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BEST OPTION FOR A BIG SOCIETY T Statesman that seemed decidedly

homas à Becket casts a long shadow. The archetypal “turbulent priest” was much invoked by the media last week when the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, wrote an article in the New cool towards the

Government’s concept of a Big Society. He mentioned, for instance, “… the widespread suspicion that this has been done for opportunistic or money-saving reasons … even the term has fast become painfully stale”. This more tepid tone contrasts with what he said last summer, when he offered “two and a half cheers” for the Big Society. Even in March, at King’s College, London, he was still fascinated by its possibilities and welcomed the fact it had opened up a serious debate. On none of these occasions did he merely dismiss the Big

Society as a “cover for cuts”, any more than Archbishop Nichols of Westminster was doing so when he said last week, “the growth of subsidiarity cannot be achieved simply by the withdrawal of the state”, or when he complained some weeks ago that the concept “lacked teeth”. Both archbishops want the Big Society project to succeed; both regard it as a return to an older and healthier model of civil society, in which faith has a key role to play. Both see the Government’s programme of public spend- ing cuts as a complication that could undermine it. There is nevertheless an obvious contrast, in that Archbishop Williams speaks, and is seen to be doing so, from within the Establishment; Archbishop Nichols leads a Catholic commu- nity that has only in the last generation been seen as part of the mainstream, and which some still see as slightly marginal to the main moral and political discourse in the nation. As Francis Davis describes in this week’s Tablet, Anglican bishops feel more at home with the culture of British politics than their Catholic counterparts, whose background and training are different. That is not necessarily a disadvantage, however, in a situ - ation where old political assumptions have exhausted their

usefulness. The post-war pattern of Clement Attlee’s centralised state was accepted by the Conservatives until the early 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher swung the state towards free- market economics. Both sides in this polarisation of political thought – state versus market – were uncongenial to Catholic thinking, making it difficult for Catholic bishops to enter the conversation. The politics of secular post-Enlightenment (or post-Protestant) individualism may have been a favourable environment for market economics, but the communitarian and relational emphasis offered by Catholic Social Teaching did not easily fit into this context. Remarkably, those priori- ties have suddenly become more relevant, not least with the failure of the economic system after the banking crash of 2008. So the question for the Catholic bishops is this: how to max- imise the value of what they have to offer, not only by themselves but using the rich array of Catholic agencies that have expanded their scope in recent years from serving the needs of Catholics to serving the common good regardless of faith allegiance. In the process, they have acquired an immense reserve of social capital. This is the meaning of the unfolding project, launched last November by the bishops of England and Wales under the name of Caritas, which is designed to bring Catholic social theory and practice under one broad umbrella. But to be taken seriously they need to have access to research. To put theory into practice, the theory has to be in place, and well-grounded in the relevant academic disciplines. The insti- tutional mechanism for doing this is not yet established. As Dr Williams has learned, archbishops can be dismissed and trivialised. But organisations in daily contact with the poor and most vulnerable in society can, once they achieve visibil- ity, command a different sort of attention. They could become Britain’s leading advocates for the underprivileged, the mani - festation of the famous “preferential option for the poor”. Without that dimension, the Big Society would look very small.


iturgical wars are alien to the true spirit of the Catholic liturgy, where it is “the Mass that matters” – to use the old expression – far more than any particular ver- sion of it. This instinctive understanding among the Catholic faithful seems to be behind the successful introduc- tion of a regular Tridentine Rite celebration at the Cambridge University Catholic chaplaincy. As a result, according to Dr John Casey, writing in this week’s Tablet, many young Catholics have come rather unexpectedly to appreciate the spir- itual riches of the older tradition. This would surely give immense satisfaction to Pope Benedict XVI, whose apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum in 2007 recognised the rite of John XXIII, the Pope who last updated the Tridentine form, as a permitted alternative to the post-Vatican II rite of Paul VI. But the Cambridge chaplain, Fr Alban McCoy, has hit a prob-


lem. At a recent celebration of the Tridentine Rite, as usual, he permitted a young woman to act as an altar server. Female altar servers were not known in the Catholic Church when the Tridentine Rite was the norm, and only gained formal approval, somewhat after the custom had become established, in 1994. A few highly conservative members of the congrega- tion objected, and have lobbied for a ruling from Rome declaring

2 | THE TABLET | 18 June 2011

Fr McCoy’s practice illicit. If the Vatican formally insists on the ban, and his local bishop orders him to comply, he would have two options. He could prohibit female altar servers at future chaplaincy Tridentine Masses where he presides, or stop saying them altogether. Fr McCoy might think the only honourable course open to him, if he is not to be guilty of insulting half the human race, is the latter. No priest is obliged to celebrate in the Tridentine form if he does not wish to do so, though he may be expected to offer facilities for another priest to celebrate it if requested. But that would split the chaplaincy congregation into oppos- ing factions. The ancient prohibition on women on the sanctuary of a Catholic church is based on a concept of the ritual unclean- liness of females, which is highly offensive to a modern Catholic woman, and to men too. It is high time this concept was regarded as heretical, having no place in Catholic thinking. If they persist with their troublemaking, protagonists of the

Tridentine form will have inflicted a fatal wound on their own cause. They will have exposed a hidden agenda, and branded themselves as incurable misogynists or worse. And those who were concerned that the reintroduction of the Tridentine Rite was a poisoned chalice will feel entirely vindicated.

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