Religion, multiculturalism and the state

The Papal visit has given the media opportunity to debate the role of faith and Churches in our modern society.

The UK is formally a monarchy, with a democratically elected government and Commons legislature and with an established Church of England in the largest part of the Union. Superimposed on this ancient and evolving structure is the recent and revolutionary membership of the European Union, an unelected bureaucracy lightly supervised and directed by indirectly elected politicians through member state governments, and by directly elected MEPs.

One of the interests of the Papal visit was the Church of England response. The Church of England should be the repository of the Reformation in England. The purposes of the Reformation included breaking any recourse to Rome and the Pope for legal and criminal matters, putting all clergy under the common law of England; the ending of general Papal infalliblity and power in England; the wider publication of the Bible and prayer book in english to make the liturgy and gospel more open to the laity; a consequent reduction in the power of the priesthood; the sale of many Church lands to families who might farm and use it better; and allowing more individual conscience and interpretation of the Bible.

The Anglican settlement preserved Archbishops and bishops, some high Church elements in services, altar rails, and even incense and bells in some cases. Over the years the Church showed flexibility in the hands of many Vicars of Bray. In more recent times the Anglican Church has welcomed women priests, elements from the non conformist traditions, and shown more tolerance to minorities within the society. The Anglican Church accepts the Bible in english, a married and female priesthood, claims less moral and doctrinal authority than the Catholic Church and often chooses to debate social rather than faith issues.

Of all the disagreements between Canterbury and Rome, the one which was displayed most prominently was the difference over women clergy. The organsiers chose to let the Pope speak in Westminster Hall, under the shadow of Sir Thomas More’s impeachment for high treason, rather than inviting him to speak in the more neutral Royal Gallery. The Archbishop chose to highlight a less contentious Catholic Saint, Edward the Confessor, for their joint prayer session.

There was no public mention of Beckett, still perhaps a case too hot to handle. It will be interesting to see the struggle between the ecumencial impulses and the rivalry to recruit and retain Church members in the months after the Papal visit. The Archbishop could reply to the Pope’s famous recruitment message by welcoming in all Catholics who wish to see women play a bigger role within the Church.