The headline writers had a glorious time: “Williams backs Sharia law”; “Archbishop’s call provokes political and religious backlash.” It was also a boon for journalists working on religious issues. I got a pre-breakfast telephone call from the BBC asking me to take part in a radio discussion.
Beneath the headlines, however, the story was a little more complicated. In February, the archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, had suggested that elements of Islamic law (called Sharia), such as those addressing financial transactions and the settling of family disputes dealt with by religious courts, could be given formal status under British law, thus making Muslims feel that they lived under a system respectful of their beliefs.
“Nobody in their right mind would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that has sometimes been associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states,” Williams said. “But there are ways of looking at marital disputes, for example, which provide an alternative to divorce courts as we understand them.”
He was giving a lecture in which he tried to explore new ideas for an increasingly complex Britain. But what resulted was all too typical of the confusion that a well-intentioned churchman can create when wading into unfamiliar territory. Williams seemed unable to grasp the difficulties of the discussion. Formed in the academic tradition of a receding Anglicanism, he is comfortable neither with the screaming headlines of a mass media geared to an ill-informed public, nor with the tricky and—let’s face it—frightening scene presented by a confident and resurgent Islam confronting a decadent West.
It was pointed out that Williams’ suggestion—made in a lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice—came not long after threats had been made by Islamic groups against one of his own clergy, Dr. Michael Nazir-Ali, the Anglican bishop of Rochester, who had written critically of aspects of modern extremist Islam in a newspaper.
The Daily Telegraph described Williams’ speech as “a classic example of political ineptitude” and noted that “Muslim radicals will view it as the bending of the British establishment to fundamentalist pressure.”
The image conveyed by Williams, whether intentionally or not, was that of a weak and fearful Christianity, facing a militant and effective Islam and seeking to make concessions in the hope of appearing friendly. It all presented a stark contrast to the headlines in the Catholic Herald the week before, highlighting the publication of a new book, Realm (Family Publications), which calls in clear and ringing terms for the reconversion of England to Catholicism.
The author of Realm, Dominican Father Aidan Nichols of Blackfriars, Cambridge, is already well known as an inspiring initiator of fresh thinking in religious circles, a scholar, a challenger of popular clichés, and a priest wholly committed to evangelization and the revival of missionary zeal. A few years ago, he coined the phrase “re-enchantment of the liturgy,” which gave a sense of something at once magnificent and practical in approaching that topic. Now he was returning to the fray with characteristic dedication and sparkle.
The words in this new book could not fail to stir: “For Catholic Christians the aim is really to communicate our faith to others as what made England once and can remake it again.” Even the use of the word “England” is somehow thrilling: he makes it clear that he is indeed talking about a specific country here, not the United Kingdom as a political entity but one particular nation within it that commands our love and that needs particular attention at this time.
He writes movingly about “the wellsprings, roots, and chief historical determinants of the English contribution to international humanity and the future orientation of an English culture and society, steadied by a fuller grasp of this historic patrimony.”
He comments on the connection between the Crown and the people, and the reality of a bond that is forged by an anointing and coronation that carries real meaning: “The coronation ceremony is of the highest importance for the symbolic ordering of the realm. It is the enactment of a solemn covenant between monarch and people.” He goes on to describe the significance of certain details of the coronation ceremony and especially the sense in which the emblems of temporal authority are given by the Church to the sovereign—but only when the latter has been prepared and hallowed by anointing.
He emphasizes that recent scholarship— notably that of Dr. Eamon Duffy in The Stripping of the Altars, following on that of Professor J. Scarisbrick of Warwick University—shows how the medieval Church warmly satisfied the spiritual needs of the English people. The spiritual hunger today is vast, he writes, and the Catholic Church should be poised to fulfill it.
To anyone raised as an English Catholic, with tales of St. Thomas More and St. Edmund Campion, conscious of the thrill of walking into one of our great cathedrals and knowing it was built by English Catholic hands for Catholic worship, this is powerful stuff. It echoes the glorious words of Campion, as he stood in Westminster Great Hall after torture and imprisonment in the Tower of London as a Catholic priest, when he spoke of the Catholic faith as being “all that was once the glory of England.”
Calling his book an “unfashionable essay on the conversion of England,” Father Nichols makes the point that the Catholic faith created the English nation when it was a mix of Celtic, Saxon, and other stock, and did so within the context of that wider Church that is an essential part of the Christian vision. He sees this as relevant to the situation today, when English Catholicism has a great ethnic mix (Irish, Polish, Italian, Vietnamese, and Filipino, among others).
Now if the original Anglo-Saxon conversion of England is anything to go by, what you need for a successful movement of conversion which really “takes” and acts to transform culture across a whole society is precisely a mixture of indigenous and exogenous elements. You need people who come from within and people who come from without.
If we ask about the development of Christianity in dark age England, who were its great figures? We would have to answer; Wilfred and Cuthbert and Chad, who were of pure Anglo-Saxon stock, but also Augustine, an Italian, Theodore of Tarsus, who was Greek, and Aidan, who was a Scotus or, more or less, an Irishman. It stands to reason, really. If the protagonists of mission come exclusively from within the culture, they won’t be able to see it with sufficient objective distance to judge what its christening requires. If on the other hand they come exclusively from outside the culture, they won’t have the inner sympathy for it and the depths or simplicity of identification with its members which is prerequisite for winning others.
