Act of supremacy

Does the Pope really care if he snubs Rowan Williams?

"The Pope -- how many divisions does he have?" is the dismissive question Stalin is said to have asked an adviser. An awful lot more than the Archbishop of Canterbury, is the answer that comes to mind after Rowan Williams's brief audience with the pontiff in Rome this weekend. The Pope may have given Dr Williams a pectoral cross, which, as Ruth Gledhill noted in the Times, was "an indication that he recognises his episcopacy -- in spite of a 19th-century papal bull under which Anglican orders are deemed 'absolutely null and utterly void' ", but the meeting was very short -- only 20 minutes -- and the Archbishop's claim that the Pope was "extremely enthusiastic about the next stage in ecumenical dialogue" seemed a little hollow, given that the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales is now setting up a "task force" to welcome what it assumes will be tens of thousands of disaffected Anglicans.

Dr Williams gave an interview to the Financial Times on Saturday, in which the writer noted that he is "the senior bishop of the 77 million-strong Anglican Communion". I think this was expected to convey what a large number of followers he leads. What struck me, however, was how small the figure was. The population of Britain is expected to reach that number this century, but this is a total for Anglicans worldwide. Compare that with well over a billion Catholics who, moreover, follow what the philosopher Daniel Dennett would call a more "costly" faith -- that is to say, one that makes greater requirements of its adherents. And as he noted in his 2006 book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon: "The more you have invested in your religion, the more you will be motivated to protect that investment."

Everyone is always in favour of ecumenism. Who wouldn't be? Isn't it all about seeing what people have in common, being friendly, coming together -- no doubt "very prayerfully"? But in this case it is difficult to see what Anglicans stand to gain from such an approach, which seems overwhelmingly one-sided. And there will always be the thought for Catholics, perhaps not stated, but still present, somewhere at the back of the mind, that the ultimate goal of ecumenism with Anglicans is for the Church of England to return to Rome. Only two years ago, after all, the Vatican produced a document in which it said that Protestant and Orthodox faiths were "not proper churches".

This caused some (understandable) embarrassment and indignation to those busy with ecumenical projects. But I rather enjoyed the more forthright response of the Rev David Phillips, general secretary of the Church Society:

"We are grateful that the Vatican has once again been honest in declaring their view that the Church of England is not a proper Church. Too much dialogue proceeds without such honesty," he said. "In their view . . . to be a true church one has to accept the ludicrous idea that the Pope is in some special way the successor of the apostle Peter and the supreme earthly leader of the Church. These claims cannot be justified, biblically, or historically, yet they have been used not only to divide Christians, but to persecute them and put them to death."

Not very diplomatic, but he made his point. In contrast, a couple of weeks ago I attended a seminar Dr Williams gave at the Royal Society of Arts in conjunction with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. The Archbishop was eloquent, erudite, humble and inspiring. But perhaps he should take heed of his own words. At one point he defined "disagreement" as being "the willingness to have arguments with respect". Pectoral cross or not, it doesn't sound to me as though Dr Williams and his church are getting much in the way of respect from the current Pope. In which case, making a rather firmer statement of "disagreement" might not be a bad idea.

We may not be talking about divisions yet, but Pope Benedict's tanks are clearly parked on the lawns at Lambeth Palace. His Grace shouldn't let his natural politeness stop him demanding their removal.

 

Sign up to the New Statesman newsletter and receive weekly updates from the team

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Getty
Show Hide image

The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.