Faith and Reason: A passage full of sound and foam: Why should it matter and who should care when a public figure announces a change of allegiance from the Church of England to the Church of Rome? Paul Handley tests the recent case of John Gummer.
Saturday 05 March 1994
There we were, being so terribly adult about it all. The ordination of women had gone through. Some people were unhappy about it and wanted to leave the Church. Perfectly all right, we said. A matter of personal conscience, nothing to do with misogyny, everyone walks their own pilgrim path, so sorry you feel that way, go with our blessing - that sort of thing.
Then John Gummer announces that he is now in 'communion with the See of St Peter' and we all go 'mmmff]' into our sleeves.
'I never thought we would see the benefits of women's ordination so soon,' says someone. 'That will stop the Romans being quite so triumphalistic,' says another, and we all smirk. Ordinands at one theological college celebrated with a champagne breakfast. Shame on us. I would feel more guilty if the Catholics were behaving any better. 'How could you do this to us?' one of them wailed. 'How quickly can I become an Anglican?' asked
Mr Gummer scored six out of ten for the relatively discreet way he crossed over, more Duchess of Kent than Ann Widdecombe. But he dropped several points for reporting his exchange with George Carey and for his need to label his old church 'little more than a sect' like the Methodists and URC. (How generous of him to include them in his insults.)
The urge to slag off your old church is almost irresistible to a convert, of course. What better way to convince yourself that you made the right move? One former Anglican priest has had himself made a columnist on a Sunday paper so he can do just this week after week.
Of course, disparaging the Church of England will be nothing new to Mr Gummer. What will be interesting is how long he can last before he starts on the Church of Rome. I can't imagine, for instance, that some of its social policies are particularly to his liking. And even the Holy Father departs from the Conservative Party manifesto from time to time.
But perhaps the humility of the new boy will keep him silent for a bit. 'We should be humble and not suggest that the Church is jolly lucky to have us,' he said at the beginning of the week, uncharacteristically. The truth of the matter is that his crossing the bar is unremarkable. The man is simply not liked enough for there to be much sadness of farewell at his embarkation. And the Roman Catholic Church is not different enough from the Church of England for his passage to be full of anything more than sound and foam.
There was a time when things were different. In 1874, when the Marquess of Ripon converted to Rome, Queen Victoria reportedly could talk of nothing else. A prominent peer in Gladstone's administration, Ripon had waited till the Liberals were temporarily out of power, but the impact of his conversion was undiminished.
The Times announced that Ripon had 'renounced his mental and moral freedom' and declared that 'a statesman who becomes a convert to Roman Catholicism forfeits at once the confidence of the English people . . . To become a Roman Catholic and remain a thorough Englishman are - it cannot be disguised - almost incompatible conditions.' Those who had been born Catholics had some excuse, the paper acknowledged, but those who converted betrayed 'an irreparable weakness of character' and a 'fatal obliquity of temperament'.
Nowadays, such feelings of betrayal can be left to the West Ham supporters and their reception of their former player Paul Ince. Denominations are no longer seen as rival teams, or at least, they shouldn't be. Next time Mr Gummer attends a state service at Westminster Abbey, the canons are unlikely to make mocking signs of the cross and pelt him with rosaries.
The change in atmosphere has been caused in part by the increased traffic between churches. As any churchwarden will tell you, there is a constant wash of people from one church to another. John Gummer is just one small stick in a thick layer of flotsam, people leaving churches, joining churches, changing denominations, changing religions, for all sorts of reasons.
The hymns might be trite, the sermons poor, the services at inconvenient times; the Sunday School might be uninspired, the heating inadequate, the congregation unfriendly. And the directions people move in are as varied as the reasons they give.
The difference between these people and Mr Gummer is that they don't demand an audience with the Archbishop of Canterbury to tell him that they're leaving because their PCC has just decided to buy 60 copies of Hymns For Today's Church. Nor do they write to Cardinal Hume because their friend has started to go to the Methodists and they think they'll go too.
This is not to trivialise Mr Gummer's decision. Such local reasons as these are just as serious and immediate as disliking the gender of the minister or wishing to align yourself with an elderly man on the continent of Europe many of whose followers do their best to ignore him.
Some might argue that they are more serious. It is quite understandable for someone to walk out of a cafe because they don't like the food. You would think it a bit odd, though, wouldn't you, if somebody stormed out simply because the manager employed both men and women as waiters? Especially if they claimed to have nothing against women waiters but just disputed the manager's right to employ them.
Because the food in the cafe is exactly the same as it was before 27 February. So indisputably the same that one wonders what Mr Gummer thinks he has been eating all these years. The funny thing is, of course, that the food in the cafe across the road is the same too, even if the seasoning might be more to Mr Gummer's taste. It is, after all, the same God.
Dr Carey put this to Mr Gummer a little more elegantly: his conversion would 'only move you from one part of Christ's Universal Church to another and, despite the pain of separation, at the deepest level of communion we shall remain one'.
Still in communion with Mr Gummer, then. That should stifle the sniggers.
Paul Handley is a columnist for the Church Times and editor of the Sign.
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