Lecture for Friends of the Anglican Centre, Rome


Lecture for Friends of the Anglican Centre, Rome given via Zoom on Monday 26th October 2020

Thank you for the invitation to offer this Lecture for Friends of the Anglican Centre, Rome, recalling the historic visit of Pope Benedict to the United Kingdom in 2010. His visit included a memorable event in Lambeth Palace, and the celebration of Evening Prayer, in Westminster Abbey, where this lecture was due to have taken place. Pope Benedict also gave a remarkable lecture in Westminster Hall, marked, uniquely, by the presence of every living Prime Minister, an honour not shown to His Holiness in any other country he visited. I would like to draw on words spoken on those three occasions.

There are two themes that characterise these addresses: the continued search for a more visible unity among Christians and the challenge we face of proclaiming and enacting the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ in our contemporary society.

There is no doubting the warmth with which we approach the first of these, just as there is no doubting the radical shifts in our society and culture to which we must respond in the second. Indeed, in his visit, Pope Benedict spoke of both the Abbey and Palace of Westminster as symbolising foundations of a way of life which are no longer the stable points of reference they once were. Both institutions have suffered wounds to their credibility, especially our two Churches, particularly with the exposure of our terrible failings over decades to protect those in our care from misuse of power, leaving them victims of awful abuse and neglect.

Entering Westminster Abbey ten years ago, Pope Benedict spoke immediately of our quest for unity. He said: 'I come here today as a pilgrim from Rome, to pray before the tomb of Saint Edward the Confessor and to join you in imploring the gift of Christian unity. May these moments of prayer and friendship confirm us in love for Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour, and in common witness to the enduring power of the Gospel to illumine the future of this great nation'. 

Later he added these words about the Confessor: 'Edward, King of England, remains a model of Christian witness and an example of that true grandeur to which the Lord summons his disciples ... the grandeur of a humility and obedience grounded in Christ’s own example (cf. Phil 2:6-8), the grandeur of a fidelity which does not hesitate to embrace the mystery of the Cross out of undying love for the divine Master and unfailing hope in his promises' (cf. Mk 10:43-44).

In these words, and others, Pope Benedict laid the foundation for our continuing quest for greater visible unity so that we may fulfil the will of our Saviour. This same foundation serves to shape and invigorate our task of being an effective presence in our world today. As Pope Benedict stated in Lambeth Palace:

'We Christians must never hesitate to proclaim our faith in the uniqueness of the salvation won for us by Christ, and to explore together a deeper understanding of the means he has placed at our disposal for attaining that salvation. God “wants all to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4), and that truth is nothing other than Jesus Christ, eternal Son of the Father, who has reconciled all things in himself by the power of his Cross. In fidelity to the Lord’s will, we recognise that the Church is called to be inclusive, yet never at the expense of Christian truth. Herein lies the dilemma facing all who are genuinely committed to the ecumenical journey.'

You will recall that this visit took place at the time of the major financial collapse which rocked not only banks but undermined so many businesses and industries globally. As ever, it was the poor who suffered the most.

Today we face a different yet maybe greater disaster which is threatening long term viability and survival of so many aspects of our world economy and stability. It is still unfolding and will demand new approaches to many aspects of our common life.

During his Visit, Pope Benedict also paid tribute to another great English saint, the Venerable Bede. He said: ‘At the dawn of a new age in the life of society and of the Church, Bede understood both the importance of fidelity to the word of God as transmitted by the apostolic tradition, and the need for creative openness to new developments and to the demands of a sound implantation of the Gospel in contemporary language and culture.' He invoked Bede as an example and intercessor for us in our moment of great challenge.

Ten years have passed since those remarks were offered to us and in that time the context of evangelisation has changed profoundly. Some of these changes are worth noting, both those which are destructive and those which bear the seed of hope for a new order.

Who can doubt that our language, our discourse, has become degraded? Our national conversation, at almost any level, has hardly become more humane or authentic. In contrast, it has become uglier and often openly violent. This is true for some political discourse, with political leaders in a number of countries, including democracies, at times deploying speech that seems intended to incite hatred. We live with sections of the media vying to be more extreme, in divide issues such as Brexit. This is true also for the quasi warfare of some social media discourse, the 'cancelling' of those who hold opposing views, the undermining of the notion of free speech, even in universities and institutions that were once bastions of that important value. This has been described as online platforms contributing to ‘a crisis of hate, a crisis of health and a crisis of truth’. All of this is establishing a culture of confrontation in which, I fear, there seems to be little shame attached to lying. 

