That would be an ecumenical matter

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.


  1. Garibaldy said,

    November 23, 2009 at 1:13 am

    “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.”

    Of course, there’s always the option of becoming Head of (the Free) State.

  2. Doloras said,

    November 23, 2009 at 1:53 am

    I regularly read a couple of Catholic traditionalist / SSPX-sympathetic blogs (Rorate Caeli and Father Z). Some of them are so hardcore that they’re not happy about Anglicanorum Coetibus in that it doesn’t require that the Anglo-Catholics repent their sins first.

    I really do find them fascinating, once I developed a thick skin for the sneering misogyny and homophobia. Once again: church politics and the internal workings of political parties have a strong symmetry that it behooves all of us to understand.

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      November 23, 2009 at 8:55 pm

      I read Father Z myself. Although I don’t always – or even often – agree with him, his fisks are brilliant.

  3. Doloras said,

    November 23, 2009 at 2:27 am

    Also, we get the French version of the PTB paper, and quite frankly I wouldn’t say the PTB are “Maoists” any more. Leftist Belgian nationalists, as far as I can see.

    • Mark P said,

      November 23, 2009 at 9:49 am

      Well, a certain breed of Maoist has always been fairly keen on nationalism, even in the imperialist powers.

      You get various stripes of guilty liberal calling themselves Maoists in the rich countries and rhetorically flagellating themselves for not being brown enough, but you also get people who are surprisingly keen on the nationalism of their own imperialist power. The CPB(ML) have rather vigorous views on immigration for instance and similarly the Australian Maoists were big on Australian nationalism.

      I tend to agree that the PTB have been changing though. Up until a few years ago they were big into promoting and defending Stalin, but that seems to have been quietly shoved under the carpet. They are also at the centre of attempts to pull together a loose international current consisting of the “harder” post-Moscow CPs and the less doctrinaire post-Beijing and post-Tirana line ones.

      Is one of their leaders still off advising Kabilla in the Congo?

      • Doloras said,

        November 23, 2009 at 8:22 pm

        Perhaps it’s a bit annoying reading a paper in my second language and my focus slipped a bit, but I can’t remember anything in recent issues of Solidaire apart from (a) news from trade union struggles and campaigns; (b) impassioned pleas from Belgian cultural figures begging the workers not to let the mean old politicians tear up our beloved little country. Not once have I ever seen an article arguing from a Marxist point of view why the Belgian state and/or the unity of Walloon and Flemish workers is worth fighting for, but of course I might have missed it.

        As to ex-Maoists, the ones who really creep me out are the ones who’ve gone from being cheerleaders for Chinese imperialism to cheerleaders from American imperialism, on exactly the same principle that taking over someone else’s country can be “objectively progressive”. Eg the “Anti-Germans”, and I think there’s a mob in Australia as well.

  4. skidmarx said,

    November 23, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    You seem to have overlooked the BBC’s upholding the Thought For The Day ban on those with actual thoughts:

  5. November 23, 2009 at 2:04 pm

    about another conflict inside anglicanism which the left should not ignore: in the 1970ies in Germany, some maoists where also speaking of a two-line-struggle inside the mainline protestant churches and had cells in some theology departments… btw, a relatively large part of Anglocatholics in the CoE who are organised in the SCP are liberal and non-homophobic/non-mysoginist

  6. Mark Victorystooge said,

    November 23, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    About a decade ago I encountered someone who said the PTB were a bit like a Belgian version of the British SWP, with the peculiarity that they defended Stalin.
    The PTB are relatively large, esp. for a country like Belgium, and have a little bit of implantation in some areas, being able to elect councillors here and there. They had a “doctors for the people” service years ago (I visited one of their surgeries), and may still have it.

  7. robert said,

    November 23, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    Does Titus Oates ever attack Jews in this way or is that one verboten?

  8. WorldbyStorm said,

    November 23, 2009 at 9:55 pm

    Nice one splintered. Couldn’t agree more, the politics is fascinating and well worth studying. One thing that I’m always intrigued by the longevity of the Catholic Church, in institutional terms…

  9. Phil said,

    November 23, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    Don’t stare too long into that dark & backward abysm of time, WbS. My RE teacher at school was a former Unitarian minister who’d essentially argued himself into Catholicism, and tried to take the same approach with us: if all these people had said Jesus was the son of God, didn’t it make sense to suppose that some of them were right? and with all these churches claiming to be the Church, wasn’t it likely that one of them in fact was the true Church? and if any church was going to be the true Church, then surely… He followed this same weirdly rationalistic line all the way through to the Blessed Oliver Plunkett (if the scientific evidence suggests that a miracle has occurred, then surely…). I wasn’t impressed, but then I was doubly immunised – I was an atheist, and an Anglican atheist with it.

