<image src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2010/9/21/ArchbishopandPoperesized.jpg " />
Dr Timothy Jones reflects on Benedict XIV's visit to Britain
In the lead up to Pope Benedict’s recent state visit to Britain, Vatican ecumenical expert, Cardinal Walter Kasper compared arriving in Heathrow to landing in a third world country and talked of Britain’s ‘aggressive new atheism’. His comments were regarded as bizarre diplomatic faux pas. They were reported with barely suppressed glee by the liberal press alongside protests against the child abuse scandal and Vatican policy on HIV-AIDS prevention, remarriage and homosexuality. Cardinal Kasper’s comments, rightly condemned as racist, nonetheless identify a real shift in the religious landscape of Britain.
Opposition to the Pope’s visit was principally from secularists rather than Protestants. While this secular anti-Catholicism had clear parallels with Britain’s historic sectarian anti-Catholicism it is different in key ways. The most interesting difference is the failure of the new atheists to tap into nationalist sentiment. As ticket sales to the Pope’s public appearances attest, most Britons were apathetic rather antagonistic to the Pope’s visit. Britain might not be especially Christian anymore, but neither is it especially secular. Secularists appeared as ideologically motivated in their irreligion as the religionists they opposed.
In their public interactions, the Pope and the leaders of the Church of England were presented on remarkably equal footing. The Roman Church claims to be the one true Church with universal jurisdiction, yet Benedict had tea with the Queen, the head of the Church of England. Perhaps more dramatically, on Friday the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury jointly lead evensong at Westminster Abbey. They processed down the aisle side by side and pronounced the benediction in unison. This ritual display of equality belies recent sectarian conflict.
Scholars are now suggesting that rather than entering a secular age contemporary Britain is better described as postsecular. Society is increasingly organised around secular principles and the country is rarely described as ‘Christian’ anymore. While Christian churches continue to play a social role (one that may be about to be dramatically expanded in David Cameron’s ‘big society’), they are more and more seen as players in a more level ideological landscape that also includes Muslim, Hindu and secular ideologies.
As the Pope's visit has illustrated, the central religious problematic in modern Britain is no longer secularisation, but multiculturalism. And perhaps the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury walking arm in arm down the aisle of Westminster Abbey on the eve of the beatification of John Henry Newman can be read as a good omen for multicultural Britain. After all, Cardinal Newman was contiguously the greatest Anglican and the greatest Catholic in nineteenth-century Britain.
Dr Timothy Jones teaches and researches modern British history and the histories of religion, fundamentalism, gender and sexuality.