In contrast to this, and indeed I suggest in response to it, so many young people seek out what appears to them as truth, consistency and fairness. There is something very appealing about this generation's idealism and generosity, in, for example, the commitment to respond to the destructive misuses of the created world, and a determination to see the elimination of racial discrimination.

Alongside all the suffering it has brought, the present pandemic has produced patterns of behaviour that are welcome. There has been an upsurge in the practical generosity in which people respond to the need of those around them. We realise that the virus circulating among us is indiscriminate. We are in this same boat together. High fences or gated housing are not a defence against it. Social isolation has led to expressions of greater solidarity. The neighbourhood has become more important: the corner shop that stayed open, the elderly cared for, the food bank kept full. The importance of what we’ve thought of as 'menial tasks' realised afresh: those keeping our street clean, the shelves restocked, the food delivered. Their work regained a dignity and many received the applause of the public. In many such ways, our eyes were opened to the reality around us, rather than distant promises or the 'online' fantasies that easily become our escape.  Even distance took on a new interpretation with the benefits of those same online facilities creating contact without travel, for family, for friends, for business, for the nurture of body, mind and spirit.

In his recent Encyclical Letter, Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis has reflected extensively on both the negative and positive aspects of the world-wide response to this pandemic. His perspective is global and his comments wide-ranging. He covers economic injustices and the need to reduce, not increase, the gaps between rich and poor. He exhorts all in political life to see their fundamental role as one of loving service rather than holding on to power. He highlights the need for all people to engage with one another with an openness of heart in the search for a true 'social friendship' which reaches beyond all current divisions. He bases his heartfelt appeal on the truth that we all have a common Father and are therefore sisters and brothers and the life that we share is endowed with a dignity that surpasses all other claims. Human dignity, as a gift of God, is the keystone to this encyclical as are the ethical and moral demands which flow from a proper recognition of that dignity in every circumstance.

Central to this encyclical is the chapter titled 'Dialogue and Friendship in Society'. This echoes, of course, a central theme of Pope Benedict's memorable address in Westminster Hall.

Speaking of the rich tradition of British democracy, Pope Benedict said:

'Britain has emerged as a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law. While couched in different language, Catholic social teaching has much in common with this approach, in its overriding concern to safeguard the unique dignity of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, and in its emphasis on the duty of the civil authority to foster the common good.'

The Pope then posed searching questions which face every democratic government, as it determines the basis for its actions and for the duties and restrictions it places on its people.

He said: 'If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident – herein lies the real challenge for democracy.'

Repeating the challenge, he continued:

'Where, then, is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles.'

This, then, was Benedict's essential point: that religious faith, faith in God, can help to shed light on the underlying truths of our human nature and our condition and thereby make a key contribution to political and public life. Nor did he shy away from addressing the difficult question of religiously inspired extremism, affirming that just as faith can assist reason to see matters clearly, so too reason must act as a purifying corrective in the life, beliefs and activities of believers. As his predecessor St John Paul stated so vividly: Faith and reason are the two wings on which the human spirit soars. One wing alone will not get us off the ground.

Pope Benedict therefore concluded:

'This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilisation.'

Dialogue, we know, is a much-used appeal. But it is much less practiced. In fact, it is a demanding disciple which requires commitment, patience and most of all mutual respect. The corrosion of these qualities in so much of our public discourse today makes the appeal of Pope Benedict all the more relevant.

But let me return for a moment to the recent analysis of Pope Francis. He affirms, steadfastly, that a country flourishes when constructive dialogue occurs between its many rich cultural components: popular culture, university culture, artistic culture, technological culture, economic culture, family culture and media culture (119). He insists that such dialogue depends on some agreement on basic values: a readiness to accept the other's point of view and to admit that it may include legitimate convictions and concerns (203).

I think we are some way off such a vision and certainly this practice of dialogue between differing perspectives and convictions. Rather than dialogue we experience a great clamouring for attention in our conflicted world. Without some firm ground, a 'terra firma', on which to stand, everything becomes so fluid as to create nothing more than tidal waves of protest, whirlpools of aggression, and swirling currents of clashing assertions that defeat all but the strongest swimmer. Pope Francis puts it more directly: relativism always brings the risk that some alleged truth or other will be imposed by the powerful or the clever (209). In contrast, he insists that 'If a country is to have a future, it must respect the truth of our human dignity and submit to that truth'. Indeed, it is this, he says, which makes a nation 'noble and decent' (207).

