A British-American bluestocking living in the UK writes about politics, pop culture, and emerging new paradigms as they unfold on both sides of the Atlantic. (New content.)

Monday, 20 September 2010

Britain Does God

Richard Dawkins says there is no God. And his best-selling books in Britain have spoken for the majority. Or have they?

It was to be a very controversial Papal visit. The humanists were up in arms, the gay community was protesting, child abuse victims were holding up pictures of the age at which they had been sexually molested. Cardinal Walter Kasper, a close confidante of the Pope who was scheduled to visit with him, courted ire by candidly stating  that Britain was "atheist" and that getting off at Heathrow was like arriving at a "third world country." Security was high and everyone was in an uproar. The Pope and the Catholic Church is irrelevant! cried the naysayers. And to be honest, they might be right about the atheist moniker. The beautiful cathedrals and chapels that dot the countryside are relatively empty on Sunday being visited mostly by tourists who come to gawk at the intricacy  that went into building some of the most beautiful edifices in the world.  The smaller country chapels have been converted into smart flats with choir lofts as bedrooms. You aren't allowed to sport crosses or Stars of David to work. Don't mention God, you might offend someone. 

The United Kingdom is very secular. In a country whose anthem is "Jerusalem the Golden",  and a country that is steeped in the mythology of Jesus coming to Glastonbury (where a sprig from the crown of thorns has supposedly blossomed into a tree on Wearyall Hill), God is the word that is not uttered. Speaking of God makes people extremely uncomfortable. God is relegated in the same category as UFO's or conspiracy theories. There seems to be no God here except the god of consumption and celebrity. 

So his visit was a surprise. In what was a very interesting turnaround, the British public warmly welcomed the Pope. There weren't the cheering throngs that awaited his predecessor, John Paul II, but the crowds were enthusiastic. Some came out of curiosity and some came because they had looked forward to his visit. But they came. In droves.

Here the British have seemingly buried the idea of God in one of the ancient earthen mounds that dot its countryside,so the visit was rather poignant. There was no large ceremony that usually greets a head of State, simply a meeting with the Queen and Prince Philip at Holyroodhouse in Scotland and visits across the country culminating in an outdoor Mass in Hyde Park, London.

The British always threaten to protest, but they rarely do. They aren't like the French, who actually do go out to campaign against something they find offensive. The Brits rant and grumble alot, but then just carry on with their business. This was apparent as the protestors who were threatening to turn out in the hundreds ended up just being a smattering along the parade routes.

In no way am I a big fan of the Catholic Church. Having been reluctantly raised in it, I was made aware very early on of the hypocrisy that is rampant in its corridors: it refuses to allow priests to marry;  it will not ordain women; it denounces homosexuality and yet, many priests are gay; it has a history of priests as sexual predators; it sent seven million innocent women and gay men to their death during the Inquisition and it turned a blind eye to the plight of the Jews during World War II. That is not exactly a great track record for an institution whose head is supposed to be "an embodiment of Christ on earth."  We won't even go into the bacchanals of the Popes during the medieval times or that our current Pope Benedict was a member of the Hitler Youth (something which he said he was forced to do). The admiration I have for the church is in the individual members I have met who are attempting to live the message of Jesus that "God is Love". You cannot judge the whole of the Catholic Church by the miscreants that it has harboured either willingly or unwillingly. We have yet to find out the extent to which the Church has turned its back on what has been going on in its corridors of power. If a Pope ever had a public relations fiasco, it is Pope Benedict. On his shoulders rests every sin that the Church has committed upon others and on itself.

So, it was a surprise night in Hyde Park. London had  only seen crowds like these for concerts. Eighty-thousand people crowded into Hyde Park to listen to the Pope's message of reconciliation. Many of them were young people. They came from all over Britain. The Pope apologized for the abuse that so many had suffered at the hands of priests and met personally with five abuse victims expressing "deep sorrow and shame". But he did not cower when confronted with the secularization of Britain and the protests that preceded his visit.  He spoke of the importance of re-establishing Christianity in the country where it was once so strong. (Not even the Archbishop of Canterbury would say that. It's not politically correct.) In Birmingham, he spoke in commemoration of the Battle of Britain alluding to his own youth in Germany during the war "as one who lived and suffered during the Nazi regime." He spoke again of reconciliation and peace.  Ignoring security, he stepped off his bullet-proof vehicle to walk in a very high crime council estate in South London, greeting people  of all faiths and no faith, some of whom hung out the windows waving and cheering. They were taken  by his gesture.  Even a prodigal daughter like me  with all her issues with the Church was a bit moved.

The most important thing that Pope Benedict did, however, was to come out and talk openly about God and Christianity. He spoke of the growing secularization of Great Britain and how important it was to bring Christianity back to the country where it once thrived. He pulled no punches. It wasn't a Catholic message. It was a universal message  that spoke to the very heart and soul of the British people who have been cast adrift in the last decades without the mooring that was once a belief in God. He spoke of how Britain once stood "against a Nazi tyranny that wanted to eradicate God."  He delivered his message with humility and with authority. He once again, in his final address, spoke of how the Church had been stained by the abusive priests who had deeply damaged its credibility. This admission was met with shock by a lot of Britons who thought that the Pope would come to the UK and simply ignore the abuses of the Church or gloss over them. He did not. He did not apologize for loving God, called Great Britain to come back to its Christian roots and told them of his sorrow at what the Church had done in the past. Therefore a visit that was to have been laden with protests and boycotts, ended up being a conciliatory success though not a resounding one. This isn't to say that the protestors were not justified (they were).

Personally, I did not greet the Pope's visit with warmth nor with frostiness. I was fairly neutral. I have found my own faith in God through my own brand of spirituality.But I still believe in a God. My God lives inside me, not in a priest or a potentate. Jesus' message, true message was that we are all One. That we are all love. That there is no separation between God and ourselves. What I witnessed this week was that the Pope's visit served as a reminder to the British people that God was still present. And that God still has a place in this country, not locked in a box by bureaucrats.. Not the God reserved for Catholics, but the God that is in all. The hunger for something more than the lastest Prada bag is palpable in this country. But no one dares to talk about it. The European Union has all but killed God. God has become the unspeakable in this country. And Jesus? Heaven's no! What the Pope's visit showed me was that there is a deep yearning and hunger to know that there is something other than the mundane existence that most of us have to deal with daily. His visit reminded us that there is always forgiveness and there must always be belief in something greater than what we see. Perhaps his gentle force will spur the Anglican church hierarchy to be brave enough to speak out for God's place in the dialogue of this country.

There is no doubt that the Catholic Church is in its sunset hour. Even prophecy says that the next pope will be the last. There is little place now for a church that adheres to draconian beliefs that women are not equal to men and that has ignored its excesses for centuries. Had I not seen wonderful men as priests and women as nuns throughout my life live the doctrine of the Christ (as it was originally taught),  I would have no qualms about dismissing it entirely. And this Pope is indeed still adhering to strict Catholic doctrines. He is not budging. So what I saw was that his visit was not about conversion, his visit was about simply bringing the idea of a higher power into a country that has all but forgotten there is any hope.

Tony Blair's Press Secretary, Alistair Campbell once dismissed religion saying, "we don't do God."  Well, Mr Campbell, it looks like this week Britain "did God"  and did Him well.

Nuns Having Fun in the Drizzling Weather Waiting for the Pope