    A few years later, after I’d left school, I heard that he’d given up teaching and gone back to being a Unitarian minister.

    • WorldbyStorm said,

      November 24, 2009 at 5:05 pm

      I’m really just fascinated by the fact an organisation, however tenuous the links at times or changes in viewpoint and approach, managed to remain extant across quite deep stretches of time on an historical scale (and granted that’s also true of other religions to a greater or lesser extent). Like yourself though I’m pretty sure that doesn’t gift any greater authority to Rome.

  10. splinteredsunrise said,

    November 24, 2009 at 12:08 am

    Though I have been enjoying History of Christianity on BBC4. And an occasional dash of the old Chrysostom doesn’t go much amiss, notwithstanding his (ahem) robust views on Judaism.

  11. prianikoff said,

    November 24, 2009 at 7:28 am

    “PTB have been changing though.”
    I met their leader Ludo Martens at a meeting in Southall several years ago.
    (He’s the guy who spent quite a lot of time in the Congo).
    He also authored the devotional work “Another View of Stalin”.
    When I tried to debate it with him, he got very uptight and avoided answering.

  12. Ken MacLeod said,

    November 24, 2009 at 8:19 am

    ‘Another View of Stalin’ is not a devotional work and is well worth reading.

  13. andy newman said,

    November 24, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    This is interesting, but I think you have misunderstood the politics of catholicism within Anglicanism a bit.

    For the majority of Anglo-Catholics, their profession of catholicism is related to questions of the Apostolic succession which incline them towards unity with Rome; and to their view of a priests having a interlocutary role between the laity and God; whereas evanglicals within Anglicanism incline to the idea that vicars are facilitators to empower individuals to communicate with God without interlocution.

    These issues are orthogonal to the division over women biships and LGBT issues; and the majority of catholics within the Anglican communions are socially liberal. There are of course many who are socially liberal but theologically conservative – i.e. those who believe in women’s and gay rights and equality in society, but who still beleive that gay sex is sinful, and that women should not be ordained. Some may even support a womans right to choose over abortion but still oppose ordination of women.

    The number interested jumping to Rome are therefore only the sub-set who are both Anglo-Catholic on the issue of a priests role as interlocutor, and what the evangelicals call “doubly conservative” – both opposed to women and gay ordination and also who take a socially conservative view to familly and LGBT issues in wider society.

    I don’t think there will be many, and the institutional conservatism of not eanting to leave their beautiful perpendicular CofE church in favour of a corrugated iron hut will also deter people. While the aura of incense and papal authority may appeal to a certain tye of Anglican, the relaity of the Catholic church in England – poor and with mainly immigrant populations is a far cry from Brideshead Revisited.

    I think the majority of those interested in converting to cathoilicism already went,

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      November 24, 2009 at 7:32 pm

      There is this theory that a lot of Poles and Slovaks attend Anglican churches because they actually look like churches and not prefabs. If you’re used to the east European traditions, an English Catholic church would be easy to miss. And an Anglo-Catholic service would at least be a bit familiar to traditionalists – try getting a Latin Mass past Nichols.

  14. Mark Victorystooge said,

    November 24, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    Martens’ idea that Solzhenitsyn had a very soft spot for General Vlasov is certainly true.
    The PTB had a positive view of Che Guevara when I met some of them in 2003. More hardline Maoists don’t. All in all, they struck me as a fairly pragmatic organisation.

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      November 24, 2009 at 7:35 pm

      I don’t know much about them. I’m familiar with the German MLPD and the Norwegian Raudt, both of them fairly sane Maoist groups. In some ways, the MLPD reminds me a bit of the Socialist Party – it’s just that the more baroque bits of their ideology are different, but they’re not that dissimilar in practice.

  15. November 24, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    generally, I have the impression, that conservative anglo-catholics are less bothered about gay clerics than conservative evangelical for whom in reverse the issue of female bishops is less problematic

  16. Dr Paul said,

    November 24, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    Yes, the Anglo-Catholics… The next issue of Revolutionary History — hopefully out early next year — will feature a substantial article on the relationship between the Anglo-Catholics and Trotskyists and Stalinists in Britain from the 1920s to the 1950s. The Respect shenanigans were not a patch on this entertaining saga; if John Rees had known about it, he may still have been running the show.

