Rant Number 373 27 November 2009
The Church of England and the Church of Rome. Don’t be deceived. They are not just two different churches. Actually, they are as different from each other as the Carlton Club is different from the Club of Hercules. As philosophers put it, it would be a category mistake to confuse them. Mixing up things that don’t belong together – indeed, like confusing a club, an association of persons, with another kind of club, a big stick, geddit?
I once dined at the Carlton’s, in stylish St James Street, near the royal palace. An agreeable place. Good wines. Cigars. Tory fuddy daddies about – nice company. All very decent, chaps! But it never occurred to me to think the Carlton Club would make a jot of real difference to anything. Unlike Hercules, the demi-god. A hero of super-human strength and courage, armed with his fearful club. From the awful Hydra of Lerna to brave Hyppolita, Queen of the Amazons, all of Hercules’ foes knew what it was like to cross the strongest man on earth.
Anglicans who wish to quit the cosy club and to ‘pope it’, to join the formidable Catholic Church, can now do so with all comforts. Benedict XVI offers them ‘personal ordinariates’. Basically, they keep their customs and liturgies. And their married priests. Just accept papal primacy, plus Catholic doctrine as set out in the official Roman catechism, and you are on.
Benedict is a venerable old gentleman and he means well. Still, I wonder. Conversion to Catholicism for Protestants was always an awesome, traumatic step. It entailed real costs. A shaking of established usages and conventions. Forsaking the culturally familiar for the heady adventure, the strange land of the new faith. For would-be priests it meant that horrid – to Protestants – frightening thing: celibacy – making yourself into a eunuch ‘for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven’. But that was a measure of your commitment. And the new, the exotic, the aesthetic challenge is what draws converts, not the reassuringly familiar. (Think of converts to Islam. Do the strange prayers, the prostrations, the Arabic scare them off?) Really risky, man! Now it will be easier. Things will be much the same. Vicars can keep their wives. The same drawn-out Matins, the same old Evensong, the same bumbling Father John, the same parish bazaar...yawn...is that it? Not a Herculean outfit that subverts the world but...shades of the Carlton Club – without its elegance.
Right now, the scandal over the child abuse in the Irish Church is not giving Catholicism a good press. But remember that the same church which has allowed such horrors to happen is also the church of Mother Teresa, of Padre Pio, of innumerable saints and martyrs down the ages. The Inquisition, yes, but also the Church St Hildegarde of Bingen, of St Vincent de Paul, the Cure d’Ars and l’Abbe’ Pierre. Call it a paradox – it is!
The Archbishop of Canterbury, our Druid in Chief, is not pleased. The Anglicans who will opt for Rome are traditionalists. Opposed to women priests & bishops, permissive sexuality, that kind of stuff. Rowan won’t miss them. But he believes in ecumenism and he has to respond, somehow. So he has come up with a neat theological trick. By invoking a subtle distinction between first and second order questions. To simplify: the former are matters around which there is already agreement – don’t Anglicans and Catholics all believe in a Triune God, for example? The latter include questions like authority, ministry, sex and the like. Needless to say, Rowan considers the latter issues less important and so...what’s all the fuss about? Let’s agree that Christians after all are different and...vive la difference!
All right, Rowan, not quite fair but not too unfair, either. The thing is, where does the Bible come in, in your theology? For classical Anglicanism the Bible is prior to anything else – be it first or second order. The Church of England at the Reformation has rejected innovations which are ‘repugnant’ to Holy Scripture. As a female clergy clearly contradict I Timothy, chapter 2, vv. 8-15, how can you possibly justify it as an Anglican, eh?
Rowan no doubt will dismiss the poor priest as a benighted fundamentalist. I suspect he doesn’t feel quite comfortable with St Paul. I can only say I am happy to stand here also with another Paul, John Paul II, of blessed memory. In this context he spoke of things which ‘we have no authority to change’. He meant ‘not even the Pope’. An exemplary theology. What is of God, no man can alter.
Further, the Anglican club Rowan leads isn’t all that sanguine about that benchmark of belief, the Creed, either. A Christian Research survey reveals that 66% of clergy doubt the Resurrection of Christ, 56% question the Virgin Birth and 51% the uniqueness of Jesus – all things taught in the New Testament. Among female clergy confidence in the faith is even less than that of their male counterparts. Huh! I bet the Carlton Club has tighter membership rules.
In his scathing ‘Attack on Christendom’, Kierkergaard contended that to believe in God, to really love him with all your heart is to be in opposition to the world. True Christianity brings with it the striving, the conflict, the anguish that are connected with dying to the world, with following Christ on the way to the Cross. Counterfeit Christianity, on the other hand, makes things easy. He meant a bogus church which has falsified the definition of what it is to be a Christian. ‘There is family of clerical parasites that support themselves by palming off in the name of Christianity what is really after their own, cheap taste.’ The preachers of a twaddle which is conformity to the secular culture. The church of such people is a mediocrity, a lukewarm compromise - a fraudulent club to which salvation, eternity, the gates of Paradise are shut.
Some claim that, shortly before his early death, the Lutheran Kierkegaard intended to change club, to embrace Catholicism. To be a monk, maybe. The Catholic Church of his days was not quite like the post-Vatican II church, of course...
From where he is now, I imagine the great Dane looking down on our terminal state, muttering the words of the angel in the Book of Revelation to that tepid club, the Laodicean Church: “You are neither hot nor cold. Therefore I will spew you out of my mouth.’
Revd Frank Julian Gelli