Geoffrey has been on fine form, even for him, this week. I know I am not the only Catholic here who is grateful for the tone in which he approached that most difficult of ecumenical topics, Marian veneration. His exposition of his own tradition’s emphasis on the simplicity of God. I can see the close correlation, and of course at one level he is right. Christ is the only way to God. But the ways to Christ are many. It is, of course, perfectly possible to be a Christian and to have no particular devotion to Mary; it is not, though, possible to insult her and be a Christian, and it is a mark of Geoffrey’s discourse here that he never falls into any suspicion of that. It is possible to be a Christian and never attend a Mass with settings by Allegri or Mozart; but why would one want to, once one had heard it once?
I take, entirely, Geoffrey’s point about there being much in the Christian tradition for which one has no inclination because it was not part of one’s own culture. This is not so for Our Lady and the English. England was ‘Mary’s dowry’ and Walsingham the site of one of medieval Europe’s great pilgrimage centres. Archaeologists find plenty of Marian badges along the old pilgrimage routes, and latterly, Walsingham has, again, become a great shrine – indeed the Catholic National Shrine there has just secured a donation of £4m towards new accommodation – so great is the press there. So, although it is not part of Geoffrey’s own Baptist tradition, Marian veneration is not only extremely English, it is meeting growing needs in England. I would urge Geoffrey, if he can manage the time, to visit the Shrine – we would be very happy to put him and Mrs S up and to show them round.
When it comes to politics, Geoffrey is partly right and partly not. He is, of course, right that ambitious men have always used whatever source of power was to hand, and there can be no doubt that when both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England were at their zeniths in terms of the political culture of the time, they attracted a goodly number of careerists. But it should also be recalled that they attracted a great many saintly men and women who are there for the right reasons. St Ambrose of Milan gave up a fine secular career to take on the onerous burden of being a Bishop because the people of Milan wanted him. For every Wolsey, doing the king’s bidding, there was a Becket who would not; for every vicar of Bray, there was a Vicar of Hursley (Keble’s parish); the broad brush leaves a bold picture, but perhaps a misleading impression. The Catholic Church has often found itself opposed to secular power – and suffered for it. Where I would concur with Geoffrey, is that it has seldom been at its best when it has been hand in glove with the State.
The problem with writing about Catholic culture is that it infuses many different national cultures without being dominated by any of them. This creates many problems if one wishes to generalise, but actually accounts for the great success of the Catholic Church which really has, like Paul, been able to be all things to all men. But then what else would one expect from Christ’s Church?