Magazine article The Spectator

A Tale of Two Churches

Magazine article The Spectator

A Tale of Two Churches

Article excerpt

HER MAJESTY the Queen, Defender of the Protestant Faith, will next week pay a social call on a host who has prepared a hospitable welcome by denouncing her Church as `defective' and not a proper one at all. Not surprisingly, the Queen has decided to shelve her plan for some companionable joint prayers with the Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Patriarch of the West, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the City of Rome, to name but a few of his titles.

The Queen's audience with the Pope is her first visit to the Vatican since 1980, when she dressed entirely in black with a mantilla of matching lace. Now, we are reliably informed, she may wear something more colourful - even though garlic will not, in deference to the royal digestion, be served. The world has moved on, from monochrome at least. The Vatican, however, remains in the darkness.

Actually, it wasn't the Pope who dumped on the Church of England but Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who denounced every other faith and church as defective, too. To me personally, as a Jew, the Cardinal's words stirred up ancestral fears of crusades against unbelievers in the one and only faith. True, this Pope himself has spoken out against anti-Semitism and has made many conciliatory gestures towards Jews. And yet on the core issue of anti-Semitism - that the only good Jews are those who renounce Judaism and embrace Christianity - the evidence, sadly, still all points the wrong way.

This is the Pope, after all, who beatified Edith Stein because she became a Carmelite nun who perished in Auschwitz, even though she went to the gas chamber as a Jew; the Pope who proposed the beatification of Pope Pius IX despite his description of Jews as `howling dogs'; and the Pope who in 1998 produced a statement on the Holocaust which exculpated the churches of complicity in the slaughter and managed to depict anti-Semitism as somehow incidental to Christianity.

Given such alarming echoes from the past, it is perhaps understandable that a British Jew now turns in relief to the blessed Vapidities of the established Church of England. Anglicans, of course, are accused of being wishy-washy handwringers and of abdicating spiritual leadership. The Pope is admired or even envied (not least by some Anglicans) for holding the line on doctrinal authority in an age when authority itself has become a dirty word. His position on issues such as euthanasia, abortion, embryo research or homosexuality is very clear. He's against them. Sy contrast, the Archbishop of Canterbury is losing control of an institution that is imploding on all fronts, from women priests to homosexuality and a range of social issues on which the Church's equivocation has become an article of faith.

And it's paying the price in the remorseless leaching away of its congregations. Yet on this score, the Pope has little to crow about. For Catholicism is also in difficulties. Mass attendance is down, from 32 per cent of the Catholic population in 1987 to 25 per cent in 1998. The number of Catholic priests being ordained is down, from 7,021 in 1981 to 5,600 in 1998. The numbers joining the Church are down, from 5,731 in 1981 to 5,074 in 1998.

Curiously, though, this overall decline is taking place at a time when people are making it clear that their temporal institutions have not delivered the goods. There is great anxiety over the erosion of moral values, the decline of the traditional family, the growth of crime, drug-taking and pathological behaviour. People are searching for certainty, stability and security which they despair of ever getting from politicians. This religion-sized gap is surely what lies behind the crucial contribution that the evangelical Christian Right has made to George W. Bush's campaign in the American election, not to mention the transformation of Al Gore's faltering pitch by the arrival on the scene of the orthodox Jew and family values exemplar Joe Lieberman as vicepresidential candidate. …

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