Press Column

This column has no principles. I cannot even boast with Groucho Marx that "These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others." But I suppose there it has policies, such as not discussing the religious press. But these, to, are negotiable when two Tablet writers, Margaret Hebblethwaite and Clifford Longley, appear in two great national newspapers, both expounding the Arcic agreement, but in completely different ways? What is more, both disagreed with Mark Santer, who, as co-Chairman of Arcic might be supposed to have an informed opinion on what the document says.

The Times , as Clifford Longley rather snarkily pointed out, was not enlightening. It carried only one paragraph in the News in Brief section to a document he thought was "amazing, not something anybody would have dared to predict 25 years ago." To him, it was a turning point in the story of the nation: "The Great Issue, around which so much of English history has so painfully turned these past five years, seems to be over — and not with a bang, but a whimper."

He saw it as a complete surrender of "No Popery, the vestigial religion of the English." According to him, the Arcic report "urged the Church of England and other parts of the Anglican Communion to accept forthwith a supervisory role for the Pope in their own affairs. And in due course, inevitably, Anglicans and Roman Catholics would by in full communion.". But on the same day, in the same paper, there was a letter from Mark Santer denying that he had urged any such thing, or that, if he had, he expected anyone to take any notice: "Your headline, ‘Churches agree that Pope has overall authority’ was seriously misleading. The agreed statement is a report to the churches not a statement of agreement by the churches. Whether it is accepted and in what terms, is a matter for a long period of reflection by both Churches. The statement could not possibly assert that the ‘Pope has overall authority’, a manifestly present state of disunity between divided Churches."

Any news editor looking at this would have seen at once that nothing will happen. And when Longley lists the things that are meant to result form this historic document, the news editor seems right. I have inserted his annotations in square brackets.. "Joint action straight away [inaction]; international collaboration [if anything must happen, let it be abroad], the first event to take place in Canada next spring [Isn’t there another province we could use? Martinique?]; joint decision-making by the local leaders of both Churches in every place where they co-exist [shall we have another bottle?], with each Anglican or Roman Catholic body of bishops sharing its ministry with the other" The only thing to disturb this equable prospect is his last item "joint ad limina visits to the Pope to report on local conditions". But I suppose there is no reason in principle why Anglican bishops as well as Roman Catholic ones should not go to Rome to be informed about local conditions. It seems to happen every time an Archbishop of Canterbury goes there.

None the less, Longley’s account does seem rather more exciting than Mark Santer’s. Is there any way to reconcile the two? And here is where Margaret Hebblethwaite, writing in the Guardian, casts more light on the matter. In a remarkably Anglican gesture, she contrives to agree with both men, and, in the process, make both look wrong. Her take on the wording of the document is Longley’s, expressed more directly: "Everything most obnoxious to Anglicans about the catholic view of authority is here. The right and duty of the Bishop of Rome to make solemn definitions of the faith is commended … the Anglicans of ARCIC now profess themselves ready to accept papal authority even before Rome is ready to recognise them as part of the Catholic church. They ‘propose that such a primacy could be offered and received even before our churches are in full communion.’"

This does indeed sound worth a lot more than one paragraph. But then Hebblethwaite goes on to play a neat judo trick on the story, using its own strength to tumble it in a heap: "As for the Catholic Church’s claims to infallible authority … Anglicans, too, have infallibility no, it seems. Bishops may ‘come top a judgement which, being fairthful to scripture and consistent with apostolic tradition, is preserved from error.,’ Arcic even says this means teaching ‘infallibly’." But, as she goes on to point out, this is a completely worthless assurance, since Apostolicae Curiae stil stands. "Clearly, for Roman eyes, what the Arcic agreement says about bishops does not apply to Anglican bishops because they are not really bishops at all. Both sides can agree on a teaching about bishops, sign it, and go away drawing different conclusions…. Everyone can smile and shake hands, and go on exactly as before."

Though it is a terrible thing to disagree with Dr Longley, I think that his colleague (and the news editor of the Times) have made their point well enough. The document changes nothing. Yet he is surely right in the wider picture. Anti-Catholicism really has vanished from this country, and see the proof of this, we need only follow Francis Wheen’s Guardian column to Dr Ian Paisley’s web site and see how strangely it reads. There, we are assured that we have all been hoodwinked into supporting the Pope’s war against Serbia: "in a campaign reminiscent of the Nazi propaganda machine of Goebbels, the Vatican-infiltrated media have distorted and manipulated the facts … Clinton and Blair have become the executors of Vatican policy worldwide." That explains everything, of course, except how come the well-oiled Vatican propaganda machine has never managed to infiltrate the Tablet.

You would not have supposed that this

. And I have to say that "supervisory role" is not a phrase I would want to try and get past the General Synod or even the Archbishops’ Council.

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