England Should be a Catholic Country again – Spectator Debate

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Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s Address at the Spectator Debate

‘England Should be a Catholic Country again’

Tuesday, March 2nd 2010

Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I am delighted to see so many of you here this evening for this great event. Not like the bishop who went to a parish for a function. There were very few people there and he was a bit annoyed. He said to the Parish Priest, Father, there are very few people here; didn’t you tell them the bishop was coming? No, my Lord, says the Parish Priest, but the news must have leaked out somehow! Well, the news of this debate has clearly leaked out and you want to know why England should be a Catholic country again.

But what is “a Catholic country”? Does it mean claiming back our historic cathedrals … and paying for their upkeep? Or is it a call for political power, where Bishops appoint the Prime Minister, rather than the other way round? If you were hoping for a good old fashioned punch-up –Protestants versus Catholics, pausing only to stop Richard Dawkins interrupting us – I am afraid you are going to be disappointed.

Most English people, if they thought about the matter at all, would probably say that, on balance, the Reformation was a good thing. The Reformation brought education, biblical truth, independent thinking and progress, therefore it was a good thing.

By the same logic, Pre-Reformation England, therefore, was bad: with corrupt and worldly prelates like Cardinal Wolesey, and an uncouth and ignorant clergy. The only signs of Christian life came from the Lollards, the Protestants who rejected the mumbo-jumbo of the sacraments, read the bible in English, so all in all, England was ready for the good news of Protestantism.

A raft of studies shows in fact that the English parish churches on the eve of the Reformation were vigorous, adaptable and popular. The laity had a wholesome piety and ready charity. The Episcopate was not corrupt and Erasmus himself thought early Tudor England the most enlightened place in Europe. And those monasteries, swept away with such zeal: along with them went the education, the medical care, and the hospitality they provided for the love of God.

My point is that the Reformation, notwithstanding its positive contribution, brought a tremendous loss to this country. It was a great hiatus. It dug a ditch, deep and dividing, between the people of this country and their past. Over-night, a millennium of Christian splendour, the world of Gregory, Bede, Anselm, Catherine of Siena, Francis, Dominic, Julian of Norwich, Bernard, Dante, all the men and women who nourished the mind and heart of Christendom for a thousand years, became alien territory, the Dark Ages of Popery.

Protestantism was founded on two affirmations about the grace of God and Salvation; the Revelation of God in Scripture. But it accompanied these affirmations with a series of negations and rejections, as it smashed the statues, white-washed the churches, denounced the Pope and the Mass. Protestantism – and its particular form here in England – became constituted by its ‘No’ to Catholicism.

In speaking of a Catholic Country, let us agree that the Reformation conflict is over. We do not need to trade history. And I for one would be the first to be grateful for so much that the Anglican Church and other Christian Churches have brought to this country that has been of such benefit over the past four hundred years.

Instead, let me give you a better starting point for our debate. Go back to the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1982. For many, the key image was the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, kneeling before the shrine of St Thomas a Becket, side by side in prayer. It was extraordinarily moving. Our two churches have already come a long way on the path back to the unity which Christ called for. And it will take more than even The Spectator to push us apart again. I am a convinced and dedicated ecumenist and I believe that the ecumenical movement is like a road with no exit. We are not in competition but in a shared endeavour. It is not a choice between the Church of England or Catholic England: it is a choice for the Church in England.

My vision is for the English Church, united with all its history and genius, is to be aligned and in communion with the billion and more Catholic Christians throughout the world, with four or five thousand bishops and in communion with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. Only last month Pope Benedict praised our ‘firm commitment to equality of opportunity for all’; he urged us to participate in national debate through ‘respectful dialogue’; and he praised our traditions of freedom of expression and honest exchange of opinion. I can live with that.

It was a privilege, too, for me to preach before Her Majesty the Queen some years back, something that just would not have happened fifty years ago. Times have changed and I am sure the Queen, or her successor, would not mind too much having a lesser say in the appointment of the Cardinal Archbishop of Canterbury.

Let me be clear, my vision for the English Church is two-fold. Firstly, that it be united with the Universal Church – Catholic means universal – and secondly to bring to the Universal Church the particular characteristics and genius of the English which would, indeed, be an enrichment for the whole Church.

So, the English Church is a Church united and strong. It is out there in the areopagus, the market place of our diminished secular society which is looking for meaning and hope. This English Church would speak to the nation of true belief, of the dignity of the human person from the beginning of life to its natural end.

It would preach a Gospel of life and truth.

It would speak of what the Church is for, not so much of what it is against.

It would speak for the poor, for the prisoner, a voice for the voiceless.

It would speak of the family, to help forge a healthy nation, and seek to defuse, as the Chief Rabbi has said, the bomb that has been put under the cement that brings life together here in our country, namely, the family. A culture that encourages sex without love, marriage without commitment, children without the stability to nurture them properly, is a culture that needs a Church in the market-place; and a voice that speaks about the place of religion in society and of God who, in Christ, shows Himself a God of forgiveness, acceptance and love.

Many secularists believe that the Church – and religion in general – is a private eccentricity; that it has no place in public life; that it must not influence the country in any way; and that it has nothing to do with a healthy society. What are they afraid of? The English Church would be a model of how to love God and our neighbour.

The English Church would continue to respect and dialogue with those who differ from us, people of other faiths, people with no faith, the agnostics and atheists. The English Church would be a strong voice, witnessing to all that is good and true. It would be a Church, sustained not only by Scripture, tradition and reason favoured by the Anglican Church but, crucially, by Scripture, tradition, reason and teaching authority. It would encapsulate that authority in teaching the truth and the beauty of the Christian faith.

I must move to close. Of course, I could have spoken about the sins, the failure of the Catholic Church in so many ways – I am sure our opponents tonight will mention them – and I am aware that the Church must always be reformed. But that is not the point. The Catholic Church, the English Church of which I speak, has a strength and an assurance that the forces of darkness will not prevail. As John Henry Newman said, it will not fail because it has been tried through the ages. An English Church, in unity together, in communion with the Universal Church, would bring the Good News and meaning to our generation and generations yet to come. It would be open to all the challenges of today, while being strong enough to resist every accommodation to the prevailing mores. Above all, it will be and should be noted for the holiness of its members, their desire to love God and to love and serve their neighbours. It would serve the Common Good.

It is in humility and with some diffidence that I speak to you this evening. The Prophet Joel said, Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions. So I have given you a vision, and I am an old man, with a dream of the English Church in this land which we love so much and, let me tell you, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a dream that can be, that should be, that will be realised.