Page 10, 7th November 1997

7th November 1997
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Page 10, 7th November 1997 — Why I don't mind catching the flak
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Why I don't mind catching the flak

EN WHI SIR UMPHREY

Appleby, the Appleby, the Whitehall Mandarin in Yes, Prime Minster, wants to stop his master doing something, one of his most effective techniques is to say "an excellent policy, Prime Minister, and a most courageous one".

The first time I experienced the nerve-racking effect of this apparent compliment was in a lecture room at an Episcopalian seminary in New York, as I stood at the podium preparing to deliver a critical analysis of the effects of radical feminism of the "God the Mother" variety on contemporary Christian belief. "I just want to thank you," a nervous young man vouchsafed in reverential tones, "for saying what you're going to say. None of us here would dare." This heralded a distinctly bumpy hour or two (being heckled by militant American feminists is a unique and character-forming experience). This in its turn was the beginning of a decade of hostility from radical Christian feminist circles following the publication of my book on Christian feminism , What Will Happen to God? (still, I am happy to say, in print after 13 years).

This hostility came to climax in 1992 after my reception into the Catholic Church, when the newsletter of the Catholic Women's Network (CWN) published an editorial arguing that someone who hated women as much as I obviously did should not have been allowed into the Catholic Church at all. (It must be added that not all Catholic feminists took this line — during the question period after a Tablet dinner, at which I was one of the speakers, the eminent Catholic feminist Margaret Hebblethwaite made a point of publicly welcoming me into the Church and saying respectful things about my book. A generous gesture for which I have been grateful ever since.)

This time, I am hoping for a less hostile response. But as the publication of my book The Roman Option (on November 10) becomes imminent, I am conscious of a distinct feeling of déjà vu, and last-minute nerves are making themselves felt. They began when one of the writers who had been sent a review copy telephoned me to say how brave I was to write it; it will attract, he said, "quite a bit of flak". Well, I suspect it may: but the real question is, why should it?

There will, I imagine, be two main reasons for any hostility (though there may be others I have not even begun to suspect). The first one is that the book confirms the existence of sharp differences of opinion over the question what was to be done pastorally for those members of the Church of England who could not accept the decision to ordain women to the Anglican priesthood.

These differences of judgment were to be found first among the English bishops, and then between our bishops and the authorities in Rome, who (like Cardinal Hume) had favoured a more adventurous approach than emerged from the meeting of the Conference of Bishops which took place in Low week 1993. Rome's view was that a way should be found to allow Anglicans to come into the Catholic Church without wholly losing their Anglican identity. The phrase "united not absorbed" (from the Malines Conversations) was the guiding principle at this stage. Rome did not try to impose its view — it simply accepted the English bishops' decisions. But it was disappointed by them.

My book's arguments can be found in broad outline in this week's serial extract on Page 6. Why should they arouse any "flak"? Well, I am particularly critical of certain individuals who campaigned openly against the "Roman Option" at the time — they may respond in kind, as they have a perfect right to do. But there will be "flak" of another kind, I fear, to which I shall respond vigorously. This will come from those quarters who think that converts should be seen and not heard, even that in some way they are not real Catholics.

SOME TIME ago, I wrote an article in the Catholic Herald which was critical of some aspect of official policy. One result of this was a letter from one bishop who told me that he feared I was not a Catholic in my bones. When, without identifying its source, I asked an eminent Australian Monsignor (himself a convert with personal experience of the English Church) what he though this expression might mean, he said with a snort "It mean's you haven't yet learned the rules of the ghetto".

One of these unspoken rules is that there should be no public criticisms of the official policy of the English and Welsh Church from Catholic journalists (though it is fine to have a go at the Pope, and even better at Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger). The purpose of this unspoken prohibition is to foster the myth that English Catholics are always united in all things great and small. One of the achievements of Cristina Odone as editor of this paper was to encourage open debate between different schools of thought: the improvement was immediate and the upward movement in the paper's quality (maintained, I am glad to say, by the present incumbent) has continued ever since.

The point is that this instinctive official policy of unwavering public uniformity is not typical of the Church anywhere else. Its roots lie deep in history; but it also has a lot to do, I think, with a fear that the Catholic Church here might fall into the same kind of disunity that the Church of England has in recent years.

But I do not believe that there is any danger whatever of such a thing. The disunity of Anglicanism derives from its total doctrinal chaos. Thirty years ago, if you wanted to know what Anglicans were supposed to believe, you could go the simple but fairly comphrehensive catechism to be found in the Book of Common Prayer. That source of certainty has now simply disappeared.

The divisions within Anglicanism are over the most fundamental questions of faith: to be ordained as an Anglican clergyman today, you do not even have to believe in the objective existence of God.

But Catholics, though they differ profoundly on all kinds of things, are united at a very deep level about the essentials of the faith. I realised this, one day, when I was reading a book by the late Peter Hebblethwaite. I was not alone in finding Hebblethwaite frequently outrageous. We differed hotly on many things, especially on his views on the present Pope. But it suddenly occurred to me to compare the way I disagreed with him with the way in which I had disagreeed with Anglican liberals like Bishop David Jenkins or the former Provost of Southwark, David L Edwards. The difference was not simply that Peter Hebblethwaite was intellectually more distinguished (as well as being compulsively more readable): it was that with Hebblethwaite I palpably shared a common faith, with them I did not.

That is why the Catholic Church, though it will go through many crises yet, will not disintegrate: the bishops should have more faith in its profound underlying unity. It really does not matter if a few frisky writers and journalists rock the boat: the barque of Peter is fitted with stabilisers designed to meet storms and tempests of all descriptions. It does not carry lifeboats: but unlike the Titanic it really is unsinkable.




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