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The Pope’s divisions

04 October 2013


HOW very strange the ways of public attention are. After all the fuss about Archbishop Welby's braggadocio over Wonga, when he promised to "compete it out of business", there was almost no coverage at all of the Church Commissioners' investment in a bank that might actually, in some small way, hope to do this.

I am trying to think why this should be. One answer is, of course, the party-conference season. Anyone with a serious interest in politics will be concentrating there, and on personalities, not on policies. The question that political hacks answer is very seldom "What should the Government do?" but "What should, or will, such and such a politician do?"

Since the Archbishop is not a politician, and does not move in those circles at all, his moves and those of the Church Commissioners are simply irrelevant.

Another point is that this was not a policy that could, or should, be personalised. That makes it very hard to sell to newsdesks. "Welby defies Wonga" makes a headline and suggests a story that readers can understand. "Church Commissioners to take stake in possibly slightly less unethical bank than all the others" does not quicken the pulses.

The fact that the second story is more or less true, and the first, at best, misleading has no bearing on their relative power.

HOW much easier and more satisfying, at least in some ways, to be the Pope. I am writing before the outcome of his countercuria commission has been announced. But it is already clear that this is going to be a return to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, although in a very different and less authoritarian world, where what goes on in Rome matters much less to the rest of the Roman Catholic world.

Although Pope Francis has not changed any doctrine - and in the way of things will never admit to doing so - the change in tone has been remarkable.

Andrew Sullivan, writing in The Sunday Times, was in no doubt: Pope Francis "hasn't come out for female priests, or gay relationships. He has not shifted on contraception; he has barely mentioned the child rape and abuse horrors that, more than anything else, have robbed the Catholic Church of moral authority in our time. . .

"I am not a seer so I cannot predict anything. But I have carefully studied the theology of Joseph Ratzinger, which dominated the core of the Church for two papacies, and it seems to me that the change is much more striking than has yet been fully absorbed. It is a stark, glaring repudiation of the past 30 years.

"Which recent Pope does the following description remind you of? 'Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal "security", those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists - they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies.' This is not a mild correction to the direction of the Church. It is a blunt, brutal rebuke."

Sullivan is writing from an American perspective, though I think he's completely right about Francis. A lovely story from Texas shows the wonderful lack of connection between theology and a talent for religious leadership. If you've got that talent - as some people clearly have - then it hardly matters what religion you lead or where.

What is clearly happening in parts of the American atheist/secularist movement as it grows is that it is being assimilated into the general pattern of American religion. They are, in other words, Americans who believe in a particular destiny for America, and like to gather in groups to contemplate the wondrousness of their country, their world, and themselves, not always in that order.

So, first, we have a Houston Chronicle story that jumps straight in at the deep end: "What is a former pastor and church planter to do after publicly declaring that he's an atheist? Mike Aus started another church.

"Aus, along with several other atheists, freethinkers and secular humanists in Houston, launched Houston Oasis, a community grounded in reason rather than revelation, celebrating the human experience as opposed to any deity. The first of these Sunday morning gatherings was held in early September and featured live music by local artists, personal testimonies, a message and time for fellowship."

I believe that in this country it is known as Fresh Expressions. It is fairly predictable that, within 20 years, the survivors will have tired of live music by local artists, impromptu testimonies, and so forth, and gone in for a robed choir and the BCP.

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