Damian Thompson writes:
- The Pope in Westminster Hall
- How odd that it should be the Guardian that grasped the magnitude of what happened yesterday. Andrew Brown, religion editor of Comment is Free, and the possessor of an intellect as mighty and muddled as that of Rowan Williams, writes:
- This was the end of the British Empire. In all the four centuries from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II, England has been defined as a Protestant nation. The Catholics were the Other; sometimes violent terrorists and rebels, sometimes merely dirty immigrants. The sense that this was a nation specially blessed by God arose from a deeply anti-Catholic reading of the Bible. Yet it was central to English self-understanding when Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1952 [sic], and swore to uphold the Protestant religion by law established.
- For all of those 400 or so years it would have been unthinkable that a pope should stand in Westminster Hall and praise Sir Thomas More, who died to defend the pope’s sovereignty against the king’s. Rebellion against the pope was the foundational act of English power. And now the power is gone, and perhaps the rebellion has gone, too.
- This was indeed a day of unthinkable events. Many Protestants will have been disturbed to see Pope Benedict XVI in Westminster Hall praising St Thomas More (who incidentally died to defend what he saw as the sovereignty of God). I don’t agree, however, that rebellion against the Pope was the “foundational act of English power”. Brown is a Left-wing agnostic whom one would expect to be suspicious of a national myth; but here we go again – we’re told that England discovered its identity as a result ofthe Reformation. Actually, English industry and culture flourished under the spiritual patronage of Rome; if the country had remained Catholic, they would have continued to do so. (In Germany, cities that remained Catholic were as prosperous as those that become Protestant.)
- Indeed, if you want evidence of the self-confidence of our Catholic national identity, look no further than Westminster Abbey and Westminster Hall. For at least the first 500 years of its existence – we can’t be sure when it was founded – the Abbey was obedient to Benedict’s predecessors. So for the Pope to enter it today was an affirmation of its own “foundational act”. Not for nothing did he point out in his address that the church was dedicated to St Peter. Even Catholics who would never be so crude as to say “the Abbey belongs to us, not to you” sensed that history was being re-balanced in some way. They realised that the Pope had as much right to sit in that sanctuary as the Archbishop of Canterbury (who, to be fair, showed the Holy Father a degree of respect that implied that he, at least, recognises the spiritual primacy of the See of Peter even if he rejects some of its teachings).
- Of course I’m not denying that for centuries anti-Catholicism was central to English self-understanding, even if it took nearly a century of harrassment and persecution to suppress the old religion. And there are still pockets of intense hatred of Rome in English society today. The difference is that the only anti-Catholics with influence are secularists who aren’t interested enough in the papal claims even to find out what they are. (I’m thinking of Peter Tatchell’s amazingly ignorant Channel 4 documentary.) They hate religion and they pick on Catholics because they’re the softest target. Protestant anti-Catholics, in contrast, don’t have mates in the media or useful allies in the Church of England. All they can do is watch in horror as the Pope of Rome processes into the church where Protestant monarchs are crowned, declares unambigously that he is the successor of St Peter with responsibility for the unity of Christendom, and then walks out again – to hearty applause.
- To be honest, I’m still not quite sure what to make of it all myself. Benedict XVI’s speeches are worth reading several times; they often turn out to be more radical than they first appear. But one thing is for sure. Despite the unassuming courtesy of the Pope’s manner, he didn’t give an inch.