Anna Arco's Diary

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Atavistic tribes: England should be a Catholic country

Last night’s Spectator debate was stressful in parts, cheek-clutchingly painful in others but also stomach-clutchingly funny, snortingly, chortlingly, chucklingly hilarious at moments. At these debates, the punters come in with their for-or-against cards and are asked their opinion as they come in the door.

Oh my godfathers, Dom Antony Sutch was running out of time, with his booming funny but serious speech urging the audience in favour of unity (selling indulgences for swing-votes), taking up a theme from Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s thoughtful speech.

The Cardinal argued that the starting point should not be the Reformation (which had robbed England of her tradition and heritage) but rather the moment in 1982 when Pope John Paul II knelt together with The Right Revd Dr Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury in front of the tomb of St Thomas a Becket. The author Piers Paul Read was left with the more difficult and less popular task of arguing about Catholic moral teaching, which my colleague Ed West describes on his blog.

On the against-the-motion-side Lord Harries started with Newman’s notion of progress and effectively argued that the Catholic Church was stuck in the past, while the Church of England was moving forward and adapting to new needs in culture and society. Among other things he mentioned the Church of England allowing the use of contraception with married couples and later IVF and experimentation with embryos.

Matthew Parris valiantly refused to play “the hired atheist” and argued the popular Protestant position that Jesus would be an embarassment to the Catholic Church today. Meanwhile Stephen Pound MP who was supposed to be arguing against the motion got muddled, because he expected the debate to be about a theocratic Catholic state and started effectively arguing for the motion as a Catholic.

In some ways it wasn’t a debate at all because the panelists had such different ideas of what it is to be a Catholic country. The questions left much to answer for as they ended up on the whole being the questioners preaching at the panel, rather than asking questions, another inevitablity at such a debate it seems. But it was encouraging to find such a civilised, friendly and gentlemanly debate over difficult, fraught and emotional issues, even if it did little to really alter the position of a predominantly Catholic crowd.

For the Guardian’s Andrew Brown the debate was full of a certain type of “upper class Roman Catholic whose smugness makes his face shiny, like a coat of aspic”. Despite this and the fact that the crowd seemed packed with Catholics, the motion was passed only with a narrow majority.

One thing Mr Brown said really caught my attention. He described the “simple power of atavistic tribalism in theological debate”. It was present among the baying atheists and humanists who turned the Intelligence Squared debate into a hybrid between a revival meeting and a lynchmob just as it was present at the Royal Geographical Society last night.

It makes me wonder whether all debates are eventually decided the tribes who pay to show up. After all, you’ve got to be pretty interested in in a subject to pay for a £30 ticket…

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