Entry from October 22, 2009

Behind the Vatican’s stunning démarche towards the Anglican communion, at least according to Damian Thompson in today’s Daily Telegraph, there are some interesting internal Catholic politics. Mr Thompson points us towards the fact that the step was taken by Pope Benedict in the absence of any consultation with the English Catholic bishops. Why? Because they tend to be as liberal as their Anglican counterparts, if not more so.

At a conservative estimate, about 1,000 of the Church of England”s 12,000 serving priests have seriously contemplated conversion to Rome. (Many years ago, before he was ordained, [Archbishop of Canterbury] Rowan Williams flirted with the idea himself.) When you ask them why they have not taken the plunge, the most common response is: “The English Catholic bishops are more wishy-washy and liberal than our lot.” If they become “Romans,” they have reasoned, they will no longer be able to worship God with the solemnity He deserves. On the south coast of England, in particular, Catholic bishops treat their own traditionalists with snooty disdain, and an influx of ex-Anglicans with similar tastes is the last thing they want. Which is why Pope Benedict has effectively cut his bishops out of the picture. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he made friends with High Church Anglicans; he is the first Pope in history to understand their concerns.

Not surprisingly, liberal Catholics in America are similarly sour about the prospects for more traditionalists in the church. As Ruth Gledhill of The Times writes, “a writer for the Jesuit magazine America expressed fears that some newcomers would be ‘nostalgists, anti-feminists and anti-gay bigots’” — just like those other conservative Catholics they’d like to get rid of. Some such feeling was presumably also behind The New York Times’s characterization of the Pope’s invitation as “an extraordinary bid to lure traditionalist Anglicans en masse.”

It was unclear why the Vatican made the announcement now. But it seemed a rare opportunity, audaciously executed, to capitalize on deep divisions within the Anglican Church to attract new members at a time when the Catholic Church has been trying to reinvigorate itself in Europe.

Oh, those cunning Catholics! Trying to reinvigorate themselves, are they? And with those who “spurn the idea of female and gay priests,” yet. Not, one suspects, if The New York Times has anything to say about it.

Among those who might find themselves attracted by the “lure” is the Rev. Ed Tomlinson, vicar of St Barnabas’s Church in Tunbridge Wells — a place which is a common journalistic synecdoche for traditionalism in Britain. Father Ed’s protest against being expected to officiate “at cremations where Tina Turner is played as the bodies of people with no hope of resurrection are ‘popped in the oven’” appeared by coincidence in the same day’s papers. Even in Tunbridge Wells, it seems, few people anymore want distinctively Christian funerals, even if they want a vicar presiding, and this one “wondered why he bothered as mourners listen to ear-splitting songs and bad poetry during cremations.” In the next day’s Telegraph, Liz Hunt begged to differ, saying she had once felt as the Rev. Tomlinson did but was converted by going to a service for a friend who had died prematurely and being more impressed by the playing of Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All the Time in the World,” and “What a Wonderful World” than by the hymns.

If someone had warned me beforehand. I’d have dismissed it as a corny and sentimental denouement to a life. I found the reality very different; the words and music, which Tim, an artist and musician, had loved, were a poignant reminder of his warmth, humour, and passion for life. The last song in particular was blessedly comforting to his wife, daughter and son, conveying the message that his life, although cut short, had been a good one.

Could the difference between her previous feelings and the new ones, I wonder, really be one of the difference between public and private? The examples of pop music at funerals that she didn’t like were the U2 number played at the funeral of two murdered girls much in the news and Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” at the funeral of Princess Diana, which suggests that it is the presence of strangers at a funeral which heightens the need for the dignity and distance of public music. Popular music is essentially private and intimate because it deals with private and intimate feelings. The liturgy that we tradition-minded “nostalgists” value was designed precisely to make a public and universal response to a private and intense feeling, namely that of grief. In a way, it is a symbol to the survivors of the resurrection, when God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes. The real nostalgists are those who shun the liturgy for the warm feelings associated with “What a Wonderful World.”

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