The similarities between Archbishop Welby and Pope Francis are almost spooky — once you get past the fact that one is an Old Etonian evangelical Protestant and the other a South American Jesuit who prays in front of garlanded statues of Mary. Archbishop Welby was enthroned two days after Francis was inaugurated. That’s simple coincidence, but the other parallels tell us a lot.
Both men were plucked from senior but not prominent positions in their churches with a mandate to simplify structures of government that had suffocated their intellectual predecessors, who also resembled each other in slightly unfortunate ways. Rowan Williams and Benedict XVI seemed overwhelmed by the weight of office; both took the puzzling decision to retreat into their studies at a time of crisis in order to write books — Dr Williams on metaphor and icon-ography in Dostoevsky, Benedict on the life of Jesus. When they retired, early and of their own volition, their in-trays were stacked higher than they had been when they took office. Their fans were disappointed and the men charged with replacing them thought: we’re not going to let that happen again.
Enter the God Squad. In Britain, this is a term used to describe Christian Union types who talk without embarrassment about Jesus (albeit often in an embarrassing fashion). Justin Welby found his vocation at Holy Trinity, Brompton, whose public-school-educated worshippers had an unnerving habit of mentioning the Lord just as the guests were digging into the stilton. But these days ‘HTB’ has refined its evangelising and forms part of a global network of Christians who preach the Gospel without worrying too much about denominational boundaries or liturgical niceties.
I would agree with much of this assessment.
And come to think of it, I, too, am very comfortable in the presence of the so-called God Squad. More comfortable with them than I am with fellow Catholics who push for a different kind of ecumenism, what I call the lowest common denominator variety that focuses on social justice.
But, after all the hoops I had to jump through to become Catholic and all the things I have come to believe (though admittedly with some difficulty, for instance the need to have Sacramental Confession where you confess you sins in kind and number to a priest—-I do what I’m told, but having had the experience of direct confession to God and the cleansing tears of repentance and the sense that it’s not individual sins that get me in trouble, it’s a sin nature that needs to die . . .) I have some concerns.
First of all, the temptation to indifferentism. Having been a Just-Me-And-Jesus type of evangelical with this kind of pure faith springing from a personal relationship with Christ it can be easy to default to this and to think, well, there are essential doctrines and less essential doctrines. So let’s not worry about baptism–whether you baptize infants or not or whether it’s a symbol of regeneration or a sacrament; let’s not worry about Communion—whether you believe in Real Presence or not; let’s not worry about Apostolic Succession or whether you think women can be ordained or not.
Yet as a Catholic I see this all in a more nuanced, even paradoxical light. I am thankful for having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as evangelicals put it, and I also believe this is a great starting point. I also believe the Holy Spirit does lead us into all truth and I have met Protestants who have amazing grace, holy love and wise insights through their willingness to pray over Scripture and obey what God reveals to them.
But I do not think you can take some doctrines and classify them as non-essential. The Catholic faith is of a piece and you start snipping out this and tearing away this thread pretty soon it unravels.