By Simon Jenkins (THE GUARDIAN, 13/07/07):
This week’s declaration by the Pope that the Church of England and other denominations are “not proper churches” was strictly for addicts. Like Dr Johnson responding to Berkeley on the non-existence of matter, I was tempted to walk round to my local St Mary’s, kick a buttress and “refute it thus”. Then I remembered that Pope Benedict is a theological surrealist. His church is like Magritte’s pipe: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” He talks in riddles.
Like many atheists who love churches, I am constantly diverted by the ectoplasm of religious disputes. Anthropologists may explain that when the vicar of Bootlington Parva dresses up at the altar, gestures, chants and pretends to chew the body of Christ, he is doing what was done at Chichen Itza or the Borneo jungle for centuries past. Such antics are embedded in our cultural genes. But somehow the Pope is casting aspersions on my antics and my community. A residual theological chauvinism is aroused.
Who is this joker in Rome claiming supremacy via the greatest con in Europe’s intellectual history, the 1870 Vatican council’s invention of papal infallibility. Listen, Pope, I am inclined to say, two can play at infallibility. You are losing so many games these days that you have to keep moving the goalposts at your Lateran and Vatican councils. My lot were happy enough on Iona and Lindisfarne until your lot arrived at Canterbury and made a thorough mess of things for a millennium-and-a-half.
The Pope drew a distinction between the Orthodox churches, which he calls sisters (surely brothers?), and Protestants who lack a “sacramental priesthood … and a Eucharistic Mystery”, and whom he clearly regards as little short of pagan. First of all, this is an abuse of the word church, which is from the Teutonic circe (Scottish kirk) out of the Greek kuriakon doma, or house of the lord. The operative root is kurios, a chief or headman. This is as wide a definition of a priest, and thus of a church, as is imaginable.
If the Pope wants to try Latin, we are into ecclesia, from the Greek for assembly. This is invariably translated as a gathering or congregation of Christians, not just of those obedient to St Peter’s. Augustine himself defined the word to signify both a body of believers and the place where they met, significamus locum qui continet. In other words, there is no textual justification for Benedict’s exclusivity. It recalls the megalomania of Boniface VIII, who made such outrageous claims of supremacy that monarchs and even cardinals stopped listening, culminating in the schism of 1378 and eventually the Reformation. In saying that only Roman Catholicism is a “church”, the Pope is merely redefining the word to suit his position. He is climbing to the top of Michelangelo’s dome and beating his chest like King Kong.
Those of us brought up in the tradition of British tolerance can let this pass. Other people who wish to order their affairs, secular or spiritual, should be left to do so provided they leave us in peace – though Blair’s Britain is on weak ground here. If Islam and Shinto, Zoroastrianism and Druidism, Strict Baptists and Seventh Day Adventists want to call themselves churches, we can live with it, even if Benedict cannot.
But if there is to be a spat with Rome over what is and is not a church, the opportunity should be taken to pull a few weeds from the path of sanity. What happens in churches may not be my concern, but I respect it as useful social bond, just as I respect the parish church as an invaluable shrine to a community’s history. While Roman Catholics scurry off to their modern sheds, it is the Anglican vicar who might reasonably imitate Benedict, sit atop his gothic steeple and proclaim his to be “the one true church”. He too might demand that all others worship under his aegis, or at least under his roof. To an outsider it seems ridiculous that Britain’s so-called Christian community, even its Protestant parts, cannot bring itself to come together in one building. It is as if, like Welsh chapels, they would rather die apart than live together. Yet the present Church of England seems more likely to split into two than to join Methodists, Presbyterians and/or Catholics in one place.
Last week the prime minister announced he would no longer appoint bishops but leave it to the church authorities. Why stop there? Brown should have taken the opportunity of Wednesday’s “Queen’s speech” to bring forward the formal disestablishment of the Church of England. This need not affect the Queen as patron of the church, but a son of the manse and head of what should be a secular 21st-century government could surely sweep away the remaining statist nonsense.
That one religious denomination, with roughly the same number of weekly worshippers as the Roman Catholics and Muslims, should enjoy special legislative status under the British constitution is inexcusable. Whether Brown means to continue allowing church schools to prop up Anglican worship by offering it as a basis for de facto school selection remains to be seen. Anyone concerned for the cohesion of urban communities must deplore the revival of such religious segregation. Look what it has done for Northern Ireland.
Brown is an enthusiast for the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose “religionless Christianity” was intended to refashion belief for a new humanistic age. Bonhoeffer’s British champion, Alec Vidler, argued for continued church establishment on the grounds that it might allow the church to find a new and wider social purpose. This would be lost if it were “cleaned up and tidied up so everyone would know what it stood for”. This historical mischief might have been plausible when Vidler wrote in the 1960s but it is absurd today, with Anglicanism lost among house churches, evangelical ranters, Pentecostalists and “churchless churches” from alpha to omega. Brown should revert to Bonhoeffer, disestablish the Church of England and let Canterbury, Rome and the rest fight it out on a level field, worshipping as and where they chose.
This leaves the question of what happens to emptying parish churches, glories of provincial England – less so of Scotland and Wales – and museums of its history and humanity. If religious worship continues to disappear, they will still stand as the physical and emotional focus of their communities, places of civic congregation and ceremony. If “the church” collapses, uses will have to be found for churches. They need no lords spiritual, no appointed monarchs, orbs and sceptres. They can, and do, encompass places of worship as well as cafes and post offices, libraries and concerts, galleries and community centres. But they must be used.
I would not disestablish parish churches, rather the reverse. I would “establish” them, as in Germany and other continental countries, as the formal responsibility of parishes and municipalities, a charge on local rates and a religious and secular amenity for all local people, as in the middle ages. Everyone paid to build them. They belong to everyone and should be open to everyone. They just need the product of a penny rate to prop them up – and need it ever more desperately.