THE resignation of the pope, whatever the reason that motivated it, may well have a consequence far beyond that of its intended purpose. It reveals that the papacy is simply a job, an office. And by so doing, it rightly challenges some of the cult of personality that has built up around that office, as if the job affords the office holder some special proximity to God. It doesn’t.
The purposes of the Almighty do not flow exclusively through the narrow weir of the papacy. But this news isn’t really news to Protestants, nor indeed to the English.
Henry VIII, admittedly one of the greatest cultural criminals of English history, created the Church of England as a means of having his way with Anne Boleyn. His vast destructive ego demanded a legitimate male heir at all costs — and that required marriage. If it also required a break with Rome, then so be it. Nobody was going to tell Henry what he could or couldn’t do, not even the pope. He wasn’t especially enamoured of those earnest Protestant reformers and their new European ways. They were just a means to an end.
Still to this day our coinage reflects Henry’s belief that he could shoulder the weight of Catholic Christianity on his own, without the pope. “Elizabeth II DG FD” is what is still written on all British coins. FD is an abbreviation of fidei defensor — defender of the faith. It was the honorific given to Henry by the pope several years before the break with Rome. And he wasn’t going to give that one up.
So he effectively made himself the English pope — transferring the glamour of papacy to the English crown — and appropriated the wealth of the monasteries, knocking to the ground these traditional strongholds of Vatican power. He cared little that the monasteries were the National Health Service (the UK’s publicly funded healthcare system) of the medieval world. He cared little that they were great centres of education and learning. That is why he was a cultural criminal of world historical proportions. But he wasn’t a Protestant ideologue. Henry created a new church because the old one said no to him.
Henry’s original sin is loaded into the constitutional DNA of the Church of England. “Is this a Protestant church or a Catholic church?” is a question tour guides at English cathedrals get asked every day. And the answer is completely baffling to visitors from mainland Europe: “It’s both.” It is pretty much impossible to explain to a Spanish tourist with broken English how this can possibly be. And it seemed pretty much impossible to several generations following Henry VIII as well. Yet I would describe myself as a Catholic, just not a Roman Catholic.
And that is not simply because I like smells and bells. Catholicism is bigger than the job description of a bishop of an Italian city. To be a Catholic is to regard oneself a part of the universal church, one the stretches back in time, yes, but one also that spreads out over the four corners of the earth.
Catholic Protestants, like me, believe in a form of Christianity with a far greater degree of institutional subsidiarity, a religion that is not just top down and doctrinally authoritarian. I guess that is why, at a certain level, we take a certain pride in our theological squabbling, however unedifying that may be at times. Politically, we are natural democrats. And democracy is messy, without the dangerous glamour of any cult of the strong leader.
The Church of England was born in disgrace. This has always seemed to me its strongest feature. What better way for a church to be inoculated from the outset against its own self-importance? — The Guardian, London