Flashback: B16 at Westminster Abbey

GetReligion is well into its sixth year and, every now and then, I am reminded how much the writing that I do here has changed me in my work as a columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service, a task that I’ve been at for about 23 years.

Yes, every now and then, I read the coverage of a major news event and I can’t help but think, “Why in the world did everybody cover that part of the event and not THIS part of the event?” At that point it’s pretty easy to justify in my mind a quick column about the angle of the news event that I am actually interested in reading about, especially if we’re talking about a global story. Duh.

However, as any wire-service columnist knows, there is this thing called “lead time” that must be taken into account.

For example, the timing of the recent visit to the United Kingdom by Pope Benedict XVI could not have more lousy, from my point of view. I write on Tuesday nights, before editing and shipping the column early on Wednesday mornings. However, most newspapers do not run the copy until the weekend. Thus, the entire papal visit — generating gazillions of headlines — took place between my deadline and the days on which my column would appear. How do you write about that event, without the gift of prophecy?

Well, you try to write about some angle that rarely appeared in other coverage. You can see the GetReligion connection in that process.

In the case of papal visits, most media coverage follows the following iron-clad rules.

(1) Controversy is job one.

(2) Any papal comments with political implications come next.

(3) Lengthy passages about issues of faith and doctrine come in dead last, if they ever see the day.

Thus, I knew that everyone would write about the pope’s address in Westminster Hall, about faith and politics, but that few journalists would focus on the content of the Westminster Abbey sermon — unless the pope bluntly addressed actions by the Church of England that have fractured ecumenical relations with the Vatican. However, popes rarely say anything blunt and newsworthy, preferring a more subtle approach to addressing those kinds of issues.

This leads me to my Scripps Howard column this past week which is, naturally, about the Westminster Abbey text. I few readers requested that I post it here, this time around.

It was nice to get to open with a historical note, for a change. This was a visit that was about history, more than anything else.

During his long exile in Normandy, the Saxon prince who would become known as Edward the Confessor vowed that he would make a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Peter once he returned to England.

After his coronation as king, the pope released Edward from this vow — if he built a monastery dedicated to the first bishop of Rome. Thus, St. Peter’s Abbey was rebuilt in Westminster.

Pope Benedict XVI gently stressed this history in the first words of his address during his recent visit to Westminster Abbey, where he prayed with the archbishop of Canterbury.

“I thank the Lord for this opportunity to join you … in this magnificent abbey church dedicated to St. Peter, whose architecture and history speak so eloquently of our common heritage of faith,” said Benedict. “Here we cannot help but be reminded of how greatly the Christian faith shaped the unity and culture of Europe and the heart and spirit of the English people. Here, too, we are forcibly reminded that what we share, in Christ, is greater than what continues to divide us. …

“I thank the Lord for allowing me, as the successor of St. Peter in the See of Rome, to make this pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Edward the Confessor.”

Yes, it is interesting to read the text and note the multiple references to St. Peter. One might be tempted to say that Benedict is saying, “I am the successor to You Know Who and, well, you are not.”

Since I write a column, I was also free to offer another piece of analysis. In addition to the references to St. Peter, it is interesting to note the number of times that, when mentioning church unity, Benedict connected that subject with references to claims of absolute truth.

… Benedict repeatedly stressed that unity must be found in scripture, creeds and moral doctrines that date back to the early church. These words, however, are controversial in an age in which the global Anglican Communion is divided over teachings as central as the resurrection of Jesus and claims that salvation is found through Christ, alone.

“Our commitment to Christian unity is born of nothing less than our faith in Christ, in this Christ, risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father, who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” he said. “It is the reality of Christ’s person, his saving work and, above all, the historical fact of his resurrection, which is the content of … those creedal formulas. … The church’s unity, in a word, can never be other than a unity in the apostolic faith, in the faith entrusted to each new member of the body of Christ.”

Finally, Benedict stressed — yet again — that he was speaking and acting in “fidelity to my ministry as the bishop of Rome and the successor of St. Peter, charged with a particular care for the unity of Christ’s flock.”

