The Difficulty of Discussing Religion

The feast of St Wilfrid is an appropriate day on which to tackle a difficult subject. Yesterday’s post produced a little spat on Facebook about the claim of some Anglicans to be Catholics. I  probably antagonised everyone by putting in a plea for courtesy and respect and suggesting that Facebook wasn’t the place to develop theological or historical arguments. I stand by that. It’s impossible to do justice to two thousand years of Christian history and theology in the brief space allowed. That doesn’t mean, however, that the question is unimportant, far from it; but I think a little reflection on Wilfrid’s life may help to underline the difficulty of discussing religious questions and, indeed, religion itself, especially online where both time and space are limited.

The Wikipedia article on Wilfrid is unusually even-handed and to me, at least, gives a better sense of the controversy that marked his life than the corresponding article in the Catholic Encyclopedia. Wilfrid’s champions point to his loyalty to the Holy See: he defended the Roman way of calculating Easter at the Synod of Whitby, sought episcopal ordination in Gaul because he was doubtful about the validity of the orders of some of the English bishops, returned to Rome whenever he found himself at odds with others (which was often) and claimed, at least, to have introduced the Rule of St Benedict to England. The trouble is, as his detractors never fail to point out, he wasn’t very nice. He also gave the impression of worldliness, usually travelling with a huge retinue. He was indeed a saint, but the kind one prefers not to have to live with.

What interests me about Wilfrid is the seriousness with which he approached what to many nowadays must seem a minor ecclesiastical detail. To Wilfrid, however, and to many of his generation, the way in which the date of Easter was calculated was a matter of great importance, a measure of one’s orthodoxy and catholicity. It wasn’t something about which people of the time would agree to disagree. That is why the discussion at Whitby mattered so much.

When we discuss religious questions, I think we often assume that what for us is trivial must be trivial for the other, or what is abundantly clear to us must be equally so to the other. It rarely is. The very way in which we use language tends to differ. We each bring to our religious discussion a personal history, a ragbag of knowledge and ignorance, that profoundly affects how we engage with one another. For example, I come from a very minor recusant family and I wince internally whenever an Anglican friend claims to be an English Catholic and suggests that all English Catholics (as I would describe myself as being) are, in fact, ‘Irish papists’, or refers to my co-religionists with the (to me derogatory and inaccurate) term ‘Romanists’!

The discussion of religion online is potentially a great way of fostering ecumenical understanding. We can meet people we never would in ordinary life and can engage in debate with them, but I think we need to keep in mind the limitations of the medium and not allow ourselves to be sidetracked by other issues. I believe that ecumenism matters, but it must be informed ecumenism which means some careful reading of both theology and history — and sadly, the internet is not always the best place to go for history and theology. It must also be honest ecumenism, which means the readiness to address painful questions, with charity and courtesy — and again, the internet often is something of a bear-garden, with people saying and doing things online they would never dream of offline. Above all, it must be Christian ecumenism, which means it must have as its object the advancement of the Kingdom of God, not point-scoring — and that is not always the case online.

Any discussion of religion, online or offline, which is not rooted in prayer and study seems to me a waste of time. St Wilfrid was a difficult man, but I think he understood that better than most. Let us ask his prayers as we tackle difficult subjects online.


19 thoughts on “The Difficulty of Discussing Religion”

  1. Was that the same Synod of Whitby that the English Church debated whether to go down the Celtic Church route, or stay with the Roman route? (historically I’m not very knowledgeable, I’m just aware that St Hild(a) was involved in that one, and it always struck me as inspiring that even though she favoured the Celtic Church, she abided by the decision to stay with the Roman Church, even though she was such a powerful figure that she could have caused quite a few problems…)

    To be honest, I’ve found it more difficult discussing Catholicism online, that I have found discussing Ecumenism! Get a group of liberal Catholics and a group of traditional Catholics posting on the same web page, and Christian Charity seems to go right out the window. It’s really quite upsetting to observe.

    You also have a very good point regarding language. Again, that’s a trap I’ve fallen in to, when discussing matters of doctrine with someone on the other side of the Atlantic… I don’t think it’s necessarily that either of us were being intentionally argumentative, or dismissive, or worse – but we have totally different understandings of some words and phrases, that led to no end of difficulty in having a polite discussion.

    The other problem is going in to such a discussion with the unshakeable belief that “I am right in how I understand the Pope/the Catechism/Church History/Doctrine – and therefore, until you agree with me, you are wrong.” And so many people suffer from that notion, which really puts the backs up of most of those who don’t, as well as everyone else who has that opinion, but with a different understanding!

