Old issues keep cropping up, time and again. Although in some places a constructive and engaged dialogue continues, in other places there is merely shouting (or as the French, in their unashamedly un-pc way, say un dialogue de sourds). Currently, there are two very different examples of this phenomenon that are floating around the public consciousness (one rather more than the other), although there was a third example, to my mind in no way less important, which has been obliterated from the forum.
The first topic is the one that is all over the UK media, being the question of same-sex marriage and its near certain introduction into the English legal system (indeed the government now tells us that it doesn't matter how many people say they are for or against it, it is going to happen, come what may). I am not going to dig a hole for myself by getting involved in that debate (and so it is unlikely that any comments will be published) : there are already plenty, far more eloquent and informed than I could ever be, on both sides of the discussion, who have made their case, just as there are those on both sides of the debate who have merely shouted at each other. However, I will say a couple of things, writing purely in a personal capacity.
It is to be hoped that people on both sides of the debate understand that people on the other side do genuinely feel strongly about their position. They each very honestly believe that they are putting forward a case that is robust, just, and in many ways, they feel, so obvious that it barely need be spoken. That last part being the reason why the debate often gets so heated. Some express themselves better than others, some show a deeper awareness of the contrary arguments than others, the words of all of them alike are twisted into grotesque (yes, I know the reference I am making, and no, read the original, Cardinal O'Brien did not say that anyone was grotesque) soundbites by the media, but underneath it all, they know that they sincerely hold the views they express and they know that their debating partners are no less sincere in their belief.
There are times when this slips and the situation turns unpleasant, though I won't name names : we can all think of examples on both sides.
It should be emphasised that whatever else it is doing, and whatever else it may be perceived to be doing, the Catholic Church is not throwing itself into an attack on any particular group in this debate. Those who like to deride the Catholic Church sometimes talk about its "unhealthy" obsession with sin, and how it imbues an enduring sense of "Catholic guilt" in its members : well, that in itself is an old debate, but in this context I would answer the "charge" by saying that all Catholics are indeed taught that they all sin, every one of them, each in their own ways, that none of them should feel superior to anyone else in this regard, and most importantly that they can all, if they want, receive God's forgiveness. In support of this assertion, I could cite a familiar Bible text about motes, but in addition I would draw your attention to this recent homily given by the Holy Father.
The Catholic Church is defending something, not attacking something. The letter from the Archbishop of Westminster and the Archbishop of Southwark read out in parishes last Sunday morning was a reasoned and calm, but very clear, defence of the traditional understanding of the institution of marriage.
One big fear - and you don't have to agree with the Catholic Church's understanding of marriage to see this - is that the government just hasn't thought this through in detail. The implications are not insignificant (for example, an interesting debate recently about something as basic as vocabulary, will the words husband, wife and even mother and father become politically incorrect?). There is a special concern in the Church of England, whose statement yesterday points out the naivety of imagining that the dividing line between civil and religious marriage is quite as neat and tidy as seems to be assumed in the case of the established church, whose clergy are licensed to perform marriages.
If the change is brought in, and it must be said that it seems very likely that it will be, it will probably be manageable for the Catholic Church to find a way to work with the new realities. It will be messy, it will be difficult, but it will somehow be achievable. There is after all the precedent of the mariage civil and the mariage réligieux, as well as similar precedents from a few other countries, even if those do not quite replicate the context we will find here. The time will surely come when even this will not be acceptable, and one can foresee the day when the government demands that any organisation that conducts marriages should do so for any who ask, regardless of how the request fits the organisation's own criteria for marriage. When that day comes, it might be necessary, as was suggested on the Valle Adurni blog a few weeks ago, for the Catholic Church simply to stop conducting any marriage ceremonies at all in order not to be in a position where it breaks the law where it "supplies services" to some but not to others.
The poor old CofE will have a tougher time, partly on account of its established status, but also on account of its rapidly growing body of evangelicals, who will struggle to come to an accommodation on this with the liberal wing, many of whom would have no issue at all with conducting same-sex marriage ceremonies.
It must be conceded that those who have no religious belief must find it immensely frustrating that a group of people, however large, and based on whatever history and tradition, is perceived as trying to restrict some of those who have no interest in them. It behoves those advocating a traditional understanding of marriage to bear that in mind, just as we would ask those looking to bring same-sex marriage into existence to take account of the genuine reasons why people do not agree with them, rather than just lazily assuming that it must be down to one kind of prejudice or another.
