Wednesday 30 April 2014

It's not fair! (UPDATED - again)

I have already observed that, in my view, Bishop Campbell accurately identified the problems inherent in Protect the Pope in the statement that the Bishop's office has already made about the situation:
.... the duties involved for ordained bloggers/website administrators to truth, charity and unity in the Church.
I would bracket the word "ordained" and suggest that the duties apply to any Catholic who blogs, particularly if they blog about Church affairs.

It has been taken for granted by all and sundry (at least as far a I can  tell) that Bishop Campbell's intervention had to do with Deacon Donnelly's criticisms of dissent in the Church, and that the blog is being silenced because of that. I do not think it had to do with that at all. It had to do with whether or not what was posted, and the "spin" given to it, was or was not true. And in at least some situations that I am aware of what was posted was not true.

I don't live in the bubble which seems to thrive on accusing the Bishops of this, that and the other. A consequence is that I do not see such an accusatory attitude as being "heroic defence of the faith". And it is this that became the problem inherent in Protect the Pope and which Bishop Campbell's statement referred to with the words "unity in the Church" - not, in my view, any concerns about the content otherwise of posts.

The Catholic Herald report - Popular blog closed down by bishop - ends quoting Deacon Donnelly:
"Maybe some of you will even consider setting up your own versions of ‘Protect the Pope’. I’d be happy to give you advice about how to go about this.”
Which leaves me thinking that there is some way to go before the real issue at stake has been understood.

I have also pondered in the last week or so the notion of "parties" (in the sense of factions) in the Church which, if I recall correctly, was something of Newman's experience of the Church of England. And I wondered whether the "faithful and loyal Catholic" of the brouhaha around Protect the Pope is not the "I am for Paul", or the "I am for Apollos", or the "I  am for Cephas" or the "I am for Christ" of the First Letter to the Corinthians. After all, the very nature of the Christian mystery, epitomised by the Sacrament of Penance, is one of failure and rising again; of a dialogue between returning to the attempt to be faithful after having failed in that faithfulness. The call to be Catholic does not need qualification by additional descriptors such as "faithful" or "loyal", the additional descriptors all to easily coming to represent a party or faction in the Church.

But why is all of this so, so unfair?

The one person who of the nature of the situation is not able to defend their position in the electronic media is Bishop Campbell.  And his action is currently the target of a significant campaign in that media. As a medium of communication, blogs (and, more so, twitter) can be profoundly asymmetrical in their impact - and this appears to me to be one of those situations. It does not appear to me that this has come about by accident.

UPDATED: The Apostle in Lancaster provides further comment that is worth considering, in the light of my post above.

UPDATED AGAIN: Bishop Campbell has issued a statement - something that I find unexpected, given the nature of the matter - which gives an account of his actions with regard to Deacon Donnelly and Protect the Pope: Bishop Campbell did not close down Protect the Pope. I would share the comment made by Mark Lambert in his post about Bishop Campbell's press release:
In fact it is clear that Bishop Michael has done his level best to handle this with diplomacy and dignity and his hand has been forced—largely by Deacon Nick—into making this statement. 

Saturday 26 April 2014

The Ark, Edith Stein and martyrdom as unity: a reflection for the canonisation of John Paul II

The canonisations of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII tomorrow have somewhat caught up with me before I have really had time to reflect on their significance. Perhaps that's a good sign - I do have a "real life" to live.

I do not really feel that I "know" Pope John XXIII in the same way that I "know" John Paul II. I do have Meriol Trevor's life of John XXIII on my bookshelves, so I have some wherewithal to correct that.

As I have asked myself this morning what particular thoughts I feel that I take away from the ministry of Pope John Paul II, three things have come to mind. They are intensely personal, and do not represent any systematic appreciation of Pope John Paul.

The first thought has been my memory of a visit to the Church of the "Ark of the Lord" in Nowa Huta, Krakow, many years ago. As Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Woyjtla consecrated this Church. It was built by hand by the people, against the opposition of the Communist authorities, who had built the Nowa Huta suburb of Krakow as an "atheist" town focussed around it's giant steel works and intended to be without religious presence of any kind. The Church is designed to look like the Ark - hence the boat shape of its roof and the general shape of the building. Perhaps more fundamentally than its influence on the opposition of the Polish people to Communist rule, the Church stands as a sign of the presence of God, made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, in the midst of a God-less world. It's significance therefore abides, long after its original historical context has disappeared. Again, one can see a political dimension to much of Pope John Paul's ministry, particularly with regard to his pastoral visits to then-Communist countries. But fundamentally, should we not see that ministry - and the pastoral visits that were so much a part of it - as being a witness to the presence of God in our world, a presence here, where each individual nation and people lives?

