THIS YEAR I DREAMT of a white Christmas, somewhere on the Steppes beyond the Ukraine. There at least, I could stop worrying about the Roman option, the marriage of Prince Charles, and the opinions of the Bishop of Durham. But hark! The deep and snowbound peace was broken, first by the wild ululations of the wolves, and then, behind them, by the still wilder ululations of Paul Johnson.
"As the Anglicans begin to come over, led by the most devout and conscientious of their clergy, it is entirely right and natural that we should lift up our voices to God in gratitude. If ever there was an occasion for a radiant and public Te Deum, this is it."
Even from half way across the world, this looks an unlikely prospect. From close up, it is just ridiculous. The dream that thousands of Anglican laity will suddenly march down Ambrosden Avenue may be common among Catholic journalists. It certainly sells newspapers. It gratifies all sorts of deep-seated social insecurities. But it takes no account of who the Anglican laity actually are. They are people of many sorts, from every sector of the middle classes, with only one great link: that they do not want to become Roman Catholics.
For priests, the matter is different. They may want to become Roman Catholics, but feel unable to do so for financial reasons, or because they cannot leave their flocks. It is perfectly possible to imagine a disaffected priest, who wishes he were in a different communion, but feels tied by his earthly circumstances. It is even possible to believe that hundreds are planning in secret to leave, and will actually carry out these plans whenever they feel that to do so will cause maximum disruption to the Church of England, and maximise their own financial gain.
That is what several of
their leaders assure me is happening, and who am I to doubt such godly men? But I cannot imagine a layman acting in such a way. They stay Anglicans because they believe that Anglicanism is the most Christian form of Christianity. I cannot forget how my wife started shouting at the radio one Sunday morning, when the presenter was going on unctuously about some ecumenical retreat: "But I like our rift with Rome!" And most English church-going people do. Most English Catholics do, too, to be honest. The
Roman Catholic Church in England would be a much less civilised, much less English affair, were it not for the constant example and competition of the Church of England. This is perhaps a hard thing to say to the readers of the Catholic Herald, and I would not have said it without provocation. But it can do no harm for Catholics to realise just how provoking are the triumphalist cries of someone like Paul Johnson. However, I shall try to act like a Christian and pass over outrage in favour of simple, heartfelt laughter. How else is one to treat a historian who compares the "Anglican monolith" with Soviet Communism? The Church of England is about as monolithic as a model of Stonehenge in semolina.
However, I suppose that we should all take our pleasure in religious affairs where we can find it.
I can quite see how the devout might wish to concentrate upon the English religious scene, which has at least a great deal of farce to offer us when the wider world has been so unremittingly gloomy. I cannot remember a year in which religion has seemed a more destructive force around the world.
The terrible war in and around Bosnia is farmed by religious fears to a degree which we can hardly grasp. The humiliation of Russia is feeding, amongst other things, a revival of Orthodox slavophile chauvinism whose consequences do not bear thinking about. Fourteen of the 20 monasteries on Mount Athos are once more teaching that the papacy is the Antichrist of Revelation. All down the borders of the old Polish Empire, in Belarus and in the Ukraine, the Roman Catholic and Uniate Churches are corning into conflict with the Orthodox. It hardly takes a prophet to see that soon people will be killed as a result.
Meanwhile, despised and feared by both sides, the Protestants are burrowing away. Eastern or Orthodox Europe was hardly troubled by the Reformation in the 16th century. It was then a reaction against Catholicism. But now it has spread to Eastern Europe. Backed by American money, but led by the faith of innumerable ordinary people, Protestantism is spreading across Eastern Europe today as once it spread across the West.
The consequences may well be as noble there and now as they were here and then. They may also be as bloody. The Establishment of the Church of England means very little nowadays, beyond a vague attachment of the nation to the broadest Christian norms.
But the Orthodox Churches of the East are now returning to primitive idea of nationality, where you can only be citizen if you belong to the State Church. That way lie madness and infinite cruelty.
No wonder a historian in search of Christmas cheer prefers to fantasise about an English future. t