No news there, unless one is interested in sacraments, doctrines, confessions and things like that.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Lisa

    The one point you missed, Terry, that was caught by several on Catholic blogs including Fr. Z, has nothing to do with words, and everything to do with symbols – so important to B16. It was the stole he wore during that event, a stole that had originally belonged to Pope Leo XIII, who declared Anglican orders invalid.


    I’m sorry, but…heh.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Now that is a highly symbolic detail.

    One must wonder if he wore that specifically because of Canterbury’s decision to include ordained women in the vespers rite.

  • Passing By

    Interesting that in the video, the narrator refers to the doctrines that separate Anglicans and Catholics – like women’s ordination.

    So what about the Immaculate Conception, Assumption, Purgatory, Transubstantiation, Papal Infallibility, and so on?

    Of course, it’s about women’s ordination.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    And then there are the creedal issues that separate THE ANGLICANS.

    Passing By, do you think the drumbeat of B16 references to basic doctrinal issues was intentional?

  • Passing By

    Except creedal issues don’t separate Anglicans. Two Anglicans can kneel side-by-side and receive Holy Communion, one believing in Transubstantiation and one a memorialist. A bishop like Iker, who doesn’t ordain women, can look to Duncan as his archbishop, although Abp. Duncan does ordain women. But to be more precise, only some issues separate Anglicanism, and deciding on which issues those are is part of the struggle.

    The best distinction I know between Anglicanism and Catholicism is in these lines from A Man for All Seasons:

    Norfolk: “Look, I’m not a scholar, and frankly I don’t know whether the marriage was lawful or not—but Thomas, look at these names! You know these men! Can’t you do as I did and come along with us for fellowship?”

    More: “And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Heaven for doing according to your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing according to mine, will you come along with me—for fellowship?”

    Anglicans often complain that Catholics expect doctrinal conformity as a condition of unity, but in fact the Anglican demands conformity to the community. For journalism purposes, it’s a critical difference to understand.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Passing By:

    There clearly are creedal issues involved at the global and regional levels in the Anglican wars.

    You see, the Anglicans do not agree on the tradition that they do not have to agree.

  • http://www.patriabolivariana2008.blogspot.com Hector

    Re: So what about the Immaculate Conception, Assumption, Purgatory, Transubstantiation, Papal Infallibility, and so on?

    Um, there are Anglicans who accept every one of those doctrines except, obviously, the last. (Denial of papal infallibility is pretty much the reason for being of the Anglican Communion, so I can’t see why anyone who accepts the teaching would call themselves Anglican, rather than RC). I accept the first four, though I’m a little shaky on the Immaculate Conception, the RC teachings on the Assumption, Purgatory, and Transubstantiation seem to me to be rock solid.

    Also, the differences of opinion about purgatory, transubstantiation, and the assumption don’t parallel the differences over women’s ordination and gay sex. There are Anglo-Catholics (like my priest back home) who believe in purgatory, transubstantiation, and the Assumption of Mary, but also think it’s possible to ordain women, and that homosexuality isn’t necessarily a sin. (To be fair, many liberal Roman Catholics would agree with him). And then there are evangelical-minded Anglicans who might disagree with all of the above.

    Papal infallibility, though, is the big sticking point.

  • http://www.patriabolivariana2008.blogspot.com Hector

    Re: Two Anglicans can kneel side-by-side and receive Holy Communion, one believing in Transubstantiation and one a memorialist.

    Interestingly enough, there are a few unusual Anglican parishes around (I’ve been in one, and heard of others) that asks anyone who doesn’t believe in the Real Presence, not to receive communion. This is extremely unusual though.

  • Martha

    Certainly, I would have thought that the first POPE to visit WESTMINSTER ABBEY and pray before the tomb of SAINT EDWARD THE CONFESSOR

  • Martha

    Argh, hit submit by accident.

    What the above meant was that for me, those bits in capitals were very important historically and theologically but yeah – Pope prays to saint is probably not, for news purposes, very eyecatching.

