Anglican head has right to his view on Irish church


OPINION:I don’t think anyone in the country, bar one person, was shocked by Rowan Williams’s remarks on the Irish Catholic Church, writes ANN MARIE HOURIHANE

POOR ROWAN Williams. You go into a radio studio to record a discussion programme, and you wake up a couple of days later to find that you are Public Enemy Number One – in Ireland, of all places.

You had forgotten that God also created something called the slow news day, and that on those days clergymen must say even less than usual, even at Easter, and even when you are Archbishop of Canterbury. In fact, particularly then.

For poor Rowan Williams, all hell broke loose.

For a small minority of us, the most shocking thing about the Rowan Williams story was learning that the BBC radio programme Start The Week, in which we had once had great faith, is in fact pre-recorded, at least on bank holidays.

But I do not think that anyone in the country, with one singular exception, was shocked by Rowan Williams’s remark that the Irish Church – that is, the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland – has “lost all credibility” as a result of its reaction to the clerical child abuse outrages. What is the matter with this statement? It is true.

The vast majority of believing, Mass-attending Catholics believe it to be true, while continuing with their personal religious practice. Yet the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, said he had been personally saddened by this fairly harmless remark, saying: “I have rarely felt personally so discouraged as this morning, when I woke to hear Archbishop Williams’s comments.” Archbishop Martin made a great deal of fuss about it. Rowan Williams had to phone him up and apologise.

What Rowan Williams had forgotten – or perhaps has never had cause to learn – is that, as far as English Protestants are concerned, the Irish Catholic Church is very, very sensitive indeed. Touchy, even. Paranoid, perhaps. Traditionally, Irish Catholics have not given a damn about anything that English Protestants have had to say – unless it is about us.

Our intellectual curiosity just does not reach that far, thanks all the same – unless the English Protestants stray on to our territory and make fools of us in front of the whole world.

In a radio interview with RTÉ, Archbishop Martin seemed particularly upset that Dr Williams’s remarks were being broadcast around the world by the BBC, an organisation which Archbishop Martin specifically named.

This seems all the more strange when you think of what has been broadcast around the world, by the BBC and other news organisations, on the subject of the Catholic Church in Ireland in recent weeks: the physical and mental assault of children by the Catholic clergy in Ireland, and the Irish Catholic hierarchy’s inadequate, frequently negligent and, in some cases, possibly illegal response to this.

In the middle of this disaster, Archbishop Martin had emerged strongly as one of the good guys within the Catholic hierarchy, doing his best in an appalling situation not of his making. It seems strange that such a sophisticated man reacted so violently to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks, which were made in the context of a more wide-ranging interview.

The Irish Protestant bishops, perhaps more attuned than most to the high-stepping delicacy of the Irish Catholic Church in matters pertaining to English bishops and their crude plain speaking, had to intervene to reassure us all that Archbishop Williams had no business to make the remarks in the first place.

I do not know what will be contained in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s interview on Start The Week when it is finally broadcast on this bank holiday Monday morning.

But over the weekend it seemed that Dr Williams had spoken to Andrew Marr about, among other things, critics within his own church, the papal visit to Britain, which is scheduled for the autumn, and the new structures put in place at the Vatican to facilitate any Anglicans who might want to jump ship and convert to Rome.

That is quite a list of topics, and it was in this context that Dr Williams made his remarks about the Irish Catholic Church. He is the leader of the world’s Anglicans – is he not allowed to be interested? The whole Rowan Williams controversy remains a media mystery, which leaves you wondering how it ever became such a noisy story, not just here but in the UK.

If you were inclined to conspiracy theories you would be wondering about diversionary tactics. Ireland’s leaders have frequently asked us to unite against a foreign enemy, forgetting all those things that divide us at home.

Last week the Taoiseach started talking about patriotism again – always a sign of stress in this Government.

It is interesting that the patient Archbishop Martin, who has had to endure so much over the past few months and even years of frightful scandal, got so cross about Rowan Williams’s rather innocuous comments, mildly made, in another jurisdiction.

Of course, combined with the Good Friday Pub-opening Shock, this strange story pushed Seán Quinn and Anglo Irish Bank, and Cardinal Seán Brady and the issue of his resignation, a little further down the front pages. It offered us all the option of a little amnesia for the holiday weekend. Perhaps amnesia is what we secretly want right now. No wonder we get annoyed when foreign bishops remind us of reality.

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