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.