Was the reformation a mistake?
A debate on whether England should return to the bosom of the pope raised ancient Protestant hackles
There is a kind of upper class Roman Catholic whose smugness makes his face shiny, like a coat of aspic; such men were out in force at last night’s Spectator debate on whether England should return to being a Catholic country. Almost the men who did not wear a dog collar had on ties; the only man I saw who rose to speak in an open-neck shirt and pullover turned out to be a priest in mufti. The women were dressed with quiet elegance and not wearing their best pearls. I suppose if you ask for Catholics willing to spend £30 a ticket on a debate between a Cardinal, an abbot, an Anglican bishop, and three lay people, this is the crowd you must expect. But it was big: there were 700 people filling the International Geographical Society building in Kensington.
What I had not expected was one of the most fiery and uncompromising Protestant sermons I have ever heard, preached not by the former bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries, but by the atheist Matthew Parris. It was so good that I sat through most of it too spellbound to take proper notes. He was, he said
“An irreconcilable atheist who is beginning to bore himself … so … I would like to mount my case from inside the Christian tradition. I love the Christian tradition. It made me, it absorbed me. I have studied it all my life. That Jesus Christ was under one immense central misapprehension — that he was the son of god — cannot for me [diminish his attraction].”
But, he said, the Jesus of the gospels had absolutely nothing to do with the Church of Rome.
“If Jesus had not existed, the Catholic church would never have invented him. Jesus of Nazareth is a colossal embarrassment to the Catholic church … The Roman Catholic church tell us to bow our heads, to take orders,and to be afraid … Rome stands between the individual and the sky, blocking the light.”
I don’t know how much of this was prepared, and how much sprang from the experience of listening to the previous speaker, the novelist Piers Paul Read, expounding the excellence of Catholic sexual ethics (which would make Matthew “intrinsically disordered” and the practitioner of an objective moral evil.) It was notable that Read, the layman, was much the most uncompromising, and “religious” of the Catholic speakers. Cardinal Cormac was as usual, melancholy, gentle, and doctrinally liberal. He seemed to look forward to women priests in some future millennium: “If there were no theological objections, then of course it should be done”. Dom Anthony Sutch, the former headmaster of Downside, had comfortable laughter billowing round him like his cassock from the moment he stood up to speak, and half the audience members who spoke afterwards seemed to have been his pupils.
Lord Harries, who seemed uncharacteristically nervous, stumbling among his sentences like a man walking on scree, tried to keep the discussion on a reasonably elevated level, pointing out the superiority of Anglican realism about sexual ethics. The third notionally anti-Catholic speaker was himself a Catholic, and an MP, Stephen Pound, and seemed bewildered as to what he might possibly have to say against his own church.
Under the circumstances, it was surprising that the motion passed as narrowly as it did, and with as many “don’t knows”.
Though these debates tell us nothing about real public opinion, there were two things I learned from it. The first, an old lesson which one constantly forgets, is the simple power of atavistic tribalism in theological debate. I don’t suppose I more than half agreed with Matthew Parris about the facts of the mediaeval church. But in a room where both he and I seemed members of a scorned minority, and where he was also clearly actuated as much by love of Jesus as by hatred of the pope, I was entirely on his side. I wanted him to tear the aspic of smugness from their superior faces. Not until I reached the tube station half an hour afterwards, when I saw a Catholic friend (one horribly mocked at times by other Catholics for being unfashionable), and talked to her about the debate did I realise that it had felt to them like someone clawing at their naked cheeks.
The second point was much more trivial. In all this debate about how the Catholic Church could or should take over from the Church of England, no one mentioned even once the “ordinariates”. Weren’t they going to lead to the reconversion of England?