I often say that leftists should pay more attention to church politics. This isn’t just because religion is important to a lot of people (note, for instance, that the Mormons currently have over 13 million members worldwide, which is doing a bit better than any Trotskyist tendency) and it isn’t at all dependent on whether or not you buy into the theology involved. Rather, in the spirit of Machiavelli, who knew a lot about this sort of thing, it’s worth your while following these matters because the politics in itself is fascinating.
Yesterday, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was over in Rome meeting Pope Benny. There were some predictions in advance of a big showdown, though that isn’t in either man’s style. There was also a bit of crowing from predictable quarters about the length of the interview, in much the same way as Gordon Brown was recently criticised for his failure to get sufficient face time with Barack O’Bama. In fact, not only are Benny and Rowan rather similar characters – both bookish and reserved in demeanour, both personally humane while being theologically conservative (actually, Rowan might be slightly more conservative) – but their high regard for each other is well known, and the pledge to carry on with the ecumenical process via ARCIC looked to me like a diplomatic smoothing of feathers.
Because, make no mistake, the Apostolic Constitution providing facilities for defecting Anglo-Catholics has ruffled lots of feathers. Rowan himself was put out by Rome’s failure to consult him. This, one assumes, was not primarily aimed at snubbing Rowan but at bypassing the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, for a number of political reasons internal to English Catholicism. Within that sphere, there are some overlapping elements. The Cormac camp, who are old-fashioned ecumenists who were very much committed to the ARCIC process, are not thrilled at their long-range project being derailed. There is also an element at Eccleston Square that was very much happy to have an Anglo-Catholic faction within the C of E, a bit like the way the old LCR used to have a faction that was very much in agreement with Lutte Ouvrière but didn’t actually want to join LO. And then of course there’s some institutional pique at the way the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith organised this behind the back of the Bishops’ Conference. But we’re talking horses for courses here, and the CDF, while it’s primarily a doctrinal police force, in certain circumstances functions as the Vatican’s equivalent of the A-Team. If you want to spend the next forty years in inconclusive discussions about corporate union, ARCIC is perfect. If you want a job done, you call in the CDF.
It’s also notable that the Suppository, voice of the liberal left in English Catholicism, is in a bit of a snit, and fired off a furious editorial the other week denouncing the Apostolic Constitution, although it was politic enough to aim its fire at the CDF, rather than the guy whose brainchild this is and who actually wrote Anglicanorum Coetibus – which would be, er, the Pope. Uncharitable traditionalists might feel that the Tabletistas, having struggled mightily to excise the Catholicism from English Catholicism, might not be thrilled at an influx of conservative Anglo-Catholics reintroducing Catholicism by the back door.
From a related quarter, Hans Küng has also swung into action. Tying this together with the fraught rehabilitation of the SSPX – and, in Benny’s position, I’d want to make those bastards jump through a few more hoops – he characterises Benedict’s mission of becoming the Pope of Christian Unity in terms of “Traditionalists of all denominations, unite under the dome of St Peter’s!” You’ll notice that Küng says this like it’s a bad thing.
I do feel a bit sorry for poor old Hans, who must be feeling a bit bereft by this point. Most of the liberal Catholic theologians are, like him, pretty elderly these days and less influential than they’ve been for a very long time. Nor have there been any modernist successes to raise the spirits. The Catholic movement for women’s ordination, to take one example, was slapped down so definitively by the late JP2 that those who haven’t given up altogether have made their way to the subculture of episcopi vagantes, or, ironically, Anglicanism.
And what of the Anglo-Catholics, then? It’s unsurprising that the Continuity Anglicans have already welcomed Anglicanorum Coetibus, what with them having requested it in the first place. But there are bigger fish to fry within the C of E itself, encompassing Forward In Faith and going beyond them. The interesting thing is that, what with the Constitution and its complementary norms actually giving AngCats more than they might have wanted, this calls their bluff. Are they too attached to doing Victor Meldrew impersonations at General Synod to make the jump? Or will they put their money where their mouth is?
What might hasten matters along is that, while the legislation going through General Synod to allow women’s consecration as bishops had been going to include special provisions for opponents of the move, these provisions have now been withdrawn. While Benedict is holding the door open and the AngCats are wavering on the threshold, the Anglican bigwigs have chosen this moment to give them a big kick up the arse, thus propelling them forwards.
And dear old Rowan, who’s forced to preside over an anarchic body that’s probably incapable of being led, could be forgiven for taking a darkly philosophical view. Even if the Anglo-Catholics depart and that simplifies the factional situation, the extreme liberal modernists aren’t going anywhere and neither are the conservative evangelicals. I can’t see him ever going over to Rome, as much because of Rome’s innovations as its conservatism, but perhaps Constantinople might give him a call?
Speaking of which, there have been more pronouncements of interest from the Russian Orthodox Church, or more specifically the ROC’s extremely energetic external affairs honcho, Archbishop Hilarion of Volokolamsk. Firstly, Hilarion has been saying that the German Lutherans’ election of a woman, Bishop Margot Kässmann, as their new president might affect ecumenical dialogue – the Lutherans claim to find this incomprehensible, which suggests they don’t understand the Orthodox very well. Moreover, Hilarion has been speaking on the subject of relations with Catholicism. While he’s very cautious about reunion, putting that decades in the future, he is rather keen on the idea of the tradition-based churches – the Orthodox, the Catholics and the pre-Chalcedonians – forming a strategic alliance to uphold traditional values. That sound you just heard? That’s Hans Küng’s head exploding.
Addendum on the Rompuy Kid
I must admit to knowing very little about Belgian prime minister and newly appointed European Council president Herman van Rompuy. He isn’t Mr Tony Blair, which is a plus. He is expected to be a chairman and facilitator rather than an emperor, which is fine. And I now know that he writes haiku and his sister is a Maoist activist, both of which factoids are oddly endearing.
But our friends in the National Secular Society (Titus Oates prop.) are perturbed. These fearless truth-hounds have discovered that van Rompuy is a Catholic. What with around 90% of Belgians being Catholics and van Rompuy being a leading member of the Flemish Christian Democratic Party, this is truly a shock. The NSS ask, “Does the Pope have another little toiler at the top of Euro politics?” This quaint seventeenth-century idea of theirs that the Pope spends his time phoning up Catholic politicians and giving them detailed instructions is oddly charming when it isn’t annoying. And the great thing is that this is an all-purpose NSS denunciation. Had the president been Jean-Claude Juncker or Wolfgang Schüssel or even Mr Tony, they could have run exactly the same headline.
They are rather pleased, though, that new Euro foreign minister Cathy Ashton is rumoured to be an atheist. You’ll notice that none of this has anything to do with either politician’s actual positions or competence for the job. Isn’t single-issue tubthumping brilliant?
Finally on faith-based themes, here’s an interesting article on Belfast’s Jewish community.