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The Church that lost its spirit - by Theo Hobson

The Church that lost its spirit

By Theo Hobson
The London Times

May 7, 2005

As the new papacy reaffirms Catholic dogma, why is the Anglican Church so lily-livered

Was it any surprise that the recent events in Rome eclipsed a royal wedding and a general election campaign? We love a spectacle. And the swarms drawn to the ancient rituals in the Eternal City made better viewing than politicians fiddling with figures, or a brief and Englishly awkward congregation at Windsor. A scene from Gladiator was taking place, in real life - who wouldn't want to watch that?

Nor was I surprised by the general reverence of the press. For about a decade the overwhelming majority of religious comment has come from Roman Catholics. One can instantly think of a large handful of Catholic columnists (Paul Johnson, Charles Moore, Libby Purves, Christina Odone, William Rees-Mogg) - can you name a single one who is noticeably Anglican? There are also plenty of dogmatic atheist columnists, of course, and their daring disbelief has been on display.

But I have come across no papal punditry that was Protestant in motivation. A Martian reading the cuttings would conclude that Britain was split between Roman Catholicism and atheism. And would he be so wrong? In fact, our Martian might have noticed that there is another Church, a national one. But he would have concluded that it is a sort of vassal-Church to Rome. For this Church deferred a major ceremony so that its spiritual and temporal leaders could pay homage to the Pope. They surely felt constrained by a superior spiritual authority, beyond their native Church. That Friday, the Church of England effectively admitted that it is just a weak version of Rome's strong spiritual medicine.

Let us remind ourselves of some simple historical facts, once known to schoolboys. Our established Church is a Protestant church. Not only does it reject the Pope's religious authority; it originates in such a rejection. It is strange to have to say something so obvious, but this was the point of Protestantism: it believed that Roman Catholicism was erroneous, that it got the good news of Christianity wrong and turned it into bad news. In other words, strange to say, Protestants used to believe that their religion was superior to Roman Catholicism, that papal authority was spurious, a dangerous illusion. They angrily denounced it, with the sort of indignation that someone such as Polly Toynbee shows today.

The idea that Anglicanism is a superior form of Christianity to Roman Catholicism is extinct. No senior cleric of the Church of England, no Oxbridge theologian, would say such a thing. They would not say what all Anglicans once assumed: that Rome is a force of reaction, that it is politically backward. It is no longer acceptable for a public figure to say this. Ask Adrian Hilton, who until recently was the Tory candidate for Slough. The party sacked him when The Catholic Herald pointed out that he had written an article which - shock, horror - defended the British constitution, arguing that the exclusion of Catholics from the throne was justified. Such blatant Romophobia is no longer tolerated. It is telling, and sort of funny, that his cause has been taken up by the chivalrous Charles Moore - there are no Protestant pundits left to do so.

How did our de-Protestantisation come about? A major factor is the steady Catholicisation of the Church of England. Since the last war, most archbishops of Canterbury have been big fans of Rome, and the couple of evangelical primates (Coggan, Carey) did not feel at liberty to express any dissent from the mounting assumption of Rome's superiority. And for decades academic Anglican theology has been dominated by Anglo-Catholics, more likely to be reading Aquinas or von Balthasar than Luther or Karl Barth. Both trends are illustrated by Rowan Williams, of course.

The part of Anglicanism that was antagonistic to Roman Catholicism can now be presented as a nasty habit that we have thankfully outgrown, like cock-fighting or snuff. Surely this is a cause for ecumenical celebration? No: it is only Catholics who ought to celebrate this failure of Protestant nerve. When Protestantism loses the will to denounce the parent-faith, it loses the will to live. Protestantism, when it is healthy, considers itself more modern, more liberating, more enlightening than Roman Catholicism. That was what defined Protestantism, the burning conviction that it stood for freedom and truth whereas the old faith stood for tyranny and falsehood. Protestantism, having lost this conviction, is over.

Some readers will at this point wonder whether I remember last year's US election, in which Protestant Christianity seemed to be the strongest religious force in world politics. But American Christianity has lost any real Protestant-Catholic split. The denominations have united against secularism. Roman Catholicism is no longer feared by the average evangelical, as a threat to the American way. It is admired as a crucial bulwark against the secular way. Should not all Christians be glad that the old denominational foes have found common cause in opposing secularism? No: Protestantism is not meant to oppose secularism with the bluntness of Catholicism. It is meant to affirm secular freedom, and to oppose authoritarianism in both religion and politics, and that means affirming secularism. Protestantism has a unique ability to reconcile Christianity and secular values. When it cosies up to Catholicism, it abandons this task.

Secularism was a Protestant invention. Contemporary public discourse about religion, whether for or against, is strikingly ignorant of this crucial paradox. By opposing the logic of Roman Catholicism, Protestantism gave rise to political modernity. Liberal Protestantism spanned the modern period, defined the modern period, conferred upon it its soul. Let us pluck two names from the hat: it unites Milton and Gladstone. To both men, Protestantism implied a progressive historical vision: God wills the enlargement of human freedom, the historical liberation of humanity. Both believed that Roman Catholicism obscured the Gospel's freedom-loving character. And both believed that atheism led to a new sort of tyranny. The narrow way to human freedom was Protestant.

Protestantism has abandoned its unique feature: its love of freedom, and its insistence that Christianity is incompatible with authoritarianism. It has copied the logic of Catholicism: the faithful Church must stand against the evil secular world. It has nothing to say to reactionary Romanism, no word of judgment. It is lost in admiration. When Protestantism no longer sees Roman Catholicism as an authoritarian corruption of the Christian Gospel that must be sternly denounced, it is redundant, dead.

--Theo Hobson is author of Anarchy, Church and Utopia: Rowan Williams on the Church (DLT)

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