    Written by Ron Heisler, a whizz on this sort of thing, it also brings in Spiritualists, Aleister Crowley and whole lot besides.

  17. Chris Williams said,

    November 24, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    Me and the missus were talking about this the other day, and I opined that the main reason why the proddies (real ones, that is, not the CoE) tended to ordain women with hardly a murmur was precisely because of their idea of the role of the ordained. A minister who preaches to you is not the same as a priest who does magic spells with sex, bread and wine. If all you’re doing is voting for the person to tell you stuff every week, rather than the local magician who embodies Christ more than thee or I, then it’s a lot easier to go for a lady.

    Relevance for leftist politics? No relevance for leftist politics this week.

  18. Mark Victorystooge said,

    November 24, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    Re the PTB, calling them pragmatic is not necessarily praise. However, I visit continental Europe a lot and have some familiarity with the left there. Maoist or semi-Maoist groups are much more common there than in the UK or Ireland. It seems to me that, whether groups are Trotskyist, Maoist or whatever, they face rather similar problems of trying to find purchase in the working class. So there will, in practice, be similarities.
    I don’t know much about the MLPD, beyond occasionally buying their paper on visits to Germany (I was surprised to find it on sale in Cologne’s main railway station). I would imagine they are somewhat similar to the PTB.

  19. November 25, 2009 at 9:11 am

    the MLPD does some good work on day-to-day issues in factories and local areas but is very sectarian when it comes to working together with other groups on the left

    • ejh said,

      November 28, 2009 at 11:38 am

      but is very sectarian when it comes to working together with other groups on the left

      But who is not?

      • December 1, 2009 at 9:27 am

        compared with the MLPD (which generally auto-proclaims is role as a vanguard), most other groups of the left in Germany are not sectarian

  20. skidmarx said,

    November 25, 2009 at 10:04 am

    From Christopher Brookmyre’s Pandaemonium:
    “If we discover intelligent life in a distant galaxy, and it turns out they’re Tims,does the Pope get to call the shots? What if they’ve got their own Pope? Do they have a Pope-off to decide it?: They’re both alpha-primates, after all. Would it be bare-knuckle, or would it be like Gandalf versus Saruman using those papal croziers?”
    They leave her alone after that.

    He also raises the troublesome theological teaser of whether man can live by Sky Sports and Indian take-away alone.

  21. Gregor said,

    December 24, 2009 at 12:12 pm

    I hope Benny knows who he’s dealing with here. During the liberalism of the Anglican Church a lot of the ‘Tories at Prayer’ jumped ship to Orthodoxy. I suspect that this was spitting the dummy out because they were pretty sloppy from all accounts. Anyway, when communism collapsed and loads of Russkies moved to London and tried setting Innismore Gardens on the straight and narrow, the ex-Anglicans spat the dummy out again and moved elsewhere weeping that they’d been pushed out (which they hadn’t).

    Not only that, but they also wrote to the Independent about how ‘rather vulgar peasants’ were deterring ‘upper-class English converts’.
    These poor upper crust English converts found: ‘Nearly every Sunday we were bombarded with Soviet-style propaganda and warnings that ‘the Devil is among us’,” so moved out.

    You’d need a heart of stone not to laugh.

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      December 24, 2009 at 1:39 pm

      There’s a bit of a subculture in Ireland of ex-Catholic converts to Orthodoxy, but they’d be very different sociologically. I don’t think Moscow has ever had serious trouble with them. But as for the Anglo-Catholics, I always remember how scathing Evelyn Waugh was about them.

      • Gregor said,

        December 24, 2009 at 6:44 pm

        I’m sure the Irish would fit in very well to Orthodox culture; it’s just that some of the posh English converts seem to expect Johnny foreigner to be weeping tears of gratitude that so many bourgeoisie Brits have changed tea-rooms. They don’t show sufficient respect for the sacraments or services and seem quite taken aback by the idea that you have to earn respect.

        Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for Bahaism, Zen and liberal religion and stuff, but if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s a wishy washy medieval nostalgists who whinge that their church has gone all woosy then go sobbing to The Independent when they can’t take the heat of old time religion.

  22. ejh said,

    December 24, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    Well, there’s not many people Waugh wouldn’t have beaten in a more-Catholic-than-thou contest.

    Or more-objectionable-than-thou, for that matter.

  23. January 20, 2010 at 11:46 pm

    […] Reggie and his malcontents The fall of the House of Paisley Fixed and consequent That would be an ecumenical matter No sex please, I’m the commissioning editor for […]

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