The second thought that comes to me is being in St Peter's Square on 11th October 1998 for the canonisation of Edith Stein. I travelled to Rome for the canonisation after an aside remark made to me. It still comes to my mind as one of the highlights of my ecclesial experience. Something of my experience of Edith Stein is reflected in this post, just encountered as a result of a Google search. I have my own copy of the booklet for the ceremony in front of me as I post. The philosophical affinity between the two is one thing; the experience of living under persecution is another. Edith is by far and away my favourite saint. A good friend has a quite distinct way of smiling whenever I refer to her ..... Whilst the Christian message is never tied to one particular philosophical outlook, it can nevertheless find a particular expression within different philosophical frameworks. In a post-modern world, where pre-conceived frameworks are rejected as starting points, realist phenomenology appears to me to offer a potentially powerful way to open up access to reality. Would the contemporary advocacy of "gender theory", for example, really stand up to the eidetic enquiry of a realist phenomenology? Pope John Paul II's encyclicals and apostolic constitutions are resplendent with a phenomenological style.

The third thought is a short passage tucked away in the encyclical Ut Unum Sint, n.84. It occurs to me quite regularly. It goes neatly with the emphasis on the reality of the imperfect communion that exists as a result of baptism that I recall noticing in Pope Benedict's address to leaders of other Christian communities during his visit to Cologne in 2005. It indicates that, in martyrdom, there exists already in reality that unity among Christians of different denominations that is the aim of ecumenical endeavour. My emphasis added in bold:
In a theocentric vision, we Christians already have a common Martyrology. This also includes the martyrs of our own century, more numerous than one might think, and it shows how, at a profound level, God preserves communion among the baptized in the supreme demand of faith, manifested in the sacrifice of life itself. The fact that one can die for the faith shows that other demands of the faith can also be met. I have already remarked, and with deep joy, how an imperfect but real communion is preserved and is growing at many levels of ecclesial life. I now add that this communion is already perfect in what we all consider the highest point of the life of grace, martyria unto death, the truest communion possible with Christ who shed his Blood, and by that sacrifice brings near those who once were far off (cf. Eph 2:13).
While for all Christian communities the martyrs are the proof of the power of grace, they are not the only ones to bear witness to that power. Albeit in an invisible way, the communion between our Communities, even if still incomplete, is truly and solidly grounded in the full communion of the Saints—those who, at the end of a life faithful to grace, are in communion with Christ in glory. These Saints come from all the Churches and Ecclesial Communities which gave them entrance into the communion of salvation.
It is interesting that, though we are now into the second papal ministry since the death of Pope John Paul II, all three of these themes have retained their resonance through changing political and social circumstances.

Tuesday 22 April 2014

Hopes for a new bishop

Towards the end of my absence from blogging, the appointment of the next bishop of Brentwood was announced. Fr Williams has, according to the Brentwood Diocese website, presented himself as a "listening bishop".

In the diocese, the faithful had been encouraged to use the following prayer from the Roman Missal to pray for the appointment of the new bishop:
Father, Eternal Shepherd of your people, you never cease to lead your Church with unfailing providence and to guide and nourish your flock. In your goodness grant to your Church of Brentwood a holy Shepherd under whose watchful care we may grow in love and grace.
I am also drawn to Pope Francis' remarks when speaking about the part played by the Congregation for Bishops in helping him to fulfil his apostolic ministry.
In every age and in every place we shall receive this petition from the lips of the Church: give us a Bishop! The holy People of God continues to speak: we need one who will watch over us from above; we need one who will see us with the fullness of God’s heart; we do not need a manager, a chief executive officer of a company, nor one who remains at the level of our pettiness and little pretensions. We need someone who knows how to raise himself to the heights of God’s gaze over us and in order to lead us to him. Our future lies in God’s gaze. We need someone who, owing to his greater familiarity with the wide expanses of God’s field than with the confines of his own narrow garden, is able to assure us that what our hearts aspire to is not a vain promise.
It is also interesting to read his address to a meeting of newly appointed bishops in September 2013, and, in particular, his remarks about the responsiveness of a bishop to the needs of his priests. He speaks of the priests of the diocese as being the "first neighbours" to whom a bishop owes care.

