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A bishop who will balance continuity and change
Now THAT Bishop Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, has been officially confirmed as the next Archbishop of Westminster, the appointment already has about it a certain feeling of inevitablility.
Who better to build on the legacy of Cardinal Hume than a bishop of his urbanity, his long experience in the inner councils of the Church and his proven pastoral ability? And yet, the speculation about this appointment almost totally ignored him as a serious possibility.
Only a few weeks ago, The Times newspaper had spoken with great certainty of another candidate for Westminster, the accomplished Bishop Vincent Nichols, whose great abilities have now been recognised in his appointment as Archbishop of Birmingham. But this was not the diocese to which many had supposed he would be sent.
The Times' report, picked up from the influential Rome newspaper 11 Messaggero, named the Bishop in North London as the most serious candidate in the race for England's most prominent See and this seemed for the most part to be the result of his successful tour of duty at the European Synod. There he had made many friends inside and outside the Roman Curia and had been well received by the clergy and students who live and work in the Eternal City. Widely regarded in Britain as the most able prodigy of the late Cardinal Basil Hume, it was understandable that his popularity and his skill would recommend him also to the waiting Catholic population of England and Wales.
Other newspapers carried stories of the frontrunners in the race for Westminster, which included the theologian-bishop from Liverpool, Archbishop Patrick Kelly. Indeed, the journalist who reported the sudden rise of Bishop Murphy O'Connor in the race had been quite convinced of late that Archbishop Kelly would be the man for the job.
Enter the, stage left, the dark horse of the race. Many commentators had interpreted the dark horse to be Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, the leading British cleric in the Roman Curia, but this report looked unlikely as time wore on, chiefly because of one of the less well-known principles of the Curia: those who demonstrate utility in the Curia are seldom let go (se si dimostra utile, si 'interne). It now appears that the dark horse has been the 'Viet, reserved 'figure of the Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, Cormac MurphyO'Connor. How then should we interpret this late arrival at the starting line?
One newspaper has interpreted the news as a strong affirmation of Rome's desire to see through the difficult ecumenical waters that separate the Church of England and the Catholic Church on these shores.
Undoubtedly it should be read as a vindication for ongoing ecumenical rapprochement and entente. The late Cardinal Hume assumed the mantle of ecumenist and made inroads into the delicate weave. of relationships between the Church of England and the Crown. He therefore made Catholicism a very respectable religious option for many members of Britain's Establishment. It was left to others in the entertainment world to make Catholicism a fashionable option. The important achievement of
the late Cardinal was the drawing together of the Catholic weave and the threads of Crown and State. He remains a blessed memory in the minds of many Anglicans as well as Catholic and the televising of his funeral must surely be regarded as an eloquent tribute to his placing of Catholicism at the heart of British public life.
Should one see the possible appointment of Bishop Murphy-O'Connor as a return to the Heenan years? Probably not, Still, the Anglo-Irish dimension of such an appointment would not be lost on political commentators. In the age of New Labour, the growing entente between the two islands of Britain and Ireland acts as a backdrop to the appointment at Westminster one which cannot be ignored. It may also be viewed as a judgement that the time is now ripe to overcome the enmity of the past and to strive for a greater reconciliation between the two islands.
What better person to enflesh such a movement than the present Bishop of Arundel and Brighton? He would bring to the role of Archbishop of Westminster a steady hand and a gentle steerage through the brackish waters that have troubled the history of the British Isles.
He would also act as a powerful symbol of ethnic diversity and common civic identity which seems to be the emerging future of the nations that make up Great Britain and Ireland. His background in the Celtic Tiger would also assist his acceptance among the many second and third generation Irish Catholics that have always remained uneasy toward and marginalised by the process of cordial entente with the Establishment in Britain.
The discussion of the possibility of Catholic bishops sitting in the House of Lords may have triggered alarm-bells somewhere in a distant curial office. In any case, at a time when the embodiment of hereditary privilege is being set aside for a rather different second chamber and a growth of New Labour's icons of popular culture is being made more accessible to the majority of people in Britain, the appointment of Bishop Murphy-O'Connor will come as an affirmation of an inclusive future in British institutions.
Above all, in an age which will see the slow dilution of privilege and class into a more equilibrated pot-pourri, the future Archbishop of Westminster may well be expected by Rome to step back from too great an identification with the Establishment elite. The Bishop of Arundel and Brighton is, above all things, a Roman. Trained in Rome and Rector of the English College for many years, he is much more sensitive to the realities of the court of St Peter, while his ecumenical contacts have made him just as sensitive to the court of St James.
The era of Anglo-French Benedictine independence has been brought to a successful close and now it may be time to focus on the strengths of the Roman contribution to Church life.
In an age of globalisation and of internationalism kicked into gear by the Internet, a candidate with impeccable Roman credentials may be more open to the projects of the future papacy and more useful as an engine to drive the train of English Catholicism along tracks designed to get the best possible results from Britain's future in Europe.