In an election season one is obliged to watch media figures and those they “cover” parsing words selectively and often completely out of context in order to promote a story or create an artificial crisis. Obviously such otherwise frightful conduct draws an audience and pays for advertisements or they wouldn’t do it. We get what we pay for. I am often reminded of the classroom sneak, who lurked around and then spread distorted stories or told the teacher in order to get someone in trouble. In totalitarian societies such people are dangerous, often mortally dangerous.
The church is a porous society. We take into it the habits we practice in what we term our secular lives. Very often we don’t seem to notice the great gulf fixed between what we profess as Christians and how we behave. When confronted, our justifications are often plainly pagan. It’s a bore to be told to turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, forgive until seventy times seven, to forgive “because they know not what they do.” All that sort of stuff is just fine for sermons but in the “real world” we have to be practical.
Today the Pope arrives in the United States. He is a brilliant person. Because the non-Roman Catholic Christian world, and even Eastern Orthodoxy, has become so divided on denominational, cultural, ethnic and over belief and practice, the papacy today occupies an extraordinarily powerful position in Christendom. Perhaps Benedict is less well-known and certainly less than an extrovert than his predecessor. Nevertheless he demonstrates that a Bishop of Rome may still speak for Christendom and draw the attention of even a Methodist, ex-Episcopalian President Bush.
Certainly there will be voices who raise what they call “justice” issues as an excuse to attack the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church and all and everyone who does not agree with their agenda. I could join them in lamenting aspects of Roman Catholic official teaching. Were that not true, I wouldn’t be an Anglican I would convert. What I do lament is that there no longer seems to be much difference between the vocabulary of political discourse and the language of faith. All is fair, it would seem, in politics, love and war! Thus the lamentable conduct of some Roman Catholic priests -and they too are humans towards whom we have a duty of prayer and reconciliation – is jumbled up with a list of causes such as abortion and the ordination of women without any attempt to create a hierarchy of importance. The result may well be as blind a set of prejudices as once lurked in the drawing rooms of devout Anglicans as they placed in honor Foxe’s Book of the Martyrs, together with the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorized Version of the Bible. (Foxe, you will remember wrote lurid biographies of those “Reformers” who were executed by “bloody” Mary 1.)
I am not for a moment suggesting that prejudice has been one-sided. My devout (sometimes) Roman Catholic aunt, whom I loved dearly, often chided me as an heretical and schismatic Anglican who was probably personally responsible for the deaths of the Elizabethan Roman Catholic martyrs. Yet we are not permitted surely to justify our own misdeeds on the grounds that those we oppose are just as bad!
My good friend Fr. Dan Martin, on his blog, has called for constructive empathy towards the liberal Establishment in the Episcopal Church and has been attacked for so doing. Yet it should be possible surely for Christians and even Episcopalians to entertain the thought that even those with whom we most disagree share with us elements of faith in very vital areas. We may wonder how they may recite the words of Creeds and Liturgy (what the language of those prayers actually say) and hold the beliefs they do, but while we have the positive duty to speak the truth in love as powerfully and winsomely as we may, we have no right to judge and condemn personally someone who has been baptized in the same water through which we have passed and shares in the same holy meal.
No doubt television reporters will slyly drop in controversial and negatively critical morsels as they “cover” the papal visit. Benedict XVI may get off a bit lighter than our own Archbishop Rowan does from the words of bloggers and pundits many of whom haven’t and maybe can’t read what he actually says. Our own Presiding Bishop, whose recent actions may hardly be viewed as non-controversial (her actions and those of our collective episcopate assembled in Texas may have done more actual harm in the Communion than controversies over same-sex blessings ) is daily insulted and attacked in a manner which goes far beyond the issues themselves.
As I write these words, after a bit of a silence as I get used to this new sphere of ministry, I reflect just how easy it is to tear down, to go for the jugular, to deride a person rather than a policy and then toddle off to eat lunch and have a nap. True the writers of scurrilous pamphlets, like the Elizabethan Marprelate tracts, have always been with us. Blogs just get the word out quicker, although I suspect mostly with far much less abiding affect.
I notice that the Church of England bishops are considering just how to protect parish priests from bullies. After forty-two years in the ordained ministry I still get a tummy ache when the righteous attack often under the guise of principle or virtue. Perhaps one should merely shrug ones shoulders and say “That’s life.” Yet surely there’s a more excellent way?
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