Thursday, July 17, 2008

Flying Saints and Anglicans Crossing the Tiber

Wow. The saints are really getting around these days. First the Vatican up and flies Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati from Italy to Sydney for World Youth Day. Party on down, Bl. PG!

Now, there’s talk of exhuming John Henry Newman and moving him to a more veneration-friendly site inside the city of Birmingham. Newman is now buried at Rednal Hill outside Birmingham, at his oratory’s country house. Sharing the burial site with him is his lifelong friend Ambrose St. John, regarding whose death Newman wrote, "I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband's or a wife's, but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or any one's sorrow greater, than mine."

In the year after St. John’s death, Newman made a written statement of his own express wishes for burial. The statement declares, “I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Fr Ambrose St John’s grave—and I give this as my last, my imperative will.”

St. John was buried in a coffin draped with a pall bearing Newman’s cardinal’s motto, Cor ad cor loquitur. The lifelong friends share a tombstone with the inscription Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem.

It will be interesting to see whether Newman’s express wishes to be buried with St. John will be honored when Newman’s body is moved for wider veneration. Somehow, I doubt that St. John will be making this particular trek into Birmingham with Newman.

All this against the backdrop of the current deliberations in Lambeth. I have refrained from blogging much about what is going on with the Anglican communion, (hough it fascinates me) for two reasons. One is that I flatly do not trust all the publicity being generated by the media about Lambeth. The other is that there are so many facets to the story of what is happening in the Anglican communion today (in my view), that one can easily miss the real treasure for the bright bits of tinfoil over which the media wish us to twitter.

The untrustworthiness of media accounts: I blogged extensively about this issue during the recent United Methodist General Conference. Simply put, the mainstream media are in the pocket of well-heeled special interest groups like the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD). This and other groups deliberately working tensions within the worldwide Anglican communion to try to stop forward movement on ordination of women bishops and gay clergy have been adroitly successful at planting media soundbites about the dissolution of the Anglican communion.

As Lambeth begins, some blogs are reporting that IRD is jetting hold-the-line Anglicans to Lambeth from dioceses around the world. At the last gathering of the worldwide Anglican communion, a bishop in attendance told me, IRD and its allies set up a state-of-the-art media center in the conference grounds. From that center, instant messages could be beamed out around the world, to elicit instant pressure from the interest groups among the faithful seeking to hold the line on women and gays. The center also connected to delegates on the scene, to assure that they were bombarded with constant instructions about how to vote on various issues.

Or so I was told, and I do not doubt the word of the bishop telling me about these activities. Very similar reports arose at the latest United Methodist General Conference. The right wing of these churches is well-funded, and is intent on manipulating the consciousness of the public (and of church members) regarding issues such as women bishops and ordination of openly gay clergy and bishops.

And because IRD and its allies have abundant money and strong ties to important neoconservative political leaders in many places, the media listen,when IRD issues statements. Much of the fanfare about schism in the Anglican communion is a media frenzy emanating directly from IRD—which wants to divide the Anglican and Methodist (and Presbyterian) churches, insofar as it cannot force these churches to toe the neoconservative political line.

This is not to say that there are not strong divisions in worldwide Anglicanism. It is not to say that some kind of fraying will not occur in coming months. What I do want to underscore, however, is that anyone following the story of what is happening in the Anglican communion would be well advised to go beyond media soundbites, in trying to understand all the ramifications of this story.

In my view, when saints start jetting around the world and when their bodies are exhumed for easier veneration, something momentous is happening. The wish to move Newman is clearly linked to the Anglican story. This move is, in some respects, an in-your-face declaration on the part of the Roman Catholic church to the Anglican communion: see, we have the saint (and the sanctity); is it any wonder that those concerned to maintain fidelity to the ancient ways are now crossing the Tiber back to Rome?

When saints fly and jump from grave to grave, one can be assured that Christianity is, well, in a state of flux. The problem is to understand the precise nature of this flux.

There are dimensions to the story of the proposed move of some Anglican/Episcopalian bishops and whole parishes to Rome that are as baffling as the choice to make Blessed Pier Giorgio fly to Sydney or to dig up Newman’s body. Not a few of these bishops and parishes represent precisely the kind of macho-homophobic Christianity that tormented Newman throughout his life.

Newman was nelly. The muscular evangelical Anglicans of his day—the Greg Venables—made no bones about it. In their view, the whole Oxford contingent, with its love of ecclesiastical lace and its infatuation with the smell of incense, had more than a little lightness in its loafers. In Newman’s period, the muscular Christians, for whom God made male and female and thus it ever shall be, would have as lief gone over to lace and incense as they’d have condemned the rapacious capitalism of captains of industry during the Victorian period.

And yet, today, it’s supposedly going to be these very folks—the saviors of Christianity from decadent, limp-wristed, lisping clergy—who are going to swim the Tiber. It’s supposedly going to be these folks who now kiss the ruby slippers of Benedict XVI and who flock to Birmingham to pray at Newman’s tomb—at the tomb of the saint their forefathers repudiated in his lifetime.

