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The Catholic Church and civil society FRANCIS DAVIS


Players in the public square


Catholic bishops are often overshadowed in the national debate by their Anglican counterparts, as shown in the furore caused by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s critique of the Coalition Government last week. A Catholic academic and political adviser asks why this may be


O n Monday, as the dust settled on


his criticism of the Coalition’s social policies in the New Statesman, guests gathered at one of the


Archbishop of Canterbury’s regular public affairs receptions. Unlike similar Catholic events, those present reached beyond the Church’s members to agnostics, charity leaders and academics, not to mention parliamen- tarians and prelates. The same evening, the English Catholic bishops had, despite repeated approaches from the BBC, declined to participate in a majorNewsnight debate on assisted dying on the grounds that they did not want to turn it into a religious discussion. The Church of England had no such qualms. The Anglican Bishop of Exeter, Michael Langrish, appeared in the Newsnight debate and the former Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, took part in a similar discussion on Radio 4’s Today programme the following morning. Both the Church of England and the Catholic Church are anxious to influence the public agenda. The Newsnight episode is just the latest instance of the Catholic bishops’ reticence and limited profile, compared with their Anglican counterparts. Time and again, the Church of England – and some other bodies such as the Jewish Leadership Council – appear to be more sure-footed in their engagement with Government and civil society. Why is this, and what is holding back the Catholic Church? Part of the difficulty is the contrasting backgrounds, formation, experi- ence and responsibilities of Catholic and Anglican bishops. The Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, and Dr Williams lead Churches whose pathways to the nation are as different as if their leaders had lived in two separate worlds. For a start, there are more than 100 Church


of England bishops across 43 dioceses com- pared with 29 Catholic bishops across 19 dioceses in England. Catholic bishops in these dioceses shepherd around 4,000 clergy in England while the Anglican tally is double that number, bringing with them spouses and children whose joys and sorrows have direct consequences for the success of diocesan ministry. The Anglicans have more than twice the number of schools – 4,820 with more than a million pupils – giving them greater presence in communities and opportunities for encounter. These schools are mainly primaries


6 | THE TABLET | 18 June 2011


the nation’s first volunteer bureau, chairing major urban regeneration boards, serving on charitable foundations, major housing bodies and in the health service.


while the Catholic Church has far more secondary schools. There are 2,000 Catholic schools altogether in England and Wales educating 860,000 children. I have also selected for closer examination the 19 Church of England bishops whose dio- ceses most closely compare with their Catholic counterparts. In these dioceses, Catholic bishops are generally older and remain in post longer than the Anglicans. The average Catholic episcopal age is 66 and their average service a decade at the diocesan helm com- pared to 60 and just over seven years for the Anglicans. Church of England bishops nor- mally retire a decade younger than their Catholic counterparts. This contrast in institutional reach and episcopal age is mirrored by matters of for- mation and experience. Each of the 19 Church of England bishops I surveyed had at least one degree from Oxford, Cambridge, London or another leading university. Only nine Catholic bishops in England have degrees from outside Catholic institutions, with some having pursued all their studies from second- ary age in a seminary. Four of the current Anglican bishops have published more books between them than all English Catholic bishops combined since the Second Vatican Council. This is not only a question of class, as half of both groups surveyed were schooled in grammar or other state schools Significantly, Anglican bishops have been widely involved in external bodies before and after their elevation. These include founding


Such outreach is shaped by the Anglican commitment to the “place” of a parish as well as the “congregation”. The needs of local neigh- bourhoods are key criteria in the appointment of diocesan clergy. Episcopal selection includes wide consultation with universities, local gov- ernment, charities and others so that the skills of the appointee will add value to wider civic life, most especially when poverty and unem- ployment are significant local questions. This Anglican rootedness locally links the Church to concrete policy debates and so feeds upwards into the utterances of bishops. Consequently, former chief executive of the Refugee Council, Baroness (Maeve) Sherlock, celebrates the “different insights” that the Anglican Church can bring, “especially in areas where there is an uphill struggle such as the defence of asylum seekers”. Former prime-ministerial faith envoy John


Battle agrees: “But the problem for senior religious leaders is that they behave as if we live in a culture where the voice of reason can easily be recognised and where the media will give us a fair hearing … Especially in the Catholic case, speeches and statements fall on uncomprehending ears … This needs painstaking relationship-building not just in Parliament, but in Government, across the civil service, and elsewhere to ensure that words are read in context … That takes real professionalism.”


But in Catholic circles, “professionalism” has been recently criticised by the Holy See when it is decoupled from a very explicit attempt to make the Catholic vision publicly clear. In blocking the re-election of Lesley- Anne Knight for a second term as secretary general of the Church’s global welfare arm, Caritas Internationalis, Roman authorities explicitly criticised her and the wider feder- ation for relying on “professionalism” at the expense of conforming words, ethos and advo- cacy to the teaching and language of the Magisterium. For the Holy See, Catholic action must be distinctive. There was a considered strategy behind the Catholic bishops’ decision not to appear on Newsnight. Their press office explained their reasoning thus: “Why play into the hands of the assisted suicide lobby by legitimating their mantra that opposition to euthanasia comes


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