When the Pope issued his invitation to disaffected Anglicans to cross the Tiber and bolster ‘the true Church’, it was hardly surprising that there was an explosion of interest. It will be interesting to see what happens and how it looks as the days, weeks and months go by.
In an interview with a journalist the other day I was asked what the problem was with the Archbishop of Canterbury (and everyone else, it seems) getting only two weeks notice of what was planned by the Vatican. After all, she said, two weeks is a lifetime in businesses where things move fast and judgements have to be made on the hoof.
I replied that although the media might be driven to make instant judgements – even before the facts are known and considered reflection can be given – in the church we generally take years, decades and centuries. I wasn’t being funny – nor was I being critical of the media who have no option but to act quickly these days. That is why the Archbishop of Canterbury once said to me that just because someone puts a microphone in front of your face doesn’t mean that you have to speak into it. Sometimes we need to hold our nerve, keep shtum and wait until the smoke begins to clear and our perspective has a bit more credibility.
So, I was delighted to read the great Diarmaid MacCulloch in yesterday’s Observer offering a wider perspective from the point of view of an expert in ecclesiastical history who is no longer a paid-up member of the Church of England (or even the Christian club). He says:
Equally extravagant claims that this could be the end of the Protestant Reformation need to be taken with several fontfuls of salt. It is in the interests of various discontented groups on the margins of Anglicanism to talk up the significance of the latest piece of papal theatre, while ignoring its wider context.
He then goes on to analyse briefly some of the issues going on in this debate and concludes:
In one sense, this is a storm in a teacup, stirred by an elderly cleric in the Vatican with a private agenda and a track record of ill-thought-out policy moves. In another, it is a fascinating moment in a confrontation as much a struggle for the soul of the Church of Rome as of the Church of England. Once we have got past the screaming headlines, we should keep an eye open for the real story.
Perhaps it is no surprise that MacCulloch (Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University) shone new light on the Reformation in his magisterial book Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700. He has now published a huge and readable A History of Christianity which also forms the basis of a Channel 4 television series starting on 5 November (which in English history was not a great day for ecumenical relations).
It is the perspective of centuries that will put this latest business into proper perspective. Perhaps a compulsory reading of MacCulloch’s book by all commentators is too much to ask?