Father Nichols’ formula for re-evangelization includes restoring a sense of beauty and nobility in the Church’s public liturgy as well as a mix of lay initiatives advancing the Christian concept of the dignity and value of each human being, teaching about marriage, celebrating family life, educating the young in the faith, and honoring the value of real work and real recreation. All of which he thinks can be aided by creative use of new technologies:
“Where the information media are hostile, we can bypass their hidden or not so hidden agenda by creating alternative forums for instruction and public debate.”
None of this is spectacularly original. What is compelling about it, however, is not only the quality of the writing, but also the fact that Father Nichols has been widely promoted as a possible successor to Cardinal Cormac Murphy- O’Connor as archbishop of Westminster. It would be an unusual choice, and would of course be seen as dramatic— a snub, in effect, to the other bishops of England and Wales by going outside the current hierarchy to find a new leader.
Father Nichols is not the only name being mentioned. Others, also outside the current episcopal lists, are being suggested in the Catholic press and elsewhere, notably that of Abbot Hugh Gilbert of Pluscarden, whose thriving Benedictine monastery is in stark contrast to the bleak state of many religious institutions across Britain and Europe. Other names include that of Father Alan White, a leading Dominican.
How would a re-invigorated Catholic leadership in England work with the Church of England? It is premature for enthusiastic Catholics to dismiss the Anglican Church completely; it still has some life in it, although the decision to create priestesses certainly dealt it a serious blow and of course destroyed ecumenical hopes cherished by old-style “high” Anglicans.
Among Anglicans generally, there is a recognition of the leading role now played by Catholicism in the Christian map of Britain (in so far as that map exists—most people would describe themselves as Christian, but church attendance is low). And there is a general spirit of goodwill. Dr. Williams recently visited Pope Benedict in Rome and the two reportedly got on well: Rowan Williams was reading Joseph Ratzinger’s theology well before its author was elected to the papacy, and has long been an admirer.
Ecumenical relationships between Christians are generally good in Britain, and such events as Walks of Witness on Good Friday, joint services in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and co-operation in innumerable local charitable events, are commonplace.
Still, most Catholics do not see the Anglican Communion as an overpowering factor in British life. Attitudes toward it among Catholics vary mostly from the polite and sympathetic (“They seem to be rather confused”) to the warmly generous (“Well, my friend/cousin/husband/motherin- law is Church of England and is a better Christian than I”). There is an awareness that dialogue on doctrinal matters came to a halt following the 1992 Anglican Synod decision to ordain women.
The former Anglican clergy who “came over” to the Catholic Church in the wake of that decision have undoubtedly strengthened the Catholic community in England significantly. A large number became Catholic priests and are now running parishes and university chaplaincies. One is now a bishop. Of those who opted to remain laymen, several are teachers—one a headmaster of a notable Catholic school— and others play a leading role in Catholic life, with one heading up a major Catholic charity.
Outside the Catholic Church, the most vigorous churches in Britain are the evangelical ones, including the many Afro-Caribbean independent churches, and also some Anglican parishes with largely Afro-Caribbean congregations. Within the Catholic community, the new movements are perhaps less evident in Britain than elsewhere, but they do exist, and two home-grown ones, the FAITH Movement and Youth 2000, are certainly making an impact.
Massive Polish immigration in Britain has boosted Mass attendance figures generally, and it appears that something of the vigor of Polish Catholicism—with its emphasis on, among other things, regular confession and serious commitment to Sunday Mass attendance—will filter down to mainstream Catholic life. Other signs of hope include the prolife movement, the orthodoxy of the younger clergy, and an evident if hard-to-define sense of support for the pope and for traditional Catholic teachings among those of the young who do attend Mass. There is mater- ial here with which those who read Father Aidan Nichols’ book can work.
What is interesting is that Father Nichols has tapped into a vein that was at one time strong in Britain—patriotism. The British public used to like being associated with the Church of England because it seemed to voice their own sense of belonging to a nation and a culture, and to link this with belonging to God. Now that link has disappeared.
The old cadences of the Book of Common Prayer are rarely heard, there is confusion about basic teachings, and there is no longer a feeling that attending an Anglican service forms a connection with English Christianity down the ages. People look elsewhere for a sense of history and of heritage, of mysticism and of communion with the Creator. Catholicism, especially with a “re-enchanted” liturgy, could speak to many hearts.
There is much talk now of what should be done as we all begin to admit that the concept of a “multicultural Britain” hasn’t worked. Two different options appear to have been raised by the juxtaposition of Dr. Williams’ comments about Sharia law and the ringing call offered by Father Nichols’ book. Bow to Islamic pressure or seize the moment for a national commitment to re-evangelization?
The two are in stark contrast, but the different approaches of Rowan Williams and Father Nichols are perhaps not as much opposed as an initial reading might suppose. There is no reason to think that Williams would not accept a revival of Christianity in England, and none to suggest that Father Nichols would not recognize the human needs of a growing Islamic faithful at variance with much of modern British life. But it remains a fact that thoughtful Christians have been presented with two very different messages within a few days of each other. Of the two, the call to the conversion of England is undoubtedly the more compelling.
Nichols’ final chapter opens with a reminder that England’s ancient title is that of “Mary’s Dowry.” How good it would be for that glorious idea to live again in the hearts of the English.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!