    Now, had it been “Pope declares Edward patron saint of gay monarchs” (except Edward is completely the wrong one there, but nevermind) then probably it would have been plastered all over the place.

  • Donna

    Yes, Pope Leo XIII did declare Anglican orders invalid, but he was also the Pope who made Blessed John Henry Newman a cardinal. Thus the stole may be doubly symbolic.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Of course the Orthodox believe in many of the doctrines listed here, but in slightly or greatly different form.
    As I understand it the Orthodox believe in the Assumption of Mary in slightly different form from the Latins–in fact East and West celebrate that Holy Day on the same date.
    Some Orthodox don’t like the word “Transubtantiation” but I have read others using it to differentiate themselves from the Protestant weak understanding.
    No papal infallibility, but the pope is granted the title “First Among Equals” and was considered the “court of last resort” by even Eastern hierarchs before the East-West split.
    Some claim that the Orthodox (usually Russian) use of the concept of “toll houses” to pass through after death is just a variation of purgatory.
    And the Immaculate Conception understanding of Mary’s conception comes out of her being hailed as “Mary Immaculate” and other such titles, most of which originated in the Bible (“full of grace”) and the East.
    Like I wrote above there are differences between East and West–some greater, some lesser–but also similarities that with good will on both sides could be reconciled.
    But, I understand sorting all this out is too much for the average reporter–and even many religion scholars.

  • Passing By

    Hector -

    There are Anglicans who accept the papal claims. As to why these “Anglo-papalists” don’t become RC, you will have to ask them.

    Ca. 1970, I did visit a small Episcopal parish where the Prayers of the People included a petition “for Paul our Patriarch”.

    That would be Paul VI, pope of Rome.

  • Julia

    Denial of papal infallibility is pretty much the reason for being of the Anglican Communion,

    I don’t think so. It was denial of Papal authority, not infallibility – although I’m sure that is denied, too. Henry declared that he was head of the church in England and that the Pope had no authority in the British Isles – or however the region was described in those days.

  • Hector

    Re: I don’t think so. It was denial of Papal authority, not infallibility – although I’m sure that is denied, too. Henry declared that he was head of the church in England and that the Pope had no authority in the British Isles – or however the region was described in those days.

    If the Pope is infallible, then by definition he holds authority over all reasonable Christians, right? Not juridical authority, perhaps, but certainly moral and spiritual authority. I’m not sure I get the distinction.

    I certainly respect the Pope (and I have particular respect for Paul VI, though I don’t agree with all of his views), but he isn’t my patriarch (Rowan Williams is) and I don’t consider him infallible, or different in kind (as opposed to in degree) from any other bishops. ‘First among equals’, fine, as long as that’s interpreted as a primacy of honour, not a primacy of authority or infallibility.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Wait, Catholics help me out.

    When was papal INFALLIBILITY clearly stated?

  • Julia

    At the first Vatican Council in the latter half of the 1800s.

    It has only been officially invoked twice.

    The Pope who denied an annulment to Henry was not using infallibility. It was a juridical decision.

  • Julia

    Here’s the Catholic Encyclopedia for a long explanation.


    Here’s the official Catechism.

    The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium’s task to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. The exercise of this charism takes several forms:

    “The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful—who confirms his brethren in the faith—he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. . . . The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,” above all in an Ecumenical Council.418 When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine “for belief as being divinely revealed,”419 and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions “must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.”420 This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.421

    There’s a bit more about the ordinary teaching of the church.


  • Julia

    Infallibility has to do with doctrinal teaching, not with organizational policies or judicial decisions.

    The issue with Henry VIII involved a church tribunal/judicial-type decision about the claimed grounds for finding his marriage to Katherine faulty from the beginning.

    Popes can make errors of judgment just like anybody else. And the Pope at the time was a prisoner of Katherine’s nephew, I believe.

    Lucky Strike extra: Popes are not impeccable (which many people confuse with infallible), which means incapable of sin or wrong-doing.