During the (long) time that it has taken to appoint our new bishop, I have had two particular thoughts about what I might look for from a new bishop (and a third point, as a bit of an aside).

To start with the third point. I do rather hope that other people will not project on to Fr Williams their own agendas. His office will be defined by the pastoral care of Brentwood Diocese and a participation in the College of the Successors of the Apostles - and this isn't to be measured by particular agendas that I or anyone else might have. So please do not hijack my new bishop for your own cause!

My second thought has been about the priests of the diocese and therefore has some affinity to Pope Francis' remarks to new bishops in September 2013. The experience of living in the diocese is that there are some parishes where I am happy to attend Mass and some parishes where I am not happy to attend Mass ... and most parishes that sit somewhere in between, not scaring me away but not exerting a positive attraction either. This is usually down to the parish priest because, for all the talk about lay ministry, it is still the parish priest who drives what happens in a parish. I am atypical in that, not having lived in the diocese when I was young, I do not enjoy a strong affiliation to one parish rather than another. So I look to the new bishop to achieve a greater unity among the priests of the diocese, so that lay folk like myself can live a greater unity of ecclesial experience from one parish to another. A unity in the celebration of the Liturgy and catechetical life seem essential to me in this regard.

My first thought, though, has been that, for a diocese that has a sense of "drift" about it, at least in my experience, I need a new bishop who offers something inspiring. As Pope Francis expresses it, I need a bishop who "owing to his greater familiarity with the wide expanses of God’s field than with the confines of his own narrow garden, is able to assure us that what our hearts aspire to is not a vain promise." A bishop who will make me feel that it is all worth while, rather than its being a struggle. As Pope Francis points out, this is not achieved by a bishop who is a "chief executive" or by a bishop with well planned "programmes".  Rather it is achieved by a bishop with a vivid sense of his charism as a successor of the Apostles, a bishop who has the "odour of his sheep".

These are my hopes for my new bishop.

Monday 21 April 2014

Thoughts on a "Christian country"

At the annual conference of my trade union, just before Easter, the following motions was debated and passed. It was a composite motion, from motions originally submitted by two different branches of the association.
That Conference acknowledges that the proper and regular delivery of the RE curriculum is of great importance in a multicultural society where mutual knowledge and understanding of religious beliefs is essential in developing tolerance and social harmony.
Conference therefore urges the Executive Committee to promote the status of RE teachers and seek to ensure they have the correct level of funding, knowledge, and training and development.
My experience of working with a Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education (SACRE), the body responsible for overseeing Religious Education in state schools in a local authority that do not have a religious designation, reflects the sense of this motion. One might see it as a kind of co-option of RE in the cause of social cohesion.

Whilst social harmony might well be, and should be, one of the fruits of communities that live in daily life the practice of their religious beliefs, it is not correct for policy makers to see that as the only stake that the practice of religious beliefs has in society. To limit the understanding of religious belief to that perception fails to recognise the distinctive essence of religious beliefs. It is to understand religion as if religion were a non-religious phenomenon; it is to secularise the concept of religion. That religious beliefs are about what is true and good in the purpose of human life - both natural life and supernatural life - is completely misconstrued by this understanding. And for some religions - notably among them Christianity - these beliefs are shared and lived (to greater and lesser extent) by a community.

[As an aside, one speaker in the Conference debate preferred to identify belief as an individual and personal phenomenon, rather than as a pattern of belief shared by others. It is of course interesting to consider whether individualised belief of this type would serve the purpose of social cohesion; and to consider its possibilities as being perhaps more genuinely religious in character than the secularised view of community held religious beliefs.]

The Daily Telegraph today carries a letter signed by secularist thinkers responding to David Cameron's recent remarks about the role of Christianity in Britain (reported at the BBC news site here; David Cameron's Church Times article is here.).

