Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The bishop, his wife, the pope and the press

What a to-do. Yesterday morning, as Melancholicus was driving to the university, he heard an item on RTÉ radio that was otherwise unremarkable in the grand scheme of things. It ought to have been a private matter between the persons concerned, but given that at least one of those persons is a high-ranking ecclesiastic and hence a public figure, the media mavens were delighted with the story and with the scope it gave them to vaunt both their ignorance and their prejudice regarding matters religious.

The news people treated it as something really, really controversial. An episcopal wife in the west of Ireland has abandoned her Anglican faith and embraced Catholicism. Her name is Anita Henderson. Her husband, the Right Rev. Richard Henderson, is the Anglican bishop of Tuam, Killala and Achonry. On Sunday last, October 14th, Mrs. Henderson was received by bishop John Fleming into the communion of the Roman Catholic Church.

The two bishops at Mrs. Henderson's reception into the Church. Bishop Henderson is even sporting his crozier; both men seem to be completely oblivious to the obvious clash of jurisdictions implied by this gesture. And what is Fleming doing wearing a cardinal's scarlet? Has there been a recent consistory of which Melancholicus is unaware, and of which Bishop Fleming was a beneficiary? [picture courtesy of Irish Angle]

Melancholicus wishes to extend his best wishes to Mrs. Henderson, and offers his prayers on her behalf. He is glad that she has the freedom to follow her conscience in matters of religion, the position of her husband notwithstanding. He is glad that (except in certain parts of Northern Ireland) one can today become a Catholic without fear of being pressed to death under heavy weights, or hanged, drawn and quartered, or that, conversely, one can go the other way without fear of being burned at the stake.

That the wife of an anglican bishop could enter the Roman Catholic Church so serenely, without anathemas and counter-anathemas being hurled back and forth between Catholics and Anglicans seems to have come as a disappointment, if not as a shock, to the news media, who seem to have been drooling in anticipation of some bitter and recriminatory clash more redolent of Reformation polemics than of today’s ecumenical chumminess.

On his way home in the evening, Melancholicus tuned in to Drivetime on RTÉ radio, and found somewhat to his chagrin that the media were still pursuing this story. Wondering why this should be, and why an individual’s change of religion should be considered so important to a society which scorns all forms of Christianity indifferently, he resisted the urge to switch over to Newstalk and kept listening - and all the more avidly when the Most Rev. John Neill, the Anglican Archbishop of Dublin, appeared as a guest on the programme.

The female presenter seemed rather taken aback that Archbishop Neill did not consider Mrs. Henderson’s conversion a scandal to the Church of Ireland. If she were hoping for some frothing at the mouth, she was disappointed. In any case, Archbishop Neill is a restrained and soft-spoken man, and much of what he had to say was perfectly reasonable. After commenting on how wonderful it is that the Churches can now live together in harmony, etc. etc., she asked Archbishop Neill for his views on Dominus Iesus, and his reaction to this recent re-statement of Catholic doctrine from the CDF, and then Melancholicus understood precisely why the media were so eager to run with this story: any excuse to bash the Catholic Church, and Pope Benedict in particular. The usual tired objections to perennial Catholic teaching were trotted out yet again; they are so shopworn that there is no need for Melancholicus to list them, much less refute them. It beggars belief how sections of the media will go out of their way to malign the holy father. The coverage of such issues by RTÉ is well known for its childish animus against Catholicism, and for its hatred of Benedict XVI, whom these illiterate stooges have repeatedly castigated for his alleged conservative authoritarianism.

Speaking of Catholicism, Mrs. Henderson will soon discover, alas, that there is not much of it left in the ‘renewed’ church she has lately joined. She may well find her new religion indistinguishable in almost every way from her former faith, except she will doubtless observe that liturgical worship in her new church is so much more poorly discharged than in the church in which her husband remains a bishop. She will discover that the blandness of the ICEL missal makes a poor showing beside the elegant poetry of the Book of Common Prayer. She will discover that on the far side of the Tiber, things are not all as they should be. Nevertheless, she is doubtless still aglow with the enthusiasm of the convert, and we pray that the grace of God will help her to overcome the obstacles ahead. There will be many of them.

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