Comment

 

Let us rejoice at the election of Pope Benedict XVI. When, on the evening of Tuesday, 19 April, Cardinal Estévez, in slow and careful Latin, announced the name of the new Pope to the huge crowd which had rushed to St Peter’s Square to hear the news, it was received with cheers, though somewhat muted cheers. When Joseph Ratzinger himself appeared on the balcony a few moments later, his words were simple and brief. After the late, great John Paul, it is entirely fitting that the Church should be served by ‘a simple, humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard’.

That the detractors and opponents were quick to voice their anxieties and disappointment was also appropriate, and perhaps in the end helpful. Pope Benedict was not elected to be a media star but to continue the work of his predecessor. Adulation is not the best context within which to receive the teaching of someone acknowledged even by his adversaries to be one of the finest theologians of the age.

We are loyal Anglicans. We know that in matters political and juridical ‘the Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm of England’ (Article XXXVII Of the Civil Magistrates). For all the horrors of the Tudor regime, and the Civil War in the century that followed, for all the errors, injustice and bloodshed, we can accept our history and be proud of our constitutional monarchy and our democratic liberties.

We can also be happy with one of Cardinal Ratzinger’s most important documents, Dominus Iesus, when it made clear that other ecclesial communities such as our own ‘suffer from defects’, or as it has been popularly understood in the media ‘are not proper churches’. The teaching is clear and far more generous than brief quotation suggests.

It accords closely with the Church of England’s own self-understanding (Article XIX Of the Church, and at least the following two articles). We are not The Church. We are not A Church, complete unto ourselves. We are but part of Christ’s Church, and a defective part – increasingly defective as smaller and smaller ecclesial units within the Communion claim greater and greater powers for themselves and their synods.

This is not a criticism of Pope John Paul, but it is a fact that he used his power to proclaim and promote Christian teaching. That the abuse of power carries severe consequences is universally admitted. The consequences of the use of power are less widely recognized and understood. John Paul used his political power to remarkable effect. He is credited with changing the face of Europe no less, and no one who followed the United Nations conferences of the Nineties could be ignorant of his wider reach. While one rejoices at his extraordinary achievement, one can also be nervous at what the use of such power within the body of Christ’s servant Church might mean.

What it must surely mean is that the present Pope cannot use the power available to him in the manner of his predecessor. What the Church needs and has received is a ‘simple, humble servant’ who will focus on the core of the faith once received. That the guardian of the Christian faith should be so able a theologian is a gift to the whole Church.

The initial reaction from the media-friendly spokesmen of the liberal wing has been one of huge disappointment. Much of the language has been that of power, as though the conclave had been a battle, which they had (unfairly) lost. This may be true, but if Benedict’s papacy is not to be one of power, but a concentration upon the heart of the received tradition, it may leave much greater possibility for a liberal humanism to be more widely understood and received.

It may, ironically, be the defeat of the so-called liberal wing that allows a greater tolerance and liberalism to be accepted. If the battle for the heart of the Church has been won, that makes tolerance more not less possible. It is not that the Church becomes more liberal, but that those who receive its teaching may understand how it emerges from the solid rock of the core.

‘A papacy at the service of all Christendom.’ Too often, Anglicans have adhered to this vision in the belief that it signifies a weakened papacy, one without the power to discipline small off-shore ecclesial communities. If the present Pope can show us that the issue is not one of power, greater or lesser, but of authority, then truly he will have continued the ecumenical vision of his predecessor.

A Bishop of Rome who, as chief bishop of the Church, can teach us the scriptural faith and revive our confidence in the Gospel of Christ, would indeed be a holy father to us all. As loyal Anglicans, we owe our greater loyalty to the visible Church of Christ, and we rejoice in a Pastor who will lead us in proclaiming Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and his saving work for all the world.

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