CATHERINE PEPINSTER was the lively editor of the Roman Catholic weekly The Tablet for 13 years. From that office, she had a unique view of the UK and Vatican relationships, covering news events during those years as they happened, and so also having a key to understanding the pontificates of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis.
She is also personally committed to Anglican-Roman Catholic ecumenism. This shows in her sympathetic but also realistic description of the Anglicans who play their part in this story, whether as Ambassadors to the Holy See — who are significant sources of information and opinion in this book — or Archbishops of Canterbury themselves. Moreover, it is a lively read, as befits a good journalist.
Part One sketches the complex history of Roman Catholics in Britain. Though the book is not a history of this convoluted relationship, Pepinster’s short résumé of the sociologies reminds us how ignorant many are of that turbulent history. She could have told her readers just a little more about Cardinal Consalvi and the Duke of Wellington.
There are, however, hints to further reading on the detail of earlier history, including a collection of papers presented at a colloquium in Rome in 2012 on the visit of Pope John Paul II to the UK and the restoration of full diplomatic relations with the Holy See. If you enjoy this book, there is also Britain and the Holy See (British Embassy to the Holy See/Venerable English College, 2013).
Here and throughout her account, Pepinster emphasises the centrality and importance of schools and education in British Catholic policy. She touches on the British need for diplomatic contact with the Vatican during the First World War and after, as well as the better-known story of Sir D’Arcy Osborne in the Vatican during the Second World War — see Britain and the Vatican During the Second World War by Owen Chadwick (Cambridge, 1986).
Pepinster then traces high points in relations with the British Establishment during the times of Cardinals Hume and Murphy O’Connor, but also the curiously changing and uncertain policies of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office towards the Vatican. In the words of Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the UK cannot make up its mind whether it should treat the Vatican as San Marino or China.
Particularly interesting are her comparative descriptions of the preparations for, and implementation of, the visits of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The first visit was almost cancelled because of the Falklands War, and there was continual nervousness about it not only in Protestant quarters, but also among figures such as Enoch Powell. By the second visit, such nervousness had almost disappeared, but there was liberal, humanist, and media opposition, which, amazingly, evaporated on the Pope’s actual arrival.
Part Two smoothly changes gear to look at specifics. Pepinster concentrates on the visible signs and gestures of ecumenism rather than the documents of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commissions. There is a balanced discussion of the ordination of women in the Church of England, and of the Ordinariate, and she is good on Rome’s sometimes puzzled perception of the Anglican Communion.
The Queen is significantly covered. Note the changes in style of her successive papal audiences since 1951, and the development of a multifaith UK in which the Sovereign remains Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
There follows an important and fascinating chapter on Northern Ireland and the Troubles, including Cardinal Hume and the Guildford Four. Pepinster makes use of Irish as well as British sources, and contrasts Cardinals Hume and O’Fiaich of Armagh. Scotland follows, including the falling-out of Cardinal Winning and the Prime Minister of the day, Tony Blair, over abortion. She catalogues the spectacular fall of Cardinal O’Brien, and matters to do with gay relationships, as well as the switch of Scottish Catholics from Labour to the SNP.
After reflection on the charisma of popes as world leaders, citing Eamon Duffy on popes’ not being superstars, Pepinster surveys contemporary sociological surveys and the positive relationship between the RC hierarchy and the C of E bishops, not least since Faith in the City. Grace Davie and Ronald Preston are appropriately cited. Again, Catholic educational policy looms large, as well as same-sex marriage.
If this book has a weakness, it is that many of the sources quoted are taped interviews: some questions could have been taken further from the Lambeth Palace archives. Yet Pepinster’s chosen method gives her book a directness that makes for engaged reading. Her excellent account is especially interesting on the political and diplomatic aspects. I wish that it were longer.
The Rt Revd Christopher Hill is President of the Conference of European Churches, and a former Bishop of Guildford.
The Keys and the Kingdom: The British and the Papacy from John Paul II to Francis
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