In the same week that the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict is to visit Britain, the Roman Catholic Church continues to be embroiled in scandal. In a provocative gesture, the Vatican lashed out that sex abuse is rife in other religions as it seeks to contain a paedophilia scandal which has cost the American church more than $2 billion in compensation to victims. If things were not bad enough, Dan Brown’s latest novel came out two weeks ago. Although, this time, Rome can breathe a little sigh of relief — The Lost Symbol does not follow the familiar route of the mysterious signs and symbols of the Opus Dei sect and the Illuminati. But this will only be the briefest of respites. Peter’s Church is also locked in combat with the most elegant and sophisticated brand of fundamentalism ever in the form of Richard Dawkins’ atheism. For him the church is not The Greatest Show On Earth.
I have been thinking a little about these things in the context of my own journey of faith — if one can call it that — which has led me to a rewarding friendship with a Roman Catholic priest. I have recently combined my worship as an Anglo-Catholic at Cape Town’s St George’s Cathedral with an occasional visit to my friend’s church. John leads a large Catholic community with a big social justice presence (a big tick in this Jon’s book) in Cape Town’s northern suburbs. John often tells me that anti-Catholicism is society’s last remaining “acceptable prejudice”.
As the worship group led the congregation to the strains of one of the most beautiful Davidic Psalms, “as the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after thee … ” — the style of worship, the warmth to strangers and the heartfelt conviction of faith — gave me a sense of déjà vu on my first visit to John’s church. I was transported back in time to the church of my teenage years nearly a quarter-a-century-ago in a place far away. To the people of that fellowship — Pentecostal aligned — I owe a great debt. Through them, I inherited my faith — when, my heart, to use John Wesley’s lovely words, was “strangely warmed”. And, for the first, but not the last time, I experienced the loving kindness of an extended family. They helped me out of a scrape or two in the local boy’s home where I unhappily lived. Most enduringly and precious of all, I inherited a workable grasp of scripture which is indispensable to any speechwriter. I also like to think that this was a time when I learnt to laugh at myself more than others. And this was the time of life when I experienced the power of raw prejudice first.
My visits to John’s church confirmed to me that evangelicals/fundamentalists and Catholics get quite defensive when it is pointed out to them that their core beliefs are virtually identical: personal salvation through faith in Christ and the fellowship of believers. Let me give you an example of how this plays outs. A week or two back, Justin, a bright and engaging leader in John’s church, invited me to the latest Alpha group’s “graduation”. Alpha was established by a former lawyer, Nicky Gumbel, at Holy Trinity Brompton in London to present the basic principles of the Christian faith to new Christians in a modern and informal setting. While we ate lasagne made by Justin’s mom, a large screen played Hillsong music (a charismatic movement led by beautiful singers) and the redoubtable Robin, a young lady who reminded me of the adorable Saffy in Absolutely Fabulous, gave the 150 or so “graduates” a prep talk about faith — a personal relationship with Jesus and His injunction to share the good news. It is the same talk I have heard countless times for the last twenty-five years since I was a boy. This is fundamental (excuse the pun) stuff: the “substance”, to quote St Paul, of faith.
Christians of different denominations, I believe, mistakenly conflate their bright theatre props — smells and bells, mitres and zucchettos, Raphaelite paintings, tradition versus scripture (we know a real fundamentalist would live their life very differently if they occasionally read the Bible) and saints and icons — with theological substance. And though many evangelicals are often too quick to mock Catholics’ “signs and wonders”, charismatic devotees have their “gifts of the Spirit” too. I recently saw a splendid performance of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit in New York with Rupert Everett and Angela Lansbury of Murder She Wrote fame staring as Madame Arcati. When Madame Arcati inadvertently — and hilariously — summoned Charles’s dead first wife, Elvira, I was reminded of an equally absurd scene that I have seen countless times in charismatic services: a message comes through in “tongues” — say through Doris — and someone else — say Bert — then “interprets” the message. (I should quickly add the message is, allegedly, coming from God, not dead souls). Why the Holy Spirit would take such a tortuous route when the congregation, I presume, speak the same language is beyond me. But who knows? I’ve often been wrong before. My chic friend James Wilkinson, I swear, often successfully sends me telepathic messages to call him when my phone is on international roaming.
Let’s get back to Rome. Catholicism has received a double-edged fillip from two high-profile conversions in Britain in recent years. One was no less than that of the former prime minister, Tony Blair, soon after he left office. Blair’s Christian convictions are well-known and the broadcaster Jeremy Paxman once amusingly asked TB if he and George Bush prayed together. The other was Anne Widdecombe, a former Conservative junior minister, who, despite tough competition, ranks as the most ridiculous creature to have graced British politics. Both must be giving “Shepherd One” sleepless nights. While charming the prelates down Italy way, Blair, as is his fashion, has been giving high-profile speeches criticising Rome’s stance on subjects like homosexuality and contraception … and Widdecombe, well … just for being plain ridiculous.
As a liberal thinker, the Blair-Widdecombe divide presents me with some food for thought. Though I naturally agree with TB on just about everything from politics to faith, I cannot deny that Benedict’s hard-line views — as unpalatable as they might be to me — are like ambrosia to millions of young people who seek spiritual discipline in a world of moral relativity. I am told that the he went down a storm at last year’s Youth Day in Sydney. Strangely too, the views of the aforementioned ridiculous creature, Widdecombe, fall into this category. But that is as much as I am going to concede, especially as this is also a double-edged sword: for starters, Benedict’s foolish teachings on contraception are, in my view, fuelling Africa’s Aids death toll. As for Dan Brown’s books, the Vatican spin-doctors, with all due respect, are hapless. Rather than driving up sales of Brown’s books by instructing the faithful not to read them, Ratingzer should have played it differently. If he had declared in that inimical Teutonic voice, “Georg (his hunky secretary) and I could not put Angels and Demons down on the Lufthansa flight to Düsseldorf on Tuesday afternoon”, Catholic youth would have, in all probability, reached for The Shack instead.
Ah yes, The Shack. William P Young’s novel is perhaps the latest example of how, in language Richard Dawkins might endorse, the Catholics and evangelical species are cross-pollinating and adapting (watch this space: soon there will be The Shack classes in addition to Alpha). I took it with me for some light reading when I went on a spiritual retreat to a Dominican Order recently. The novel is poorly written and by any literary standard falls far short of CS Lewis’s The Lion, Witch & Wardrobe or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. As society is “dumbing doing”, so, apparently, are Christian apologists. Papa — God the Father — appears, using the popular media device (think Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost and The Matrix), as an African-American woman. But everyone, it appears, is reading it. Like Brown’s books, does this suggest that there is a thirst for spirituality or, as the Absolutely Fabulous Robin would put it, a “God-shaped hole”, in society? Do Brown’s books speak to us — on some level — of a belief that we inhabit a spiritual universe and that, yes, we seek, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, to find “the better angels of our nature”? And does the Great Sadness of Mack, the central character in The Shack, echo one of the famous and poignant rhetorical questions of our generation: “What comes of the broken-hearted?” I don’t know and I am genuinely asking what you think.
But one thing is for sure. Today, the church — especially the Roman Catholic Church — is engaged in a bruising battle for its survival and reputation. Yet, only the foolish would deny that the Good Shepherd’s words to a frightened and wonderfully human Peter (a.k.a. Simon) “upon this rock I will build my church … ” has, thus far, stood the test of time.