There are, of course, other Anglican contingents purportedly ready to go over to Rome. Those opposing the ordination of women bishops not uncommonly include many Anglo-Catholics who have always felt strong sympathy for Newman. If defections occur—if both Anglo-Catholics and muscular macho-homophobic Anglican evangelicals head to Rome—it will be very interesting to see how the tensions between the two play out once they are united in a new Roman Catholic configuration.

And how those tensions affect the Roman church itself. After all, one of the effects of taking in these refugees fleeing women bishops and (openly) gay clergy will be the implementation of more and more Anglican rites within the Roman communion. Which is to say, people will be praying differently than other Roman Catholics do—at a time when the Vatican is stressing the need for liturgical conformity and the return to older rites.

And the Anglicans will bring with them the pesky question of married clergy—to be specific, the pesky question of why Rome eagerly accepts married Anglican clergy defecting from Canterbury, while absolutely slamming the door against married clergy in the Roman rite.

A prediction: not a significant number of Anglicans will defect. But the exodus will be painted in media accounts as highly significant, as the splitting up of the Anglican communion. And another prediction: some of those who cross the Tiber will regret having done so, when they see how things work in the imperial system they are willingly reimposing on themselves. As Newman himself said after his conversion, those who want to ride serenely in the barque of Peter had best not look too closely what goes on in the engine room. If the worldwide clerical abuse crisis should have taught us anything, it is that imperial systems of governance, even in churches (or especially in churches?) all too often act imperious: they blithely ignore the will of those they govern; they willingly dupe when the imperial system is at stake—they willingly lie and dissimulate—and collude with worldly powers whose hands are not always immaculate.

Catholicism is, unfortunately, not the high-minded, morally upright business Newman dreamed it was, when he turned to Rome. And for that reason, one wonders about the unforeseen consequences of the choice to move his body. This choice is, of course, part and parcel of the same media-circus mentality that led the Vatican to jet Pier Giorgio Frassati to Sydney. It’s part and parcel of a strategy of image management that reduces the Christian message to easily appropriated soundbites—the kind of crude, instant, reduced and packaged-for-consumption information the clergy imagine the laity need in order to stay faithful.

But in the case of Newman, wider veneration may open up some unanticipated interest in the theology of a man who has not been canonized, in part, up to now precisely because his theology is simply so inconvenient for Rome. It was Newman, after all, who pointed out that in the Arian crisis, the sensus fidelium preserved orthodox understandings of the divine-human nature of Christ, when the clergy by and large had abdicated orthodoxy.

It was Newman who wrote that doctrines are not true if they are not received by the faithful. It was Newman who insisted that when the sensus fidelium differs significantly from a position handed down by the magisterium, the proper approach of the magisterium is not to enforce conformity, but to ask why the Spirit is speaking in such a different way among the people of God.

And it was Newman who once raised his glass at a banquet and proposed the following toast: to the Pope, yes. But to conscience first! These are hardly theological sentiments now governing the polity Rome wants to push on the faithful. What moldy, inconvenient theological ideas might we now cause to tumble forth, when we open Newman’s grave?

And, once again, what to do with St. John? Newman explicitly asked to be buried with his lifelong friend. It is no secret that another reason the Vatican has not moved forward quickly with Newman’s canonization cause is that he was thought to be, as a graduate-school classmate of mine once said, a bit of a homosexual.

What strange new energies might the Vatican be releasing now, in exhuming Newman and making him a saint, just as it receives converts from Albion’s shores fleeing the gaying up of the Anglo churches? What will it mean to the gay community to have, at last, one of us—one who wrote about the sorrow of losing a companion as deeper than the sorrow of losing a spouse—canonized at this strange, interesting moment in Christian history?

Ironically, Newman is just the nightmare so many of those muscular Christians now fording the Tiber are trying to escape . . . . Even as Rome opens it arms to the muscular Anglicans, it shoves the icon of a gay saint into the hands of those now arriving on Tiber's eastern shores. Perchance this will give gay-fleeing Anglicans a chance to pause and reflect more carefully about what it means to live within an imperial structure that brooks no opposition and conducts no polls to ascertain how its teachings are being received by the faithful.

1 comment:

colkoch said...

Bill, I just got a chance to catch up with your blog. I too was kind of shaking my head with all the sudden interest in promoting the cause of sainthood for Cardinal Newman.

It doesn't make much sense given the current climate of official Church gay bashing and co current fanatical upholding of magesterial authority. Newman was certainly no champion of Vatican I.

I don't think you can make the point about IRD enough. That this well funded front for some very fascist folk is stirring the Anglican pot can not be denied. That a lot of them are Catholic should not be overlooked.

On a related note, if the next WYD is held in Madrid that will be all the confirmation I need that WYD is nothing but a media charade cynically using blind youthful enthusiasm to send very political messages.