Thursday, 16 September 2010

What is the pope for, exactly?

This is a guest post by Rev. James Rattue

‘Two potty little provinces of no importance’ was how Father Alfred Hope Patten, modern re-founder of the Anglican shrine at Walsingham, described the Church to which he had the honour to belong. He was never faced with the conflict of loyalties that might have been provoked by a Papal visit to Britain, but held no high opinion of his own denomination. Like many Anglo-Catholic clergy of yesteryear, Fr Patten solved ‘the problem of authority’ by doggedly ignoring anything that happened outside his own parish. The irony was, as for many others in his position, that his ecclesiastical eccentricities would never have been tolerated by the Roman observance in which, in theory, he would have felt more at home.

The Bishop of Rome may be having to trek to Edinburgh to meet the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, but despite this rather delicious near-snub there’s little for either denomination to envy in the other at the moment. The calamitous collapse in vocations to the Roman Catholic priesthood is matched by a slump in the proportion of the population which identifies itself as Anglican. Both Churches have experienced the same, slow, steady decline in observance over the same period.

In any case, I imagine weighing up the relative state and relations of Christian denominations is of very limited interest to the readers of Heresy Corner, and I admit it’s of decreasing interest to me, except when my sense of amour propre is wounded by Popish triumphalism (and I suspect the cause for the canonisation of Cardinal Newman, that most famous if troubled traverser of the Tiber, whose beatification forms the centrepiece of Papa Josef’s visit to Britain, is at least partly about wounding Anglican amour propre – the saints you favour say a lot about you, like my somewhat ultramontane colleague at theological college who was enamoured of Blessed Archduke Karl of Austria, I think because of the uniform and moustache).

I can no longer see a ‘true Church’ located anywhere, or at any time; if anything the Christian faith has been growing towards unity and truth, with numberless eddies and cross-currents, not fracturing from an original, and every modern ecclesial body is characterised by mess and ambiguity. Any idea that the Holy Spirit operates only within the boundaries of one denomination is something none of us believes any more (at least in theory). I rather envy the universality of the Roman Church, the fact that Catholic congregations are so eclectic and multiethnic, but that’s about it. Real spiritual depth and energy I find in diverse places: the writings of Reginald Somerset Ward, the journals of Pope John XXIII, or the epigrammatic utterances of the Desert Fathers. Authority and dogma are trumped by authenticity and relationship; I see the point of the first half of that equation being to foster the second half, not the other way around.

Which brings us to Il Papa himself. More than once people have asked me what Roman Catholics see in the Pope. I suppose I ought to ask some, but I imagine it has less to do with the man’s personal qualities, which after all differ wildly from pontiff to pontiff, than with his representative function, the charism of his office. He represents identity and continuity. In his person are united all the world’s Catholics, both now and across time; because they all have a relationship with him, they all have a relationship with one another. It’s that that they’re cheering. Of course this is relatively modern. In the Middle Ages believers throughout most of Europe didn’t love the Pope; he was a distant juridical authority. A medieval English Christian might love St Gregory, perhaps, Apostle of the English, who appeared in pictures of the Four Latin Doctors on the rood screen of the parish church, but she would know next to nothing about whichever Innocent or Boniface actually occupied the throne of St Peter at the time. Catholics first loved the Pope when they first had Protestants to hate, and that was when Protestants first hated him too. Even then they wouldn’t know what he looked like until the age of cheap printing, or sounded like until the 1900s.

This means that Catholic Christianity’s relationship with the Bishop of Rome is actually in flux, not because of who he happens to be at the moment, nor because of a ‘crisis in faith’ or the paedophile issue. Of course that doesn’t help; Damian Thompson recently posted a delightful article which virtually repeated in all seriousness Fr Ted Crilly’s great statement, ‘Say there’s two hundred million priests in the world, and five per cent of them are paedophiles, that’s still only ten million’, and everything that comes out of the Vatican leads one to conclude that, yes, that is the way they think, and it’s not the way most of the world thinks. But no, the relationship is changing because that old kind of unquestioning devotion is made impossible by the sheer levels of what we know about the famous.

Nobody can be a flawless icon of anything, and it’s unreasonable to expect them to be. A Presidential candidate captures the adulation of a nation, or a large part of it, for the course of an election campaign, and then reality bites; a gentle and retiring academic becomes Archbishop of Canterbury, and can’t please any of the parties who rejoiced at his elevation because their desires are incommensurable. Universal acclamation is only possible if you remain a silent figurehead, presiding impassively over the institution you represent. It helps if you have no past to be examined, too, but you simply must say nothing and do nothing if you’re going to avoid obloquy. Which is nonsense, because the hyperactive modern world rules out the option of silence and inactivity.

If relationship of that kind is increasingly impossible for religious leaders, this collapse might be the prelude to relationship of a more real and realistic kind. Modern communication technology facilitates this very thing. The next Pope should be a blogger and a Tweeter (or whatever form of interaction has taken over at that stage), not to impart nuggets of dogma from on high but to muse, relate, tell stories about himself and his interactions with real people. He should spend the rest of the time visiting the great diocese of which he has the charge of being supreme pastor, its churches, its prisons and hospitals, its institutions, listening to its people and clergy and their real lives and struggles.

I mentioned John XXIII earlier on. Many Catholic homes still have pictures of Pope John on their wall even though he died over fifty years ago, not because he called the Second Vatican Council, but because of his clear, obvious love for people which emerged through what he did and said. I think Pope Benedict is probably a good and pleasant man. If only he talked more about the things that he really likes – music, art, the delights of intellectual interaction – or dressing up – and people, one hopes – he might genuinely usher in something new. And given Jesus’s distinct reluctance to lecture or issue grand encyclicals, something very old as well.