Friday, February 10, 2017


The allure of Swimming the Tiber
- the joys of receptive ecumenism
(to give the talk its proper title)

Bishop Michael Burrows

Another talk in the excellent series of Patrick Finn Lectures in St. Mary's church, Haddington Road.

I really didn't know what to expect this time round. It was going to be good, that's for sure. Another Protestant Bishop giving a talk in an esteemed Dublin Roman Catholic church. And not just any Protestant Bishop. This man is highly controversial among his own flock.

According to Reform Ireland, his "connivance" at the entry into a same-sex civil partnership of one of his Deans has brought about a huge crisis in the life of the Church of Ireland. The group are calling for Bishop Burrows and Dean Gordon to "depart the Church of Ireland rather than let the Church of Ireland depart from Christ".

And across the pond, the Church of England Newspaper goes so far as to say that the "threat of schism hangs over the Church of Ireland in the wake of these revelations".

Really heavy stuff.

And what was the talk going to be about? I have been aware of attempted ecumenism between the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches since my youth and Vatican II. Doctrinally they would seem to have got nowhere since, though people are a little more civilised in their behaviour towards one another these days.

I have met one man who swam the Tiber in one direction, morphing seamlessly from an Oblate Father into the Church of Ireland Rector in my local area. So far I have not met any of the crowd swimming in the opposite direction.

So how did all this stuff pan out on the night?

Well, it was a most interesting, enjoyable and provocative evening.

Speaking from a Roman Catholic sanctuary, the Bishop decided to highlight what he saw as the relative strengths of the Roman Catholic Church, without, I might add, casting any aspersions on his own flock. Given his apprehension about reporting standards on social media, I have to baldly state, for the avoidance of doubt, that he has no intention himself of dipping his toe in the Tiber in the foreseeable future, or ever for that matter.

So what are these strengths as seen from the perspective of a separated brother?

Well he grouped them under six headings, and I am only going to touch on them here, rather than relay verbatim a talk that included the serious, the dubious and the plain downright funny.

He spoke of prayerfulness, of clarity, of social action and theology, of Mary, of fresh scriptural exegesis, and of Rome itself - its majesty and its relics.

Some of this I felt was a bit double edged having experienced it from the other side myself.

For example, I can understand the appeal of Catholic clarity compared with Protestant fudge, but when that clarity becomes obstinate dogmatic certainty, as it has done since Vatican II, I think the Bishop might find some of the shine going off the clarity soon enough. My own litmus test of this is the Real Presence, where Catholic dogma is now so outdated as to completely defy logic. I did a slightly lighthearted paper on this for the Eucharistic Congress in 2012. The Bishoop's take on it made a lot of sense to me: Protestants believe in the Real Presence but they are not hung up on the mechanics of it.

He was very interesting on the place of Mary in the Catholic church, seeing her as reinforcing the feminine side of our human nature, but he did seem to recognise the danger of the cult of her perpetual virginity and the degree of excessive veneration to which she is subjected in some corners of Catholicism. Mediation is one thing, mediatrixity quite another.

He admired the centrality of social action in Catholic theology and practice, but again was aware of the difficulties of letting go when this might be called for by civil society, for example in the education or health areas.

He detected a freshness of scriptural exegesis, which appealed to him, and which I have to say I have detected myself, but my own feeling is that it is still far too limited and starting from a very low base.

On prayerfulness, he seemed to detect a higher degree of this in Roman Catholic rather than Church of Ireland services where the emphasis might be a little more on the aesthetic, such as the hymns. But his overall anxiety, covering both denominations was to make the ceremonies more relevant, participative and attractive. This may well be a long haul for both denominations.

He told how his young son is in the habit of rating his father's sermons and recently gave him a two out of ten. That's one way of having your feet kept on the ground.

The talk was followed by an interesting Q&A during which the Bishop seemed to be in his element. This covered such items as aesthetics and the ordinariat and it was followed by many one-to-ones over a cuppa afterwards.

There was just one thing which really upset me during the evening. The attendance was very poor, and given the high standard of the talks in the series, whether from a religious or a purely secular perspective, there are a lot of people out there who just don't know what they are missing.

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