As the Church of England finds the track covered with oil slicks, Rome could move into pole position simply by standing its ground, argues Clifford Longley
'LET US HEED the Methodist Recorder. On 6 May, contemplating the mess in the Church of England over the ordination of women, the voice of British Methodism wondered what the consequences might be for the Roman Catholic Church.
"We are given confusing answers to the question: what is happening to the Church of England. There is much less consideration of what is happening to the Roman Catholic Church in England. After the Elizabethan Settlement and the 1688 revolution, RCs in England were marginalised rather, as particularly dangerous non-conformists. The restraints were lifted long ago, but the effects lingered, RC bishops hesitated for years over the British Council of Churches, eventually deciding not to seek membership.
"The Church is now a fully participating member of the replacement for the BCC, Cardinal Hume is widely regarded as the most trustworthy advocate of Christian morality. His Church is assuming, or having laid on it, a greater role in national life. It may not be the "conversion of England" of which he once spoke. It could be a subtle, steady change in an inward looking church, making it more consciously outward looking."
This is a cautious judgment by an important and sympathetic spectator of the evolving place of the Roman Catholic Church in English national life. Both being non-conformist Churches and with their shared interest in spiri there has long been an instinctive sympathy between the two ecclesial cornnaunities of Methodism and Catholicism.
The Methodist judgment bears a striking resemblance to the opinion of the distinguished Catholic journalist Hugo Young, writing in The Guardian at about the same time, who remarked: "The Catholic voice has grown in confidence in 30 years. Some see it as the only reliable beacon. All the same its interests have still been predominantly inward. It has made the very most of its unestablished status. What the Anglican overtures make it ask seriously for the first time is what its place should be in national Life. As Anglicanism literally disintegrates, Romanism may be acquiring a new English destiny. Those who once relished outsiderdom now face with some trepidation a life at the centre."
The occasion of both comments is of course the decision last November by the General Synod of the Church of England to admit women to the order of priests. What happened as a result, and why, is a little difficult for Roman Catholics to comprehend a fact which has authored many misunderstandings and could eventually lead to some mistakes. In a sense nothing changed. If the Roman Catholic Church is now about to take a more central role in the affairs of the nation, that is not as a reward for anything it has done.
Indeed, if anything it is a reward for standing still, when others moved. For Roman Catholics, this is all very baffling. What many of them have failed so far to grasp is the extent of the upheaval in identity among many Anglicans, and how deep is their sense of disappointment and discouragement with their own Church. They may yet regain their former poise, and finding the means to enable them to do so is now right at the top of the agenda of the Anglican leadership. But there are many who think that things can never be the same.
In the first place, the Church of England faces the prospect of losing membership to the Roman Catholic Church, and some of the potential converts (not a word Rome likes using, incidentally) will be of very high quality. In the second, internal disarray is weakening internal Anglican morale while squabbling absorbs energy and attention that ought to be directed outwards. In the third place, a great many Anglicans, by no means all of whom will end up as Catholics, have been re-examining the Roman Church with fresh and more favourable eyes. Old prejudices have died away, giving way to new interest and respect.
That has also had its effect on Catholic opinion. But it has been a confusing effect. The English bishops have yet to develop a strategy that takes account of their new opportunities, though there are grounds for thinking they are acutely aware of the need.
What might such a strategy be? Above all, the Roman Catholic Church in England needs to hold tight to the distinction between being a national Church and being the national Church. The latter ground is being occupied by the Church of England, and even if it let go, the Catholic Church should not set its ambitions in that direction. The Counter-Reformation is over. Britain has become a secular society, and a successful Church will be one that understands how to behave in that new and challenging climate. Establishment is now one of Anglicanism's greatest impediments; no way should Catholicism seek to replace or emulate that increasingly discredited pattern. It will not claim privileges; it will refuse them if offered. It will learn how to use the democratic process for Christian purposes, but also how not to abuse the spirit of democracy while doing so. It will have to learn how to share society with groups with whom it profoundly disagrees. There is a whole theology of social tolerance to be learned, of co-existence and gradualism, of influencing public opinion and winning debates by quality of argument. The Church will have to become more open and accessible.
Above all, however, the Catholic Church will have to operate as a truly national Church, where every hope and fear in society is reflected in its concerns. Catholicism has been remarkably success
ful at managing a life support system of its own Catholic schools, Catholic welfare services, Catholic marriage guidance, and so on. This has given it a vast resource in expertise. But now the time has come, without diluting that resource, to share that expertise. Apart from the problems afflicting the Church of England and any possible benefit that may bring to the way the Catholic Church is perceived, there is a profound unmet need for moral and spiritual guidance in the nation.
The nation is no longer looking to the established Church to meet these needs. Fairly or otherwise, there has been a widespread decline in respect for the Church of England. It is no longer held in awe because of its special relationship with the Royal Family, in view of the state of that institution. It is no longer thought an advantage to be under Parliamentary control, as politicians are held in less respect than ever before. The Church of England is divided and unsure of itself. Its grip on the core of Christian doctrine is slowly weakening. It is in a very considerable financial mess too.
Without rivalry or triumphalism, therefore, but in a prayerful spirit of coming to help when help is needed rather than of taking advantage of another's misfortune, the Roman Catholic Church's mission to the nation must change. It has now to shoulder a greater share of the national burden; and may yet fmd itselfas the Methodist Recorder's tribute to Cardinal Hume implied taking over the leadership.
The consequences will be profound. No longer will the Church be able to think only in terms of the needs of Catholics and Catholic interests. No betrayal of the content of Catholic doctrine will be necessary. Indeed, it is the very authority of the Church, and the firmness and clarity of its teaching, that gives Catholicism the opportunity to answer the need of the moment. People sense they have drifted too far from the certainty of moral fundamentals, and as a result they see civilisation itself beginning to be threatened by lawlessness and anarchy. The Catholic Church, by being true to itself, is a beacon of hope in such a society.
The agendas of Bishops' Conference meetings, the contents of priests' sermons, even the pages of newspapers like the Catholic Herald, will have to start reflecting that wider context. It will not be an instant change. But instead of being concerned with the specific needs of a sub-culture, the Church now has to start addressing the general needs of the whole culture. That is what is meant by a national Church. To claim this role is now the clear vocation of the Roman Catholic Church. The moment must be seized.
Clifford Langley writes a column every Friday in the Daily Telegraph.