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.

 

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.