I’m reading at the moment Herbert McCabe’s The New Creation, a new edition of a book first published in 1964. It triggered memories of that time of heady excitement during and after the Second Vatican Council, when new possibilities seemed to be opening up. It was good to be an undergraduate and a young lecturer in those years and to breathe the fresh air blowing through the dusty corridors of the Roman Catholic Church. When V and I were teaching in Trinity College, Dublin, we were part of a theology discussion group, and Herbert, provocative and larger than life, was a frequent guest speaker, and seemed to embody the new spirit of adventure and fearlessness.
Of course, some Anglicans felt rather superior to all this. Renewed interest in scripture and the Fathers, liturgy in the vernacular, greater lay participation, episcopal collegiality – had Anglicans not had these for centuries? I remember that after a lecture by Hans Küng in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, in the mid-1970s, a senior Church of Ireland cleric said that the content was ‘pure Anglicanism’.
If the said cleric were still alive, I imagine he would be strongly the tempted to indulge in Schadenfreude at the spectacle of what has been happening in the Roman Church since the end of Vatican II, especially under the present pontificate. To the considerable distress of many faithful members of that Church, episcopal collegiality has proved stillborn, liturgy which is not at all ‘understanded of the people’ has been rehabilitated, liberal theologians have been silenced (including Herbert himself once) and the reactionaries of the Society of St Pius X, who repudiate everything that Vatican II stood for, have been welcomed back into the fold.
Anglicans, however, should pause before succumbing to any feelings of superiority, for there has been, albeit in a less dramatic way, a comparable process of retrenchment in recent years. In 1992 I happened to be at home enjoying a rare sabbatical and was deeply moved when I heard on the radio the announcement that the C of E General Synod had decided to allow the ordination of women. Despite this, there is still, in some quarters, deeply ingrained prejudice against women in ministry. The leadership of the C of E criticises homophobic attitudes in the developing world, but the churches in the British Isles, to look no further, are still failing to take a decisive stand in favour of real inclusiveness in the area of human sexuality. Add to this the attempted move towards greater centralisation of church authority, with the implication that Anglican provinces which adopt a generous approach towards inclusivity can have penal sanctions applied to them.
A false spring is one which is followed, not by summer, but by a return to winter. I fear we may be contemplating that now.