Sunday, December 23, 2007

Tony goes to Rome

Accept no substitutes?
Look, I'm the bloody Pope!
—His Holiness John Cleese
The rumors have been around for years, so no one is expressing much surprise at the news that former British prime minister Tony Blair has been received into the Roman Catholic Church. He bided his time until he was a private citizen again, presumably because it would have been awkward to leave his nation's established church while serving as its chief executive. I presume that the transition was not particularly traumatic, especially as high-church Anglicanism is simply Catholicism Lite. As an Anglican prelate once ingratiatingly said to the host of one of those PBS travel shows, the Church of England offers the best of both worlds: an amalgam of Protestant thought and Catholic universalism. Well, maybe.

Last year I had occasion to sit through a ceremony in an Episcopal church. For those of you who don't follow such things, the Episcopal Church is the American branch of Anglicanism. Except, of course, for those Episcopal dioceses that have seceded from the Anglican communion over such hot-button issues as gay clergy and the ordination of women. Some breakaway Episcopalians have gone whole-hog into rebellion by signing up as Roman Catholics, which church adamantly refuses holy orders to women and allows gay men to become priests only if they keep silent about it (or discreetly limit their attention to altar boys). Others have been shifting their allegiance to a dissident South American bishop in lieu of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the mainstream Anglican communion.

In looking around the Episcopal church, I noticed many traditionally Catholic features, such as the Stations of the Cross displayed on the walls, the celebrant's vestments, and the raised altar. There was a large cross suspended in the front of the church, over the altar, but it was simply a cross, not a crucifix. The key distinction is the presence or absence of a Christ figure on the cross. Catholics use a crucifix as a reminder of the crucifixion and the commemoration of that sacrifice in the rituals of the mass. Protestants generally prefer that the Christ figure be absent from the cross in token of his purported resurrection. To the observant eye, there were plenty of clues that it wasn't really a Catholic church, especially since the traditional priestly vestments were being worn by a woman.

I picked up the Book of Common Prayer and paged through it. It contained a lot of special feast days, similar to what one might find in a Catholic missal. One thing, however, particularly struck me. The Episcopalian feast days celebrated the holy lives of at least three Roman Catholic popes. The book didn't call them that, of course, but there they were: Fabian (January 20), Gregory the Great (March 12), and Leo the Great (November 10). Each one is described in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer as “Bishop of Rome,” which is indeed one of the most important papal titles. Nevertheless, I suspect these men would be surprised to find themselves cited in the prayer book of a church that is not in communion with the papal see in Rome. While the papal office was still evolving in Fabian's time, certainly both Leo and Gregory would have had no doubts about the matter. Both would not have hesitated to question the stinting honor accorded them in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and would have enthusiastically agreed with the words of the divine John Cleese, as he portrayed the pope in the “Penultimate Supper” skit: “Look, I'm the bloody Pope, I am!”

It must be awkward to belong to a religion whose raison d'être is the dissolution of an unhappy king's marriage. That said, no one should expect religions to be established on sensible grounds. They're systems of belief rather than systems of knowledge. Richard Feynman once recounted his experience at trying to pick holes in the religious practices of highly observant Jews of his acquaintance, only to discover that they had heard it all before and were prepared with detailed “refutations” of every objection he raised. It's notable that they did not convert him and inspire Feynman to reclaim the Jewish faith of his forefathers, for their arguments were defensive armor rather than effective recruitment tools. Feynman saw it as mind games rather than as genuine logical reasoning.

Episcopalians have long since come to terms with the exceedingly human elements in their church's origin. In making his transition to Catholicism, Tony Blair will now have one less minor embarrassment to deal with, since Catholicism can claim it has less tendency to compromise with the ways of the world. If Blair is going to bother to be a believing Christian, he may as well imbibe it neat, without any watering down. That, however, is making a virtue of unbending dogma, and too many people still think that's a good way to go. The former prime minister of Britain is now one of those people.


The Ridger, FCD said...

As a former Episcopalian, I think you're wrong in a major feature. Episcopalians do not "belong to a religion whose raison d'être is the dissolution of an unhappy king's marriage." They belong to a CHURCH whose etc. A church whose origin is actually the attempt of a king to create a national religion, rather than one whose members owed allegiance to a foreign political leader. The religion of Episcopalians is Christianity.

Interrobang said...

The religion of Episcopalians is Christianity.

Not according to the Catholics, the Protestant Fundamentalist Evangelicals, the Lutherans, and everybody else. Speaking as a non-Christian, it always amuses me that Christians spend so much time pointing at each other trying to play "We're Christians and you're not!" with each other, while simultaneously rushing to embrace the label themselves.

Zeno, I'm not sure what you mean by "mind games rather than as genuine logical reasoning." At least as far as I'm concerned, you can have perfectly good logical reasoning that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with anything real. In fact, you can spend a long time mentally masturbating with formal logic, if that's what you're into. Meh. I'm a rhetorician, so what do I know -- it's all about style over substance to me anyway... *grin*

Zeno said...

Ridger, it may be a small technical point, but your clarification is perfectly reasonable.

Interrobang, I must certainly concede your point: You can reason perfectly logically from a wacky set of premises (and nontrivially so, provided the premises aren't contradictory to each other). In fact, I routinely play this game, especially when crossing rhetorical swords with Protestant evangelicals who want to "prove" to me that Catholicism isn't really Christianity. I then enthusiastically take up cudgels on behalf of my former religion and have a better-than-average record of technical knock-outs. I even wrote a post about it titled Axiomatic Catholicism, which you'll find listed in the sidebar among my favorites.