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Squaring up to the traditionalists

12 February 2009

Appeasing conservatives is not always the wisest course, says Paul Vallely

Here we go again. So am I thinking about the Pope and his de-excommunica­tion of the four Lefebvrist bishops? Or about the synod vote on what to do about women bishops? Actually, I have been prompted to think about both, and the rela­tionship between them, by a revealing series of items on Radio 4’s Sunday programme last weekend.

It has been easy to ridicule the Rt Revd Richard Williamson, the Holocaust-denying bishop, who is at the centre of the latest papal blunder (News, 30 January). In addition to his recidivist views on Jews — enemies of Christ, plotters of world domination to prepare the Anti-Christ’s throne in Jerusalem, and the rest — there is a wide range of wacky Williamsonisms. These include the idea that 9/11 was staged by the US government, that women should not be allowed into universities or wear trousers, and that Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music elevates selfish romance above authority and rules.

But what the report by Sunday showed was that the pernicious underbelly of the parishes of the Society of St Pius X, which Marcel Lefebvre founded in fierce opposition to the Second Vatican Council, is not confined to one man. Behind what purports to be solely a love for the liturgy and doctrine of the Latin mass lies a deep-rooted ultra-rightist politics, which meant that the BBC reporter could find only a single parish­ioner prepared to accept that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz.

Central, of course, to the Vatican II documents that the Lefebvrists refuse to accept is the declara­tion Nostra Aetate, which stated that the Church “rejects nothing that is true and holy” in other religions, thus reversing nearly two millennia of Christian anti-Semitism.

Immediately after this news item was one about a row between two factions of the Russian Orthodox Church in the UK, where again the dispute was primarily cultural and political. Adherents of an Orthodoxy that had taken on decidedly Western tones under the tutelage of the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom had been pushed out of the cathedral by the bullying behaviour of the large influx of new Russians who came to London in the years after perestroika.

The new arrivals told the old congregation, many of whom were English converts, that the style of worship should shift to the traditionalist practices that were undergoing revival in the Church in post-Communist Russia. The converts had responded with polite and diffident English understatement, and were, metaphorically and literally, elbowed aside by the heavy-handed incomers.

What they had failed to do — as had the large majority of mainstream Roman Catholics in post-Lefebvrist France, according to the French sociologist Fr Nicolas de Bremond d’Ars — was to face down their opponents when they had the opportunity. The result was that the mind of the Church — which is expressed in decisions prayer­fully arrived at through conciliar and synodical structures, and endorsed by the sensus fidelium of the people in the pews — was being confounded, resiled from, and undermined.

In Rome the revisionists have friends in high places. Pope Benedict XVI sees dangers for the Church in modern thought and lifestyles. He has used the rehabilitation of the schismatic con­serva­tives, whose doubts on ecumenism and relations between the faiths he shares. Moscow, under its new hard-line leader, Patriarch Kirill, who believes that the interests of the Church and the state are one, is attempting something similar, though he seems more motivated by political power than by theological purity.

There is perhaps a lesson in all that for those in the Church of England faced with the dilemma of how to press ahead with the ordination of women bishops without alienating the traditionalists. Sometimes appeasing those who cannot accept the mind of the Church is only storing up trouble for the future.

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