Is England standing on the verge of a Catholic revival? Ludicrous question, many would say; longed-for reality, many others would echo. You have to know how to read the signs of the times. The trouble is the signs are pointing in too many contrary directions. Who is the one who would “prepare the way of the Lord” and make his paths straight?
The visit of Pope Benedict last week would be viewed by some as at least a sign of hope that England was being pointed back in the right direction. I say ‘England’ advisedly, as the Pope was visiting two countries with respect to the pastoral mission of his visit; even though, when in England, he diplomatically tended to refer to “Britain” and the “United Kingdom” as the name of ‘this country’.
‘Pastoral’ is perhaps not quite the right word and doesn’t fully capture the ultimate significance of the pope’s unprecedented visit. This was a case of prophetic witness: the spiritual successor to Saint Peter drawing ‘the nation”s attention to the centrality of Catholic-Christian faith, ethics and tradition in the history and identity of England, and hence to the vital role it should continue to play in informing our leaders’ efforts to deal with the social, moral and environmental challenges of the present age. As the pope said toward the end of his speech to assembled dignitaries and former prime ministers in Westminster Hall: “The angels looking down on us from the magnificent ceiling of this ancient Hall remind us of the long tradition from which British Parliamentary democracy has evolved. They remind us that God is constantly watching over us to guide and protect us. And they summon us to acknowledge the vital contribution that religious belief has made and can continue to make to the life of the nation”.
Alongside the angels, one Englishman who bore witness to the primacy of faith-informed conscience over state power might well have been gazing down from heaven at the proceedings last Friday: Saint Thomas More, as he’s known by Catholics, who was condemned to death on the very spot where the pope delivered his speech for refusing to repudiate the authority of the pope as the supreme governor of the Church in England. Indeed, the present pope’s reference to Thomas More was the sole explicit mention of ‘England’ in his speech in Westminster Hall: “I recall the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose ‘good servant’ he was, because he chose to serve God first”.
In a way, More’s stand was just one in a long line of English acts of rebellion against the absolute authority of monarchical rule from Westminster, stretching from Magna Carta through to the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. The narrative of British history has not tended to view it as such, because More was defending the Catholic faith of his fellow Englishmen against the absolutist imposition of the Protestant religion, whereas the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution involved the defence of different versions of reformed Christianity against the absolutist re-imposition of Catholicism. Indeed, through the wars of resistance to Catholic pretenders during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the thwarting of the Gunpowder Plot under James I, the cause of English independence and freedom came to be associated with suspicion and hostility toward Catholic Europe. By ensuring that a Catholic could never again ascend to the English throne, the Act of Succession, and the Acts of Union between England and Scotland, finally consolidated this transfer of authority in matters of faith from the pope in Rome to the monarch in Westminster at the same time as they ironically consigned the separate kingdom of England to the history books.
You could argue, therefore, that Henry VIII’s expropriation of the role of Supreme Governor of the Church of England was the beginning of the end not only of Catholicism as the national religion of England but of England itself as a distinct nation state. Far from liberating the English people from the absolute power of a corrupt and oppressive Church, Henry reassigned the moral authority for the exercise of absolute power to himself as temporal ruler, an authority that was subsequently transferred to the soon-to-be British Parliament during the Glorious Revolution, and which has remained with Parliament to this day. The unaccountable rule that Westminster exercises over English affairs in the present is a direct consequence of the establishment of the new state religion and religious state of Great Britain over three hundred years ago, given that Parliament still wields the absolute authority of the queen as head of the British state and earthly head of the Church of England.
But does England have to return to its ancestral Catholicism in order to rediscover its distinct identity and reassert itself as a sovereign nation in its own right? Let’s put this question another way: if the people of England did undergo a collective spiritual conversion to and renewal of its erstwhile national faith, would this of necessity also entail the unravelling of the British state as we know it and the re-establishment of England as a sovereign nation? The answer to that question is almost certainly ‘yes’. The rule of the British state over England is perpetuated by the profound identification of the people of England – as historically symbolised and embodied by the Church of England – with the institutions and symbols of British statehood, an identification that is personified in the figure of the monarch: British ruler and defender of the English faith. If, on the other hand, the English people no longer literally invested their faith in the British state but began believing in a higher authority than Parliament and the monarch, then the old idolatry of British-parliamentary sovereignty would no longer hold sway.
But surely, I hear you say, such a re-conversion to a form of dogmatic Christianity in which even its followers are losing their faith is both unlikely and undesirable. The ongoing erosion of English people’s faith in the British settlement is far more likely to be accompanied by the continuing unravelling of the old Anglican verities without being replaced by new Catholic certainties. Well, maybe; but would the state that resulted from the break-up of Great Britain in such circumstances really be the great English nation we all long for, or would it end up as just some multi-cultural, faithless and rootless Rump Britain? Is not the very identity of England inherently bound up with its great Catholic-Christian history and tradition? Do away with the Church of England without reviving the Church in England and you run the risk of finally bringing about the ‘end of the end’ of England.
Clearly, though, it’s impossible to artificially resurrect a medieval faith destroyed by the earthly ambitions of British monarchs, imperialists and republicans, combined with the philosophical assaults of science and Enlightenment secular humanism, simply in order to provide a touchstone for a new English-national identity. In the first instance, such a revival could only be the work of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, it has to arise from our hearts and not our ideological blueprints for a new England. England can be a Christian democracy only if the sovereign English people desire to be Christian.
But we are, at root and at heart, a Christian people. Our very national flag holds aloft the Cross of Christ washed in the blood of our redeemer. There are perhaps troubled times ahead: spiritual and, who knows, perhaps physical warfare in which competing creeds and centres of power will struggle for control over our lives and our land. Perhaps Britain as we know it must die; but will England be reborn in its place?
We are approaching the 2,000th anniversary of the crucifixion of Christ – perhaps that’s another ambiguous sign for us in this time of uncertainty for ourselves and for England. I for one, though, am content to gaze upon the cross of Christ and the Flag of England as a sign of hope that, through it all, Christian England will endure.