“I have a feeling the Pope pinched Jesus from me and moved him into the Vatican.” These words were spoken recently in my church — though not by me. They came from one of my political heroes, Tony Benn. His complaint about the Pope was that he uses Jesus for power; that he believes Jesus “gives him the right to tell me if I don’t obey him I’ll rot in hell”.
This was strong stuff. And I was mildly shocked to hear such sentiments — even though I think I probably agreed with the thrust of them. I wondered why we don’t hear such things so much any more. They might be omnipresent from the nuttier Paisleyite fringes of militant Protestantism. But who in the mainstream parts of the Church of England would publicly have a go at the Pope like this? Not many, I suggest. Yet Rome has never felt so distant.
Last week, I debated unification with Rome with an old sparring partner of mine, Fr Peter Newby, from the twin pulpits of St Mary-le-Bow in the City of London. Fr Newby is Parish Priest of St Mary Moorfields RC church in London. It was a lively exchange, Fr Newby interpreting Jesus’s call for us all to be one as a call for us all to become Roman Catholics.
I forget how insulted I am by this line until I hear it out loud. As Fr Newby went on, I found myself trying to remember the words of an old, and deeply politically incorrect hymn, which goes something like this: “We are English Catholics, O happy we shall be, when all are English Catholics and an end to Popery.” I did not share that one.
This week’s latest irritation from the Bishop of Rome was the proclamation that anyone baptised according to the Trinitarian formula “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier” would have to be baptised again using “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”. The first description of the Trinity is apparently dangerous feminist propaganda, and must be stamped out.
The people in the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission have been working for decades on drawing closer together. They have achieved precious little for their trouble. So isn’t it time to pronounce the dream of merger well and truly over? There are some for whom this remains an overriding ecumenical obligation. But they are a dwindling bunch.
I suspect that many resisted Tony Benn-like sentiments because of the way they might seem to undermine the situation in Northern Ireland. But now the peace process there has borne fruit, it is high time we reminded the Roman Church that we do not see ourselves simply as lost sheep waiting to return to the fold. The Trinity reminds us that unity and separateness can exist at the same time.