I wrote this piece for the Irish Daily Mail way back in 2007. I joined the Church of Ireland at the age of 21, having been brought up by very devout Roman Catholic parents and educated, up to a point, by Jesuits. My parents were not pleased, but took it on the chin. The Jesuits didn't express an opinion.
It’s almost a quarter of a century since I gave up on the Roman Catholic church into which I had been born and signed up as an Anglican.
The reasons for this decision were probably less complex than I thought at the time. The fuse had been lit when my mother, a wonderful woman whom I loved deeply, asked me (rhetorically) when I was 14 "Who are you to disagree with the Magisterium of the Church?"
By the time I was studying the Reformation at school, I had decided which "side" I was on. I couldn't understand the need for celibacy, was astonished that people should have their sex lives ruled by unmarried men and, much as I was enthralled by the Sistine Chapel, failed to fathom how Jesus Christ could have founded a very rich and power-obsessed Church.
Despite the many flaws in the Anglican Communion - and they are legion - it seemed like a good idea at the time to make the switch and I’m still a member of the Church of Ireland, albeit not a very ardent one; but I long ago abandoned the notion that any organisation, religious or not, has got it right. There are times when I’m more comfortable with Buddhism or Quakerism than with Anglicanism.
And so, I’m neither bothered nor surprised that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a group of celibate men appointed by the Pope, has announced, yet again, that the reformed churches, such as the Church of Ireland, are not actually churches at all but mere “ecclesial communities”. Like voluntary prayer groups, I suppose.
This is because, according to the Vatican, we poor Anglicans (and Methodists and Presbyterians and so on) don’t have the benefit of apostolic succession. The Roman Catholic church is the only real church because its clergy and hierarchy have all been ordained by bishops who in turn were ordained by other bishops all the way back to St Peter. Ordination has been handed down, generation by generation, from the rock upon which Jesus is supposed to have founded his church (if you believe that he was in the business of founding churches, which I rather doubt.)
Some of the reformed churches point out that apostolic succession is a bit of a red herring while Anglicans protest that we do actually have apostolic succession even if most of us never give it a thought. On the other hand, we get a bit tetchy when the Roman Catholic church says we don’t.
The present Pope and his rather more charismatic predecessor belong to that deeply conservative tradition that seems to overlook an awful lot of facts in order to believe that you can’t change church teaching. Because what was taught in, say 1200, could not possibly be wrong. The Roman Catholic church doesn’t do “wrong”.
But I wish it would make up its mind. It took away the Latin Mass and now the present Pope has given it the green light again. Limbo was fully up and running when I was a child and now it seems to have been abolished. Under Pope Paul VI Anglicanism and Methodism, for example were “sister churches” but now “cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called ‘churches’ in the proper sense”. So, if you believe the Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Paul VI – not a wacky liberal if I remember correctly – was in pretty serious error.
What bothers me about all this is not the breathtakingly arrogant assumption of superiority – especially when you consider some of the less wholesome episodes in the history of the Roman Catholic church – but the sheer rudeness. It comes out of the same blundering, tactless school of Roman Catholic thought (or teaching if you prefer) that lead Archbishop Connell of Dublin to describe the Eucharist that President McAleese shared in at Christ Church Cathedral as “a sham”.
At the risk of sounding like an American evangelical (from whom Heaven preserve us) it might be a good idea for everyone to stand back and ask “What would Jesus do?” Gratuitously insult your fellow Christians? I don’t think so.
While the Vatican was doing so, something inspiring was happening in the Church of Ireland Cathedral of St Patrick in Dublin. Dr Alan Harper, the Primate, installed two non-Anglican clergy as Canons of the Cathedral, the Roman Catholic theologian Professor Enda McDonagh and the former Methodist leader Ken Newell. In Dr Harper’s sermon he referred to division among the people of God as “a permanent scar on the body that is Christ’s”.
Dr Harper added “we…recognise that, in placing them here as part of the capitular body of the national cathedral, as a church we are incomplete without them.”
So, who decided to appoint two non-Anglicans as canons of St Patrick’s, notwithstanding all the “arcane theological and doctrinal disagreements”, as Dr Harper called them, between the churches?
It was the General Synod of the Church of Ireland, the body that represents all Irish Anglicans, that did so. Unanimously.
Of course this hugely significant event will get very little exposure compared to the Vatican’s effectively saying “sorry, but there’s only one true church and that’s us. Christian unity is highly desirable and as soon as all of you guys accept that we’re right and you’re wrong, that’s what we’ll have.”
Of course, it was put in rather more elegant language but I’m afraid this is what it boils down to: “we are not only superior, we are the only real church.”
It is, of course, some consolation that most of us, Roman Catholic, Anglican, whatever, are unlikely to pay a great deal attention to what these elderly bachelors in Rome are saying. We are probably more concerned with trying to forge a system of belief that sits comfortably with the 21st century, with our natural and healthy scepticism and the fact that so much of the Bible is…let’s be honest here…just plain weird.
The Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu enchanted me when he was talking about dying (he was very ill at the time but thankfully has recovered) and how he looked forward to being reunited with many friends in heaven. He was confident of getting there because, he said, “God has very low standards”.
In a recent interview in The Irish Times, Tutu said “God is not a Christian” because if he was, “he would be a very small God. If God is Christian, what was he before Christianity?”
One wonders what the Vatican would make of that? The Vatican’s God is a very cranky God, a very legalistic and unyielding God, and a God that is frankly not really interested in the spirit but in the letter. One can’t help thinking that the Vatican’s God, in the words of Monty Python, gets quite irate when Anglicans take Roman Catholic communion and vice versa.
Perhaps it all comes from the notion of an all powerful, conquering king of a God. If God exists, you can be sure it is in a way that we mere humans find very hard to grasp.
I like to believe, in so far as I can, in a weak God, a non-interventionist God, a God that is in every living person.
During World War II a Lutheran pastor was imprisoned in a German concentration camp when a boy tried to escape through the barbed wire fence. There was a burst of machine gun fire and his young body hung there lifeless. Another prisoner turned to the pastor and asked, bitterly, “where is your God now?”
And the pastor pointed to the dead boy and said “there.”
That kind of God is not concerned with apostolic succession or leglastic niceties or arcane theological arguments. That kind of God, one suspects, is concerned solely with love.