Pope’s visit “raised the profile of Christianity” – Archbishop’s report to GB
Before I move on to my prepared Presidential Address, I want to say something about the Papal visit last week. I was introduced to the Pope twice, once at Holyrood House in Edinburgh and once at Lambeth Palace. He asked me whether I spoke Welsh and I told him it was my first language and that Archbishop Rowan and I often spoke in Welsh if we didn’t want others around us to understand.
I did tell him that Welsh was an older language than English but I forbore from quoting the words of a former distinguished professor of Welsh that “Welsh was a developed language when English was a series of shrieks in the forest of Schleswig Holstein”. I thought that might be a step too far. Archbishop Rowan, however, did tell him that he and I had been born on different sides of the same mountain. I hadn’t realised before that Gwaun Cae Gurwen and Ystrad Gynlais were quite so close but I bow to his superior knowledge in that, as in all things.
although obviously, as an Anglican, I do not agree with Roman Catholic teaching on many things and some of the recent statements and actions emanating from Rome have not been helpful, I nevertheless think that this visit went a long way in trying to mend fences between our two churches. You could see the obvious warmth and chemistry between the Archbishop and the Pope and the Pope went out of his way to say that he wanted to stress what we had in common and not what our differences were, when he spoke to the bishops at Lambeth Palace. He did give a huge chunk of one day to Anglican affairs, both at Lambeth and at Westminster Abbey and it’s got to be remembered that it was a visit of only 3.5 days to Great Britain. My hope now is that this will help the ARCIC talks which will begin in November. I certainly think that the Pope understands Britain better and understands Anglicanism better as a result of his visit and it’s quite obvious from his carefully crafted remarks that he really does know a great deal about us.
Secondly, I think his visit has raised the profile of Christianity in this country. Archbishop Rowan, I think, put his finger on it at Lambeth Palace when he said, and he’s talking of course as the leader of an established church, that we do not want, as a church, to have special privileges as far as our relationships with the State is concerned. In other words, we do not expect what we have to say to be accepted and acted upon simply because it is we who say it.
However, there has been a tendency in recent years in some parts of Government and the Civil Service, although happily not in Wales, and also too by some secularists, humanists and atheists, to argue that religion has no place at all in the public square. In other words, Christians should not even have a voice as far as issues of the day are concerned. Their view is that religion is a totally private matter and has no contribution at all to make on any issue. When, therefore, some of us have talked about the moral significance of legislation or policies, for example to do with education, assisted dying, Trident, the effect of economic cuts on the poorest members of our society, we have been told that these are purely secular decisions and faith communities have nothing to offer. Not only has that been a denial of our human rights, but an assumption that those who have no faith come to issues without any preconceptions or assumptions, which is manifestly not the case.
Pope Benedict did, in his speeches, counter that view and last week all the bishops of the United Kingdom, meeting in Oxford, heard Baroness Warsi say that as far as the coalition government was concerned, there was a definite place at the table for people of faith. I quote, “if anyone suggests that this government does not understand, does not appreciate, does not defend people of faith, dare I even say, does not do God, then I hope that what I have to say will go some way in banishing that myth”.
The Pope addressed the assembled members of the House of Commons and House of Lords and people from all walks of life in Westminster Hall. There were 2000 people in all, including 4 former Prime Ministers. He was given a standing ovation and his theme was that religion had a part to play in the life of this nation especially because its history and culture was deeply shaped by the Christian faith. Secularists cannot demand that Christian insights should not even be considered in the discussion of public issues.
Thirdly and lastly, the fact that two splendid acts of worship were televised in full – one from Westminster Abbey and one from Westminster Cathedral, showed something about the beauty of worship and what the Christian faith, in the end, is all about. It is centred on God and concerned about humanity because human beings are made in God’s image and the two are inextricably bound up and I think that that came across in those wonderful acts of worship. It was Anglicanism and Catholicism at their very best. We should rejoice that those acts were deemed by the BBC to be so important that they should be accessible to this nation and indeed across the world.
The Jews did not proselytise, they relied on the power of worship to convert. We in turn ought not to underestimate the effect wonderful worship can have in touching people’s hearts and minds and therefore as a means of evangelism.