A Stonewall lobbyist remarked that Catholics who are not in favour of same sex marriage should simply be careful to ensure that they don't enter into such an arrangement. Some people found that flippant, but I must admit that I found it quite funny. In return, a mildly amusing anecdote about the famous Labour MP Tom Driberg, later Lord Bradwell (immortalised in a rather unkind, if funny, 1977 Derek and Clive sketch about an exchange between taxi drivers that is definitely not for the faint of heart).
Driberg, despite never making a secret of his homosexuality, decided to get married in 1951. In a ceremony at St Mary's Bourne St in June that year (described as "outrageously ornate" by his biographer), at which his bride was first baptised and then entered church to the accompaniment of an organ arrangement of The Red Flag, Driberg made vows that he didn't end up keeping in front of a full house. Among those present, so (possibly apocryphal) Bourne St legend relates, was Winston Churchill, who is said to have remarked unkindly of the bride's looks "Well, buggers can't be choosers."
On a more serious note, Driberg left instructions for the sermon to be given at his funeral. It wasn't at all a celebration of how wonderful he was, of what a joyous and exuberant life he had led. It was a powerful address, given by the Revd Gerald Irvine, on how Driberg had fallen short in his life, how he (exactly like everyone else, no better, no worse) was a sinner, which of the Seven Deadly Sins had plagued him most. All of us can learn a lesson from Driberg in that respect, an awareness that no matter what our own little cocktail of pecadilloes might be, we all fall short, every one of us.
Interestingly, although Driberg maintained his lifelong Anglo-Catholicism (Lancing to Pusey House to St Mary's Bourne Street and onwards), he was supportive of someone whose life's path crossed his own on many occasions but who left Anglo-Catholicism. Evelyn Waugh did what in 1930 was, even if not criminal, barely less scandalous socially than were Driberg's pastimes - he became a Catholic. Did Driberg reject him as a bigot? No - Driberg was Waugh's only guest upon his reception into the Catholic Church, and Driberg gave Waugh column space in the Daily Express subsequently to defend himself against charges of blasphemy from The Tablet (now doesn't that sound strange to the modern ear).
Another old issue that crops up again and again is the path to reunion between the Church of England and the Catholic Church. Everyone with even the slightest interest in Christian Unity rejoices that the Archbishop of Canterbury and Holy Father jointly attended Vespers in Rome, and that together they gave thanks for the mission begun by St Gregory the Great of sending St Augustine of Canterbury to increase the spread of Christendom in the British Isles and to strengthen the links between the Church in England and Rome. That Rowan Williams goes to Rome so often, and continues to be invited back, is a very good thing. Christian Unity is a Gospel imperative, and however distant it seems, we must all seek it.
Still, there are those who see this as proof that everything can carry on exactly as before, that there are no new impediments to Christian Unity being gleefully erected by parts of the Anglican Communion. I regret that those people would seem to be in Egyptian mode. A strange comment on this was made by the American Episcopal Church's Pierre Whalon, who took the opportunity to have a little go at the Ordinariates formed under Anglicanorum Coetibus, declaring that they had no ecclesiological basis and that as pastoral measures would only last a decade or two. Well, as an American he ought to know that the US Pastoral Provision, creating the Anglican Use in the Catholic Church in the USA was brought in 32 years ago. Furthermore, as the head of ECUSA's European branch, which overlaps with the Church of England's Diocese in Europe, he ought to know something about the endurance and ecclesiology of multiple jurisdictions of the same denomination co-existing in the same geographic territory.
This film of the event by Rome Reports shows the clear and genuine affection and respect that exists between the Holy Father and the Archbishop of Canterbury. However, even though Pope Benedict XVI is most definitely the Pope of Christian Unity, the debate has moved on and there can be few who seriously believe that any kind of corporate reunion is possible in their lifetime (even if there were many who believed precisely that even twenty or thirty years ago).
Finally, the third old story that came briefly to public attention, yet has quickly been displaced by the two old stories above, particularly the first one, is abortion. That, in itself, is sad.
However, the saddest thing is that those academic ethicists who argued (even if in the context of academia) that infanticide (or if you prefer, post natal abortion) could be justified did not expect the reaction they got.
We all know the difficult cases where there are heart-rending tales used to argue in favour of and against abortion. The victim of rape who can't bear the thought of a permanent reminder of the awful crime that befell her. The mother of several children who cannot see how she could possibly cope with more children without causing severe difficulties for her existing children. The adult who might so nearly have been aborted when in the womb but wasn't. The disabled child who brought joy to their parents. We all understand the difficulties here, all of us know that glib answers just won't do, and we all know that you can find people for and against any such cases (even when Church teaching is very clear).
However, is the world really such a horrible place that shock and revulsion at the very idea of infanticide come as a surprise to some?