Pope Francis goes on to talk about the 'art of encounter', a willingness to build a way of life, or culture, in which we strive to transcend our differences, allowing them to coexist, complement, enrich and reciprocally illuminate one another. And, typically, he insists that the enlightened perspective for us to take is that of seeing things from 'the periphery'. So economic endeavour is best assessed from the perspective of the unemployed; political reality from the view of the dispossessed; ecclesiastical life from the view of the 'poor of the Lord'.

Each of these is difficult to tackle. There are those today who are working hard to highlight the risks attached to high levels of unemployment, such as the emerging UK Alliance for Full Employment. The need for training opportunities and for extra protection for families struggling with debilitating cuts in income are among its aims. Political parties have to strive to reconnect, in circumstances in which confidence in political leadership may well be at a low ebb. And we, in the churches, face the same challenge. It is so important that we recognise the strengthening of all the local initiatives that have taken place during these months of the pandemic. Increasingly, local leadership is critical, to be enabled and served from ‘the top’. A culture of encounter is critical for us all.

These are great challenges and difficult to put into practice. But they are not impossible. I have been impressed by the number of 'dialogues' taking place on the airways in the last six months. It is somehow easier to get people together from different perspectives in an 'on-line' forum than one involving travel, expense, and social assertiveness. You will know of these too, and no doubt be thinking about how they can be sustained.

But you will have noted that this perspective insistently depends on a recognition of the dignity of every person and the value given to every life. Service of this dignity comes not only in the words of dialogue but also in the impact of actions. Indeed, the old adage is right: often actions speak more loudly.

The proclamation of the Gospel, our first imperative, then, may now rest more on what we do than on what we say. Public discourse does not favour religious belief, nor give it a ready welcome. Yet nobody fails to recognise the value of what is being done in the name of Jesus up and down this land in response to poverty and loneliness. The recent National Churches Trust’s Report even puts forward a financial measure of this work: at least £12 billion annually. In every place, and in every variety of partnership, the love of Christ urges his disciples to reach out to those in the sharpest need. And this need is growing. While this pandemic may well have brought people together, in this present phase its effects are amplifying divisions in society, centred around housing, poverty and resourcefulness. While some survive this storm in luxury yachts, other cling on to life-rafts. 

In so many places, literally hundreds of people are fed every day through simple solidarity. As these problems of homelessness and unemployment worsen, I believe this response will increase, not fade away. 

In the Diocese of Westminster, for example, our Caritas Food Collective has seen a 400% increase in the take up of a foodbank service in Finchley since the lockdown began. In Borehamwood, there are over 200% more people being assisted than last year and in Hayes, there are now 75 families being supported each week, whereas in March there were only 15. In total 249 projects offer food relief, with over 20,000 meals provided during the school holidays in cooperation with the Felix Project. Indeed, these projects are run in cooperation with other Christian churches and often with other faiths and they represent only a fraction of the remarkable work being done quietly in so many places. Significantly, an overriding value that shapes this effort is a singular determination that offering this assistance must be carried out in a way that recognises and enhances the dignity of the individuals and families that are its recipients.

This is a dialogue of action between people of every walk of life whose paths may never have crossed in better times. This is an act of welcome and encounter bringing again to the fore the qualities that make this land 'noble and decent'.

Of course, such actions are in no measure limited to those motivated by faith. It is our common humanity that stirs and disturbs us, refreshing in us that sense of common origin and common destiny. We rejoice in this great well of decency and generosity which abounds. In our religious endeavour, we wish to cast a light on its deepest well-springs, despite our failings and our manifest inconsistencies. 

A motif for the visit of Pope Benedict was this: religion, belief in God, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a treasure that enriches our humanity to be discovered afresh. This is our task: not to lose heart but to attune ourselves to the task of bearing this vital witness in hard circumstances. But since when has the Christian faith truly flourished in favourable times? The Church in its institutional embodiment may well have flourished, even for centuries. Yet its steady and deep heartbeat, the pulse of the Holy Spirit, is often left unheard in the activities of expansion. Now we live in different times. We do not lament, but with a fresh humility, and contrition, strive to show forth the way of the Lord.

Let me conclude with the final appeal of Pope Benedict, made ten years ago, but as relevant today as it was then.

'Religion is not a problem for legislators to solve but a vital contributor to the national conversation. In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalisation of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none. And there are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience. These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square. I would invite all of you, therefore, within your respective spheres of influence, to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life.'

Thank you for your attention.


✠ Cardinal Vincent Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster