Saturday, September 18, 2010
Reflections on Benedict XVI's visit to Britain
September 20, 2010
I have spent the last few days watching the coverage of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain. The Pope has shown extraordinary stamina for an 83-year-old, and great fortitude in the face of the negativity toward him from some many quarters. I suspect that Britain's historic distrust of Catholicism still lurks beneath the surface.
By the end of the Saturday evening prayer vigil in Hyde Park, London, he looked utterly exhausted -- but happy, and happier still when he had beatified John Henry Newman in Birmingham on Sunday morning. Perhaps the most moving moment for me, however, was when he and the Archbishop of Canterbury stood side-by-side on the steps of the high altar in Westminster Abbey and together pronounced the blessing at the end of the beautiful prayer service held there.
There was tension hanging in the air when he arrived, but as the days passed there was a visible thawing toward Benedict, who handled himself with great grace and courtesy. To me there has been the deepening sense that while there are huge barriers that hold us apart from our brothers and sisters in Rome, there is very much more that we have in common, especially in the face of an assertive secularism.
Interestingly, there was a mingling of Anglican, Protestant, and Catholic hymnody at the gatherings, with John Newton's "Amazing Grace"being belted out in Birmingham, while the last hymn sung at the vigil in Hyde Park was "Tell out my soul..." by Timothy Dudley-Smith, an evangelical Anglican bishop trained at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. Following that the choir sung a well-known piece by John Rutter. It seems that not only are elements of our liturgies converging, but we praising God with many of the same songs. These may be little things, but they are evidence of two streams that want to run together despite all the difficulties.
The dark side of the Pope's visit to Britain has been the constant reminders of the Roman Church's child abuse scandals. The Pope constantly apologized, as indeed he should, but for his detractors that is not enough. While the activities of a tiny minority of sick priests is detestable in the extreme, these sins should be measured alongside the extraordinary ways in which Roman Catholics in Britain have served the poor and needy, provided education, and stood firm in times of need -- all in the midst of proclaiming the love of Christ. Indeed, my own granddaughter is being educated at a Roman Catholic elementary school not far from Newman's Oratory Church in Birmingham, an education that is enriched and tempered by the evangelical Anglican parish she attends on Sunday mornings!
Yet it is this dark side of the papal visit that has added ferocity to the response of the secular left and atheism toward all things Christian. While the media have generally covered things better than I had anticipated, these opponents have been allowed to get away with things that are scurrilous, tainted by anger and viciousness. For example, on the BBC World Service the other morning a question was asked of a sophisticate of a detractor; his throwaway response that he would not deign to answer a question about "a man who wears lace and red shoes" cried out for cross-examination, but he was allowed to get away with it. While it is clear that there are some wonderful people at the BBC who have treated this visit with great grace, there are others there and in the newspaper who have taken every opportunity to cast aspersions.
After having lived back here for three years I have little doubt that Europe has been disposing of its Christian heritage with a breathless rapidity. This sexual crisis in the Roman Catholic church has certainly not helped the cause of Christ, either within Catholicism or beyond for in one way or another we are all being tarred with the same brush. It is almost impossible for a holy man like Benedict to claim any high ground when members of the priesthood have behaved so badly and seem in certain cases to have gotten away with it. This is perceived as an inconsistent hypocrisy that Christians should not be allowed to get away with, barring their access to the high moral ground.
In my more pessimistic moments I find myself wondering how on earth the churches are going to recover from this horror. Cleaning house is necessary, but the memory will remain as a scar for generations to come. This is just one more strike against the faith. Nothing short of a new Reformation and Counter-Reformation is called for, and at the moment it is hard to see from where that might come.
There is a sense of wrestling not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers whose reach seems almost limitless. This is a continent that is assertively and with glee turning its back on its spiritual and intellectual heritage in favor of the empty puffery of materialism, and a purposeless listlessness coupled with self-indulgence. In a way this crisis could not have come at a worse moment, but in the timing there might be evidence of just a glimmering of the providence of God. Could it be that the old traditions that have shaped European Christianity for so many centuries now must be deconstructed and reconstructed -- but this time to enable mission and not governance/control? It is certainly the case that structures that had seemed solid and immovable just a few years ago are starting to totter.
Christianity is not dead in Europe, as can be seen by the multi-national crowds that turned out to honor the Pope, but it is certainly going through a very difficult time. Could it be that the structures with which we have lived since the Reformation are in their dying days and that not too far into the future we will see a 21st Century remaking of the churches in order that they might effectively proclaim Christ to pagans, Muslims, materialists, and secularists alike? Already many are exploring new ways, something that could well snowball.
I would like to think we are on the verge of a new beginning, but first it is from relationships like those being forged through Benedict's visit that residual distrust is given permission to edge toward a more cooperative fellowship. Europe is not lost to the Christian gospel, the wounds inflicted have not been moral, but there is much to be done and prayed over in this generation if the faith focused on Jesus Christ is to begin to assert itself again in this part of the world.