My first thought is to reflect on what the term "Christian country" might mean. David Cameron's Church Times article refers to the heritage of liturgy, architecture and culture that Britain today receives from a history marked profoundly by Christian faith, and in particular by the Church of England. This is one sense in which we can speak of Britain as a Christian country.  We might also speak of Britain as a Christian country in terms of the way in which the established Church - and wider Christian faith - is woven into the fabric of our constitutional and social arrangements. Our major national holidays are based around the dates of the two major Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter, for example.

The writers of the letter published in the Daily Telegraph today are using a different frame of reference as far as the meaning of the term "Christian country" is concerned. They ask instead about whether or not the extent of Christian belief and practice in Britain justifies describing the people of Britain as being Christian. And, perhaps rightly, they suggest that the presence of significant numbers of people who follow other religions, and of many who hold no religious beliefs, means that the answer to that question should be "no".

The fundamental question appears to me, however, to be less one of whether or not describing Britain as a "Christian country" is correct and more one about what stake Christian belief is entitled to in society and in the cultural and political life of the country.

1. At one time, there was a range of phenomenological study around the nature of the human person as having an essential religious dimension. In our present culture, this seems to have been displaced by a secularised understanding of religion as being, at best, at the service of social harmony; and by notions of "spirituality" that derogate from a fully religious understanding of the nature of the human person. But, if the human person has an essentially religious dimension, then religion should have a clear and firm stake in the social, political and cultural life of any country.

2. If Christianity is to have a preferential status within this religious profile of the life of Britain, I do not believe that it can be founded just on the background that the history of Britain provides for today's nation. Christians gain a stake in the social, political and cultural life of our country in so far as they continue to live out their faith - in its essentially religious character and not just in terms of a secularised understanding of what their faith offers to social cohesion. On this basis, they are entitled to play a full part in the life of the country - in running educational institutions, in the means of social communication, in politics. That Christians in these spheres should have the freedom - and equality of access by means of state funding that matches that provided to non-religious provision - to act in full accord with the teachings of their Churches is axiomatic. The secularist would, of course, deny this thereby instead imposing a kind of "secular religion" across the whole of society.

3. David Cameron suggests in his Church Times article that non-Christian believers find that the standing of the Church of England in Britain helps them to practise their own religions here. A pluralism in religious belief and practice of this type, within a framework that in some way preferences one religion, is possible. In Britain, the Church of England as the established Church  represents the particular national situation which enables the living out of the religious character of the human person. The particular manner of the living of religious freedom in Britain has something to say to other countries, both to those whose constitutional arrangements separate state and religion, and to Muslim countries where religious freedom is denied.

But there is an elephant in the room, as they say. Legislative changes have created a number of professions where, for example, a Roman Catholic who wishes to translate their religious practice into daily living, will be denied employment. Neither is it clear how far the range of David Cameron's suggestion that Christian's should be more confident in their belief extends. Can we not recognise in the early paragraphs of the Church Times article something of the secular understanding of religious belief that I described at the beginning of this post? Hasn't the meaning of that word "love" been emptied of its objective content in the debate over same-sex marriage? Whilst getting out there and making a difference is a clear fruit of Christian faith lived out in daily life, is it sufficient to define its essence?
I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people's lives....
Crucially, the Christian values of responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, and love are shared by people of every faith and none - and we should be confident in standing up to defend them.

Saturday 19 April 2014

PtP: What is the real question? - UPDATED

I have come late to the story of the "silencing" of Protect the Pope/Deacon Donnelly. The clearest reporting on it that I can find is here, at the Catholic Herald website: Bishops shouldn’t try to censor the blogosphere, says priest blogger. [UPDATE: Caroline's observations are also worth reading: Catholic blogging.]

I am not able to comment on the "politics" - that is, about the speculation about who might, or might not, have put pressure on who to bring about the intervention of Bishop Campbell. Since that intervention, there has been a reaction that brings out a "political" dimension to the intervention itself - but I am not at all sure that that really captures the essence of what took place.

I have had my own encounter with Protect the Pope: Protect the Pope: the publican or the Pharisee? (and see the approach of some of the comments received from PtP's supporters), and in commenting on his post with regard to the film Philomena: Steve Coogan mendaciously blackens the name of Sr Hildegard McNulty in his film Philomena. I have since, somewhat by accident, come to recognise some of the networking among the commenters on the PtP, and that does shed some not inconsiderable light on the content of posts and comments.

But what is the real question that is raised by Bishop Campbell's intervention?