    Interestingly, as an Irish Catholic, if someone says to me “she is an English Catholic”, I think a Catholic who resides in England, and is a member of the Catholic Church in England and Wales… If they say “she is an Anglo Catholic” I think a particularly high Church Anglican. (Even though the words mean effectively the same thing!) But then, I come from a mixed background of high Church Anglicans on one side, and Irish Catholics on the other.

    St Wilfrid, pray for us!

    • Yes, the Synod of Whitby was the one where the Northumbrian Church accepted the Roman method of calculating Easter Day. I quite agree about the shortcomings of Catholics posting online. It is something I have often lamented. However, I disagree that ‘Catholic’ and ‘High Church Anglican’ ‘effectively mean the same thing’, but that’s the subject for another post.

      • Ah! Language! When I said “even though the words mean effectively the same thing” I was referring to the words “English” and “Anglo” not High Church Anglican and Catholic! (Because “English” and “Anglo” do mean effectively the same thing) I do not think that the two denominations referred to “effectively mean the same thing” – if I did, I wouldn’t have converted!

        To me, as I thought I was typing earlier, an English Catholic, and an Anglo Catholic, are two different things… An “English Catholic” is someone like yourself. An “Anglo Catholic” is how my Anglican Grandparents have always described themselves – that is how “High Church” Anglican they are, as far as they are concerned. Hence the understanding of language that I have grown up with. (And I can see why they might want to differentiate from the Anglican Church of Ireland parish that they found themselves moved in to, because in that particular Parish, a good half of the congregation avoid coming on the one Sunday a month that their Holy Communion is given… ) The other phrase they sometimes use is “High Church Anglican” – but over here, not everyone seems to understand what that means…

        But to get a little more involved… although I used the term above, to explain what I would understand, if someone said it to me… When it comes to personal usage, I don’t prefix the term Catholic when referring to those of us who are members of the global Catholic Church. I think it can be used quite insultingly – I do know someone (a Catholic from England) who referred to “those Irish Catholics” (meaning the entire country’s worth of Catholics) as being inferior in their worship, devoutness and Liturgy…

        I hope that’s cleared up what I was trying to say in the last paragraph of my first comment. It really goes to show that, although we have a whole new world of methods to communicate, the actual art of communication is not as finely honed as we might like to think.

        Blessings, D

  2. Thanks for highlighting something that I know troubled me in the past. I tended towards making statements about what I considered to be wrong or right, with little thought on it’s impact on others.

    Now, I try to be quite circumspect and to consider how others might be affected by my dogmatic thoughts. But I’ve also learned that no one person or denomination holds the whole truth, the Church Universal holds within it the truth, it’s just seeking to bring that together in one strand and unity that I now feel must be the way forward for all denominations.

    Putting our differences aside, listening in charity to others and seeking to bring all sides to a path which will unite, not divide.

    I’m not sure that I’m particularly good at it, but I hold each Christian denomination as having a degree of shared service and worship of God, for which they deserve respect.

    I also think that if we have a personal relationship with God, it’s dependant upon our part of the body of Christ – our building his Kingdom together, not apart.

    I take the bit about loyalty quite seriously. Having left one denomination, the place where I feel called to be, it’s beholden on me to stay and work within this place to bring and end to division in whatever way can take it forward. It’s not about abandoning being an Anglican, but seeing that identity with the Universal Church to be as valid, more or less than any other Christian identity. I do struggle with some issues, but I’ve moved far enough away from them to be able to set them aside to continue to travel alongside other Christians without acrimony and hopefully with grace and love. In fact, what I find here on this blog.

    • Just coming back to my earlier post here, I note today that many of the Churches in Wales are to come together in a new way, to over come declining numbers and failing resources.

      Dare I whisper, perhaps one small step towards a future unity, even if it’s just expediency on the surface, God is there alongside them as they move closer together in the service of God.

      The conversations following my post highlight how heated discussions can become. Arch Bishop Williams is my Diocesan Bishop, and while I don’t see him often, I have a great respect for him, for his teaching and his ability to reach out to others. When he came to our Parish a year or so ago, there was standing room only in the church, and he preached verbatim, without notes and was fabulous. He stayed after the service and spoke to everyone he could reach. I see his Suffragan, Bishop Trevor more often, but he is also a pretty good at shepherding the flock.

      I attended an Ordination Service last year where both were ordaining Deacons to Priest. 26 Deacons from all backgrounds with their families came to the Cathedral for a very special occasion for them – the next step on their journey of priestly servant hood – they give up so much as do those called to Ordained Ministry in Catholic and other denominations. I’m afraid that I’m unable to see any of them in such ministry as being any less valid than any of the others. That is how I see the Church Universal, not just my own denomination.

