Eoin O’Mahony linked me to another churchy piece in the New Yorker after Adam Gopnik’s disappointing butchering of the third quest for the historical Jesus. This time it is about female bishops in the Church of England. They are unlikely to ask my opinion, but obviously enough I think they should have them.

While the article is better than Gopnik’s, the fundamental ignorance of the real world of the church and theology in even the most esteemed of literary and journalistic publications is astonishing:

Rowan Williams, a theologian of huge distinction and, perhaps because of this, almost paralytic reticence, has been trying to broker a peace between his warring priests while Pope Benedict XVI, in Rome, a theologian of less distinction [itallics mine] but far steelier entitlement, has seized the chance to publicly invite Anglican clergymen, single and married, and their parishes into the sheltering misogyny of the magisterium.

Rowan and the Pope

Tom Wright in Virtue Reborn writes about an example of a time he saw virtuous leadership spontaneously react in pressing circumstances:

I was at a huge service in an enormous church, with wonderful music, flowing robes, and a crowd of thousands that only just fit into the large building. Suddenly, about ten minutes into the service, some men pushed their way roughly past the ushers at the doors, injuring one of them, and ran into the church shouting slogans. The disruption was caused by a protest group that had recently acquired a national reputation for behaving outrageously in pursuit of their cause…

As all of us wondered what would happen next, one of the senior clergy walked quietly across toward the leading protestor and had a short, quiet conversation with him. He them walked over to the presiding cleric for another brief conversation. A moment later the presiding cleric spoke to the congregation, informing them that “our unexpected guests” had agreed to state their case for three minutes and then leave the building quietly.

Wright goes on to explain how relieved he was at the rapid, gracious leadership that somehow turned a farce into an opportunity for reconciliation. He had seen that man do similar things before, like when he would approach and befriend homeless addicts on the street…

He knew, from long experience, how to speak calmly and wisely with people of whom most others would be afraid. By the time it came to that great service, fifteen or more years later, the habit of faith, love and courage had long been fully formed. And when the moment came, he didn’t have to think about it. Second nature kicked in. He knew, authentically, what to do and how to do it. I have learned many things from that man, but one stands out. His name is Rowan Williams.

What is perceived as paralysis is in fact Rowan Williams prophetic refusal to lead as the world envisions leadership. It is not his role in his tradition to play Pope. It is not his responsibility to call a winner in whatever wrestling match is tearing the communion apart. It is because he is a theologian of huge distinction that he seeks instead to integrate, mediate and ultimately reconcile.

But he is not the most important theologian of the age. That most surely is the role that Josef Ratzinger has ended up with. A man of simply immense natural intelligence who has done more than any other person to shape the Roman Catholic understanding since the end of the 2nd Vatican Council. His vision is again dominated by communion, although understood very differently from Williams. Vincent Twomey says of him, “What is unique to Ratzinger’s theological methodology is, in the first place, its originality and creativity.” Yet it is interesting that he is disliked and criticised by the media because he insists on being Pope when what we want is for him to be Archbishop of Canterbury!

Within his tradition, his role is to lead and to influence directly and to get stuck in and call things as they are. This is what he has done. Whether you agree with him or not is quite irrelevant, especially if you are not Catholic. He will be remembered as a masterful Pope because he has managed to follow on from JPII with integrity while setting his own agenda. Yet aside from being Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger will go down in history for his theological contribution. In working theologians, Rowan Williams is one of few people who can compare with his significance but Jane Kramer demonstrate either fatal ignorance or ideological blindness in these kinds of comments. It would not be tolerated in an article on economics or anthropology or even the world of graphic novels.

Kramer writes:

however broad his concern and compassion necessarily are, he is also the Primate of a Western country where women priests—as well as a good number of openly gay priests—have played an impressive role in revitalizing Christian practice and, one would have to say, the Christian imagination [itallics mine]

I fear I will be misunderstood when I write this. But here goes ignorance! The ultimate problem here is not that the argument is wrong (although it may well be) but that it is actually not an argument that draws on valid language for Christian discourse. It is not from within the “Christian imagination” that Kramer writes, drawing stark distinctions between “Conservative Anglo-Catholics” as against “Evangelicals” who are grouped in with Charismatics (which I fear is something to be suspicious of?) and sometimes called fundamentalist as against “Liberals”. The confusion unravels when you get to this final paragraph and read those dreaded words, “a Western country”. Kramer thinks that Christianity is subservient to the western world. We see now why “Liberal” is such a good thing- because its liberal! And that’s what we are. Liberal westerners. Before we’re baptised Christians. Ironically, she needs Pope Benedict XVI to clear some things up for her…

When it comes to articles like this, it seems the press just doesn’t get religion.

Your Correspondent, Is tossing out punchlines that were never there.