very much a minority among the Anglicans with whom in mind this offer is being made.

McCulloch's comment about the centralising tendencies of JPII and BXVI is simply wrong. It is true in some way of the pontificate of JPII (and there were some good reasons for it), but Benedict XVI is very much a decentralising pope.

Do you see how McCulloch is reading this as politics? He cannot believe that a Catholic might simply believe what he says he believes, and that for us, as for Joan of Arc, "Christ and the Church, they're just one thing, and we shouldn't complicate the matter". It's funny that while McCulloch (and you?) interpret the Pope's gestures in terms of the world, my utterly hardcore presbyterian friend, who admits to thinking the Pope is at least one of the antichrists, is prepared to believe that we (Catholics, from pew-warmers like me to Carmelite nuns to missionary families of ten to the Pope) might really believe, simply believe, that the fullness of the Gospel is found in the Catholic faith, and want everyone to share it. That when we are happy that people convert, it's not because we want more fanatical sheeple to deny earnest women ordination or lynch homosexuals, but because we believe that to convert to Catholicism is to live here and now the life of the Trinity, to eat the flesh of the Son of Man and have eternal life, to be come to the heavenly Jerusalem, and so on. Really. It's really not about losing or gaining face, followers, money or satisfaction. A west coast Free Presbyterian can believe that we believe this, but McCulloch can't.

Philip Ritchie said...

Thanks for a great comment piece. I would hope that part of the open and creative base would be the Bible, since that's what we all signed up to as part of our ordination vows.

Unknown said...

Why does the language of this post have to be so belittling of those with whom the author disagrees: "those sufficiently scared of the modern world to be attracted by New Model Ultramontanism" (like JH Newman?), "extreme Prods"? Prod, in my understanding, is a Catholic-sectarian word of abuse.

Can we not disagree more intelligently, please?

Anne said...

I think a coral reef church, growing into lots of interconnected,beautiful, but different forms, would be much preferable to the controlled train-set one, too, Bishop Alan.
One of the encouraging developments in recent years is that different traditions in the church are now talking to each other rather than shouting at each other, and, as they converse, find they have much to learn.

Andrew Brown said...

You misspelled Diarmaid. I know this is not a terribly productive take on a thoughtful piece. But it's nice to know that you are fallible, and that I am not the only person who has to look up his spelling every single time. I am working on a piece about FiF and the bishop of Chichester which has the working title of "Fain in the arse", but I would never use that in public.

Veritas said...

I find the coral reef image quite lovely and aptly describes our church. We really are seeing many Anglo-Catholics, evangicals, and liberals beginning to speak to each other and even to hear each other. Extremists on any of these sides is going to feel threatened by this and may eventually seek elsewhere to worship rather than join in the conversation.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks for comments, al. Berenike, many thanks for making the point about English being minority of targeted group. I'm sure this is true, actually, and it's an important consideration. We have perhaps been misled by the very locally centred nature of UK papers; interest.

As far as centralising goes, MacCulloch didn't say what he had in mind, and I'd be interested to know what you'd see as evidence of decentralising under Beenedict.

I appreciate your point about Roman Catholics feeling joy when other people join their denomination. I'd have to say, however, some members of other denominations also find the fulness of the gospel in being a Baptist, Quaker, Pentecostal, whatever. Some of them even have left the Roman Church to be ome what they are. I have a friend to whom the whole term "convert" is faintly offensive used between Christian denominations, because of what it denies about the denomination that is being left. I think that's going a bit far, but I get his point. I was talking to a very ordinary Muslim taxi driver in Sheffield today who told me how unpleasant he finds it to have his (moderate) faith targeted in the UK media. Religious targetng, like Eucharistic exclusion, is deeply problematic to the people it is aimed at, however kindly meant.

The watchword about these things this side of the Atlantic is the address Cardinal Kasper gave at St Albans in 2002 that moved us all into the era of "receptive Ecumenism" — moving from a stress on structural finagling, towards receiving the particularity of other baptised Christians as gift. Actually, it's moving the whole enterprise beyond politics, and trying to assume God wants to use denominational differences as an enrichment an source of blessing in the provisinality of our present life, as together we are worked on by the Holy Spirit, with structural unity as an emergent goal.

I'm not sure any of us have yet developed the habits of mind or otherwise to rise to this challenge, but I think it does define our agenda for the future.

MacCulloch is being political, I quite agree, but also trying to take a historical view. I'd be interested to see other historians. In a UK context these things do have an inescapable political dimension, because of having a traditionally established Church.

John, the use of the word Prod was ironic. I don't think it sits well in an English context, which was actually the reason I used it. Fear of the modern world was very much the agenda of the Syllabus of errors and the Ultramontanism that begot it. You can argue it was a well placed or misplaced fear, and you can certainly disagree intelligently with the actions of other Victorian Christians who responded to the modern world differently, from F. D. Maurice to newman's brother who became an agnostic. It was entirely new, thus the Old Catholic movement.

The challenge for people attracted to that kind of "Conservatism" today (another not very good term, because many self-identifying Conservatives aren't coming from anything like this place) is to locate Faith within it, and make it Good News rather than just negativity about "liberalism" defined as "a catch-all term for anything I dislike and am don't want to engage with seriously."

Anne, thanks for your contribution. I think we all need to develop skills for receptivity, and, as sometimes happens, it's ordinary people in all the Churches who probably lead the way in this.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Philip, I'm sorry to have ovelooked your words, because I actually think they are really helpful. Some of the best Ecumenical moments this year have been had at the Roman conference on the scriptures Tom Wright addressed, and, quite apart from responding to the message of the Bible, I think the study of the Scriptures together gives us a reference point beyond Church politics and history, which is our great resource to move forward.

Unknown said...

Thank you Bishop for affirming that not all Anglo-Catholics are Anglo-Papalists as some in the press seem to assume! Of course some of the best 'black beetles' I know are women.

Sadly the term Liberal-Catholic is frequently used as a term of abuse and is read by many (including the press) to mean 'Atheist who likes dressing up', so it is best to avoid it.

There has been a lot of name calling recently from both ends of the spectrum, mostly directed at those who would be naturally supportive. It is very sad. I hope and pray that those who cannot accept the Reformed & Catholic nature of the Church of England find a better spiritual home.

Jay wrote:

"We really are seeing many Anglo-Catholics, evangelicals, and liberals beginning to speak to each other and even to hear each other."

I think it is more than that. In Teams and Deaneries across the Church of England, especially in rural areas we are working together. At a recent New Monasticism symposium I attended people from all backgrounds were very much represented. The common theme that brings us together is mission and discipleship, and a rediscovery of the unique gifts of the Church of England.

It is mission and discipleship

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