Pope Benedict XVI. Creative Commons CC0

Bringing only Christ

One month after Benedict XVI’s visit to Great Britain–which challenged everyone “to face up to a man in flesh and blood” for a true ecumenism–the Anglican priest Andrew Davison explains why “what we share in Christ is greater than what divides us.”
Fabrizio Rossi

Three days after his return to Rome, Benedict XVI described his visit to Great Britain as “a historic event.” Seventy thousand people took part in the Mass in Glasgow, 100,000 in the vigil in Hyde Park, and 80,000 in the beatification of Cardinal Newman. The faces, though, said more than the numbers, faces of believers and non-believers, hugging each other at the roadsides as the Pope passed; faces of the politicians listening to his words in Westminster Hall; that of Archbishop Rowan Williams, the Anglican Primate, who said much more than necessary with an embrace; and also the faces of the parents of Anton, 9 years old, fighting a tumor, who broke into tears when the Pope blessed the boy and laid his hands on their shoulders.

According to Reverend Andrew Davison, an Anglican clergyman who lectures in Doctrine at Westcott House, Cambridge, “This visit was a series of real encounters between people.” Taken up with the rush that precedes the beginning of courses in the university, he was not among the crowds that welcomed Benedict XVI, but he followed every step of the journey on television and in the newspapers–partly because he cannot forget that afternoon in 2002 when Ratzinger received him, a young student, to speak of theology. “Already then, I was struck by his human warmth, like his interest in me and my church”–that same warmth and interest which made him exclaim, before hundreds of Anglicans and Protestants together in Westminster Abbey, “Our commitment to Christian unity has no other foundation than our faith in Christ.”

What has this visit meant for you?
The Pope’s visit has encouraged me to wonder whether there is not something to be said for the idea that the Church universal might also be embodied in a particular human being. On the other hand, while there is not the width of a piece of paper between me and the Roman Catholic Church on almost every point that defines Catholicism–the saints, the Eucharist, and so on–there are still aspects of the Roman Catholic relation to the Pope that I find perplexing.

What do you mean?
Let’s start from a fact. A friend of mine from CL recently wrote to me, saying, “My entire life is a gift I wouldn’t have if that man in the helicopter [the Pope] wasn’t present in his Church.” It is not so much that I do not agree with this statement as that I cannot conceptualize it. This is almost the only way I am a Protestant: in the original 16th-century sense of protesting what the papacy became after the patristic period. However, this visit has provoked for me a new sense that there is more to the modern papacy than I have given it credit for.

As the Pope recalled in Westminster Abbey, “What we share in Christ is greater than what continues to divide us.”
This is exactly right, in that what we share in Christ is nothing less than Christ Himself, and what could compare to that? We are incorporated into Christ by Baptism, Anglicans and Roman Catholics alike. That does not mean, however, that our divisions are not significant, nor tragic. For instance, we share Christ but we cannot share together in Christ’s banquet in the Mass. Even though, in my experience, ecumenism is alive and well at a local, person-to-person level. I therefore find it particularly encouraging to hear the Pope speak these words.

What struck you during the Pope’s visit?
My first impression was of a man who was happy to be with us. It also reminded me of the importance of real encounters between people. He was going to bring Christian doctrine to a wide audience–the task I aspire to fulfill, although as one millionth part of what he can achieve. I was struck also by what he said to politicians and to representatives of the Brish society in Westminster Hall.

He recalled that when he said, “The world of reason and the world of faith–the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief–need one another… for the good of our civilization.”
The Pope continued his Regensburg Address, which was so tragically overpowered by some misunderstood comments about Islam, and it is a masterpiece on this topic, for instance. The place of faith in the public life of our nation, with the dangers of secularism, was the leitmotif of his visit. It was well chosen. The secularization of Britain is a complex matter. In some ways, the life of our country is still remarkably Christian. As an example, in Cambridge, where I now teach, there are 31 colleges. Almost all have an Anglican priest as fulltime chaplain, and some have more than one. On the other hand, there is a new and strident atheism that is vocal in intellectual circles, despite the shockingly poor intellectual quality of its arguments.

In front of 4,000 students, the Pope exhorted all young people “not to pursue one limited goal” because, “What God wants most of all for each one of you is that you should become holy.” What does it mean today to hear these words?
The Pope’s point is a good one. His point is obvious in that this is the call of Christ and of the Gospel: we have one life to live and in it we ought to rise to the challenge of the Christian life, not bumbling through it in mediocrity. The less-than-obvious point is that this is exactly the right approach to take with young people. They want something to aspire to, to capture their imagination. Tell an adult Christian that discipleship might mean loosing everything, but that in doing so we gain Christ and can help to change the world, and they are often wary. Tell this to a child and he or she will want to sign up with Christ’s movement. Nothing does this better than to hold up before young people the lives of the saints.

Big Ben. Creative Commons CC0

Where do the hostility of the mass media to the visit come from?
I had never had a great deal of sympathy for the idea that the media in the UK are fundamentally hostile to Christianity. I would have said that they were unsympathetic and perhaps uncomprehending, but not hostile. I have always thought that is ridiculous and I still do: look at Pakistan, look at Saudi Arabia–that shows us what it means to be persecuted. The Papal visit did change my mind over the media, however.

In what sense?
The coverage in the weeks before was often quite simply hostile and unfair. This then raises two questions. First, why is religion viewed so badly by some periodicals? Maybe unlike the situation on the Continent, left-wing has not meant anti-Christian in the UK. These newspapers still carry the flag for the sort of international vision and concern for the poor that I know the Roman Catholic Church exemplifies. It is a challenge for Catholics, and Anglicans for that matter, to win the respect of people, many of whom are genuinely “people of good will.”

How do you explain, instead, the radical involvement of almost all the newspapers who later acknowledged the visit’s success?
It struck me very much. The Telegraph appreciated the “great courage” displayed by the Pope, The Mail spoke of the British “thirst for faith.” It is a sign that the visit was a success. It must also be because people got some measure of Benedict XVI as a man, as a Christian, as a bishop. It is easy to pour scorn on an idea of a person, a caricature; it is more difficult to write ill of someone who has appeared to you as a person of flesh and blood, of noble words and a kind and gentle manner.

There are those who feared that the beatification of John Henry Newman, the Anglican Vicar of Oxford, converted to Catholicism, would have created obstacles in the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue…
Not at all. Learning about the shape of his life, I have been struck by the supreme importance of friendship for him, and of life in community. Starting with his days as a student and then fellow in Oxford, right through to his later years as an Oratorian, Newman lived a communal life. His motto, we know, is “heart speaks to heart.” That is what I have seen in Communion and Liberation. I know Newman as a writer but in CL I think I see something of his spirit lived practically. It does seem to me, however, that Newman’s life story only serves to confirm the example of Communion and Liberation: holiness grows in the context of a life lived together.