Is it really the silencing of a heroic defender of the faith? According to the Catholic Herald report linked above, Deacon Donnelly identifies the aim of the blog as being:
“to compare and contrast what’s being said and done in the Church with the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. That can never be wrong.”
At the very least, I think it is possible to look at the content of posts on PtP and examine the extent to which they do and do not meet this aim. My own encounter with the blog indicated that there is more to PtP than this aim. At the time, I suggested that those who viewed the blog in these terms should think about it a bit more carefully.

Is it really "censoring" the Catholic blogosphere? Or the action of a bishop who "doesn't get blogging"? The discussion along these lines, which appears to have been extensive, seems to me to miss the point. There is an aspect of this discussion that does not appear to be attracting comment. What would a lay person do, approached by their bishop with the same request to take a period of prayer and reflection whilst desisting from blogging? It is not just a question of "jurisdiction" but one  of "communion".

I am not convinced by the line of discussion that suggests that the internet has a "self-correction" mechanism whereby errors are raised and corrected without need of "censorship"; and that a bishop can correct a view by making his own use of the modern means of social communication. I have a distinct impression that a whole range of Catholic blogs just "talk to each other" without reaching outside their own circle, like talking to like in a closed circle.

I do happen to think that the statement from Lancaster Diocese, as reported by the Catholic Herald, very accurately identifies the questions pertaining to the PtP blog (my italics added):
“After learning that a notice had been placed upon the Protect the Pope website on March 7 saying: ‘Deacon Nick stands down from Protect the Pope for a period of prayer and reflection’ the Bishop’s Office at the Diocese of Lancaster was able to confirm that Bishop Campbell had recently requested Deacon Nick Donnelly to voluntarily pause from placing new posts on the Protect the Pope site.
“Meanwhile, it was also confirmed that the bishop asked Deacon Nick to use this pause to enter into a period of prayer and reflection on the duties involved for ordained bloggers/website administrators to truth, charity and unity in the Church. Deacon Nick has agreed to the bishop’s request at this time.”
My own encounter with PtP clearly manifested the need to consider questions of truth and charity in terms of the content of blog posts and comments. The question of considering the unity of the Church seems to me more subtle - the question here is not about posting to criticise dissent but more about the spinning of such posting against bishops. And as I imply above, exactly these same duties oblige the lay Catholic who blogs on matters Catholic.

More than anything else, I would suggest that Bishop Campbell's intervention calls each and every one of us to an examination of conscience with regard to how we conduct ourselves in cyberspace.

Thursday 17 April 2014

On not blogging

Just before Lent began, someone suggested to me that I should give up blogging for Lent. Which I have done. (I justify posting now on the view that Lent ends on Maundy Thursday evening, a view that I encountered from a quite impeccable monastic source.)

It is interesting to reflect on the experience of not blogging, and herewith some of the thoughts that have occurred to me as the end of my absence from the aether has approached.

1. In a very real way, I have not missed writing for the blog. There have been a few points where something has occurred, and I have thought, "Oh, I might have posted to say this or that". But I have not really missed the additional step of formulating the thoughts coherently, sitting at the keyboard and posting. It is not always necessary to publish an opinion ....

2. I have also found that it is quite possible to live an informed ecclesial existence without reading Catholic blogs. Which thought led me to wonder - somewhere around Laetare Sunday - just how much of what I do find myself reading on blogs can rightly be described as ecclesial gossip. And whether it is some of the more widely-read blogs that purvey the majority of this gossip. Pope Francis is, I think, quite clear about what he considers to be the evil of gossip; and perhaps, in reading blogs, it is easy to become complicit in that evil.

3. It is not at all clear that, by not spending time blogging, I have necessarily spent the time usefully on other things. I cannot say that I have noticed that I do my marking, for example, any more quickly than before.

4. I did receive an appreciative comment just before leaving the aether, and before I had worked out the right way to acknowledge that comment. I must have appeared somewhat ungrateful, not just for not acknowledging the comment, but for then disappearing altogether without explanation. So my apologies to the person concerned. I am back now.

5. All this having been said, there is a small community of Catholic blogs that I characterise by the term "more thoughtful". Of their nature, they are not going to attract huge numbers of readers - they aren't controversial enough for that - but they probably do more to "build communion" than do other blogs. It is to that community that I feel I am now returning.