  3. Many thanks to the writers of the previous 2 comments. I had been feeling quite shattered, not to mention hurt, by the sheer nastiness of some of the comments following mine on the post referring to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Your sane remarks and grace have restored my equilibrium! Bless you.

    • I don’t think anyone was being deliberately nasty. I think one person at least was commenting in a language not his/her own, so please make allowances for that. It was unfortunate that the discussion widened from Archbishop Rowan’s enthusiasm for contemplative prayer (which was why I posted the link) to a discussion of Anglicanism more generally.

      • I appreciate your “admiration” of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but to place him as an example of religious teaching to a mostly Catholic readership is as far as I am concerned asking for trouble since I do not share your admiration for someone who does not acknowledge the past as far as Catholicism is concerned.

        • The Vatican invited Archbishop Rowan to address the Synod of Bishops, so I do not see that I am ‘inviting trouble’ by suggesting that others, irrespective of their religious affiliation, should read what he had to say. In my few dealings with him — since before he became a bishop, in fact — I have always found Dr Williams to be a genuinely prayerful man; and it was prayer that he and I were both talking about. I appreciate that you think differently.

  4. Deborah, I was not being nasty to you on facebook I was merely filling out the blanks for others who do not know the background to the “Reformation” and would be completely misguided by this sentence posted by you:
    “The fact that it can hold both Catholic and Protestant is what is called “the genius of Anglicanism.””

    • It would be completely out of character for you to be nasty to anyone, Eva, but I can see how the way you expressed yourself might seem to someone who held different views, particularly when combined with Lux Vera’s remark. The problem, I think, boils down to one that Newman himself addressed: the very different way in which Anglicans and Catholics understand the concept of ‘Church’. I am meditating another post on this subject.

  5. I am “Church of England” by birth and upbringing, and have experienced a wide variety of forms of churchmanship within this denomination. I also went to a Roman Catholic convent prep school, were I learned the Roman Catholic prayers, joined in with “The Angelus” and stayed in at break from choice to “do” the stations of the cross in the chapel.
    I do not feeled called to change my denomination, but I do wince at the very real knowledge that all “our” parish churches were once seized from the Roman Catholics, and I feel a strong sense of admiration every time I drive past the Catholic Church in Partridge Green, West Sussex. Their priests’ house has a secret chapel, with a specially (and dangerously, in view of the penalties for discovery) raised ceiling at one end so that that they could reverently raise the Host at their secret celebrations of the Mass. Such courage. Such conviction. Such a terrible, terrible history. We need to make sure that we learn from the past.

  6. One of the things that I’ve appreciated about your blog is your insistence both on respectful discussion and on not glossing over real issues, something that can be very difficult, especially when it comes to ecclesiology. I witnessed the spat that you refer to and reflected that it was just as well that I was a subscriber not a friend (and thus unable to comment) as I would have been very tempted to say some possibly hurtful things. (I do generally try to avoid posting online when my passions are aroused, but…) Quite apart from the question of tone, and how we say things, there is also the question of relevance which is what annoyed me about some of those comments. There are certainly times when ecclesiological issues need to be addressed, but there are unfortunately too many Catholics and Orthodox online who will use any excuse to bash Anglicans. Unless one holds that nobody outside one’s own Church can say anything true or be read with profit, an attitude that is hardly in keeping with the Fathers, or presumably of the Roman pope himself seeing he invited Archbishop Williams, I find it difficult to see why anyone should object to you recommending the work of one of the most perceptive religious thinkers of our time.

    • I don’t expect you were called a Rat Catcher at the age of eight, were you? And as far as Catholics bashing Anglicans, I think it’s the other way round. My Parish Priest could not go outside his church beyond 5 yards with his cassock on nor could I hear the bells of my church ring… and the persecution still goes on… These are still effective laws (as far as I know) and your Archbishop knows that. Do you want me to forget that, kiss and make up as if nothing happened? Please do me a favour and be humble enough to consider the hurt Anglicans have caused Catholics…

        • Eva, I am not Anglican but Orthodox. I used the term “Roman pope” to distinguish him from my own Patriarch (of Alexandria) who is traditionally also called pope (something that many people are unaware of). I find it difficult to see – on the basis of Catholic ecclesiology – how anyone could object to the word “Roman” seeing that he is after all the bishop of Rome. I certainly don’t object to my patriarch being referred to as the Alexandrian pope in order to distinguish him from the Roman one. One has to use words, and the historic sees are the words we have…

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