LONDON — On Sept. 19, Pope Benedict XVI completed a four-day state visit to Britain. This was the first state visit by a pope to a country that had abjured allegiance to the papacy nearly 500 years ago and had played an important role in the Protestant Reformation.
Two days earlier, the archbishop of Canterbury (the head of the Anglican Church) and the pope had led a joint service in Westminster Abbey, in which the moderator of the protestant Church of Scotland also took part and which was attended by representatives of other faiths. This was unprecedented as the Vatican does not recognize the Church of England as part of the Catholic community and does not accept the claim that Anglican bishops and priests have been properly ordained.
The pope was also asked to address both Houses of Parliament in the ancient Westminster Hall, built in 1097, where the Catholic martyr Thomas More had been tried and condemned. He expressed his deep concern about the extent of secularization of British society and the marginalization of religion, particularly Christianity. He also criticized aggressively atheistic elements in Britain.
David Cameron, the British prime minister, in his farewell speech to the pope on Sept. 19 welcomed the pope’s challenging questions and emphasized that compassion lay at the heart of his ideal of a big society. He welcomed the role that religious organizations played in education and charitable work.
The pope’s image of Britain at first seemed to reflect a view of one of his senior aides Cardinal Kaspar, who in an interview with a German journal had declared that arriving at Heathrow, London’s main airport, was like going to a Third World country because of the multiethnic, multicultural people he encountered. The cardinal’s comments were tactless and one-sided; he withdrew from the mission on the grounds of ill health.
Many people in Britain, in particular Christians, have been critical of the efforts in recent years of some Labour Party politicians to bend over backward so as not to upset Muslims, even going so far as to try to ban Christmas symbols (including Christmas trees!) from public offices and to please ethnic minorities through “positive discrimination” measure to promote ethnic diversity.
Attempts were also made to prevent religious schools from discriminating in favor of children brought up in the faith that the schools promoted. Some politicians would have liked to ban all faith schools in favor of an entirely secular education system, but there is a general consensus in Britain that faith schools should remain part of the education system.
In recent books a few well-known atheists have argued against the existence of God and criticized the teaching of religion in Britain, but their arguments are not new and are unlikely to have much influence on public attitudes.
There are more agnostics in Britain than atheists. The number of people regularly attending places of worship has been declining, but Christianity is so much a part of our history and way of life that even today it permeates our society.
Unfortunately some religious organizations have taken provocative positions on important issues. The promotion of creationism and the irrational rejection of Darwin’s arguments on evolution by some evangelical Christian sects suggest a worrisome misunderstanding of science and reason.
The apparent discrimination against women in Islam as evidenced by the number of women on London streets who are not just wearing headscarves but are fully covered, allowing only slits for the eyes, has caused concern in a country where equality of the sexes and nondiscrimination has become accepted as right and proper even if it is not always upheld in practice.
Muslims as well as Catholics condemn homosexuality and support discrimination against such people, but homosexuality ceased to be a crime in Britain many decades ago and many Christians do not regard homosexuality as a sin.
Many British Christians also disagree with Catholics on other ethical issues such as birth control and stem-cell research. The Anglican Church rejected centuries ago the papal injunction that priests should remain celibate. Women have been ordained as priests in the Anglican Church for decades and there will soon be women bishops. These differences are doctrinal and have nothing to do with secularity.
The timing of the pope’s visit was unfortunate. The scandal of pedophilia in Catholic schools and the sexual abuse of children by priests in the United States, Ireland, Belgium and elsewhere have been widely exposed.
Accusations have been made that the church, including the pope himself, tried to suppress or at least minimize the extent of the scandal. The pope expressed his sincere contrition for the sins of the priests involved and gave assurances that such acts would not be condoned.
Inevitably some argue that the refusal of the church to allow priests to marry and the rejection of women priests exacerbate the problem.
Despite the differing views about the role of religion in society and the doctrinal differences between the Church of Rome and The Anglican Church, the visit must be counted as a success. Pope Benedict does not have the charisma of his predecessor, John Paul II, who paid a pastoral visit to Britain in 1982, but he came across as scholarly, devout, sincere and friendly. Large numbers of Catholics attended public masses conducted by the pope. Protest rallies were peaceful, and the pope’s security was assured.
The joint service in the wonderful setting of the ancient and beautiful Westminster Abbey was televised and seen by millions. It was a moving moment for viewers when the pope and the archbishop of Canterbury prayed together before the tomb of King and St. Edward the Confessor and jointly blessed the packed congregation of believers of so many different faiths.
Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.