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Big Media Events and the Churches That Put Them On

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Two major media events splashed across the screens of the world: the royal wedding and the beatification of John Paul II. These showed vividly the similarities and differences between the Church of England, Anglicans/Episcopalians in general and the Roman Catholic Church.

Once you step out of the inner circles, the similarities are obvious. The two churches were born long before the split between the two churches, which is very often and quite wrongly attributed to Henry VIII founding a new church because he couldn't get a divorce from his first wife. Henry did not believe in divorce, being a faithful Catholic, as he thought of himself to the end of his days. And he founded nothing. But that is another story...

Both are Christian churches, founded during the Roman Empire. Each celebrates very similar rites of seven sacraments under an ecclesial government of bishops, aided by priests and deacons, who lead dioceses composed of parishes. Both celebrate the lives of saints as part of an annual calendar centered around the events of the life of Christ. The wedding and beatification are clear examples of these basic aspects which both churches share.

But it is difference, not similarity, that human beings like to pick at, usually to our peril, and Christians are no different. When I am asked what the difference is between Rome and Canterbury, my usual answer is "no Pope." Authority has been increasingly concentrated in the papacy over the past thousand years, and John Paul II, with his brilliant management of the global media, brought the power of the See of Peter to its greatest height. Anglicans are clear, on the other hand, that they want a diffuse authority that emanates from a balance between clergy and laity.

But there is another difference, and the two big events clearly displayed these. While the Roman Church emphasizes the heroic, the extraordinary, as examples to the rest of us, Anglicans lift up the ordinary. For Roman Catholics, God is found in limit experiences, on the edge, whereas for us, God is most clearly revealed in daily life and the rhythm of human community and family.

Watching the royal wedding, you may wonder just how ordinary it was. But in fact, it was, as I said teasingly to an English friend, just two kids gettin' hitched. They looked appropriately nervous. While very few couples have the Archbishop of Canterbury to officiate at their marriage, the solemn words of the liturgy that he intoned are shared, more or less, by all 80 million Anglicans. The glorious music -- who can forget for instance the opening strains of Parry's "I was glad"? -- is part of our common heritage, though not always done as well as by the musicians of Westminster Abbey. The Scripture reading was very pertinent, and the Bishop of London's sermon was brief and to the point. It was a perfect celebration of the ordinary: quintessentially Anglican.

Contrast this with the beatification of the late pontiff. At least a million people crowded St. Peter's Square in Rome, Poles being naturally enough the largest contingent. The life of John Paul was described in heroic terms, and indeed he was beatified as an exemplar of "heroic virtues." Pope Benedict XVI declared in a lengthy tribute to his predecessor that he had accepted the petition for beatification. Then a huge portrait of the man was unfurled to the plaudits of the crowd, his glowing visage smiling upon them once more. A French nun who was cured overnight of Parkinson's disease after invoking John Paul's intercession presented the Pope with an ampoule of his blood as a holy relic. Nothing more traditionally Roman Catholic than the need for miracles for the making of saints, and Blessed John Paul still needs one more credited to his intercession to be eligible to become Saint John Paul. And displaying relics of the saint's body is another ancient tradition, a way for the faithful to connect to the reality of a forebear in the faith, both in his or her humanity and divinization.

Of course, both of the big events had political overtones. The wedding was not just two kids gettin' hitched, it was the continuance of the Windsor dynasty on the throne of Great Britain. The royals and the Church of England pulled off the ceremony perfectly, and it was an occasion for the British people to regain some confidence in their national institutions, the Crown and the Church. In none of the other 164 countries where Anglicans are present is there an established church, and the other 37 provinces (national churches) look to Canterbury only for an expression of unity -- a spiritual, not a juridical, authority. Still, I believe that all around the Anglican Communion, people were proud of the flawless service.

Much ink, digital and physical, has flowed concerning the timing and appropriateness of the beatification of John Paul. It is not for me to comment on these, only to point out that, like the English, Roman Catholics needed a boost. Such considerations are not foreign to church leaders, nor should they be.

Roman Catholics overwhelmingly emphasize celibates who perform heroic deeds, sometimes sharing visions of the Blessed Virgin. Anglicans lift up other virtues. Comparing the lists of official saints, one finds virtually no married couples among the Catholics, except for Joseph and Mary, and St. Adrian and St. Natalia. John Paul, who declared more saints than any other pope, made none, although the parents of Ste. Thérèse have been beatified. Only a relative handful of people who were married are included. In Anglican lists, which differ to an extent from province to province, there are several couples, and many married persons.

Each church's emphasis is not only its strength but its weakness. The über-concentration of decision-making in the Roman Church in the hands of one man, the insistence on celibacy for ordination and the continuing elevation of the unmarried over the married, have had serious consequences. Anglicans all too often become indistinguishable from their national cultures, and have sometimes allowed their traditional access to the corridors of power to trump the needs of the mission of God. Until the churches take seriously the fact that our divisions mean we are separately just fragments of the One Church, our individual strengths can only be partial as well. Not to mention the general scandal of schism and its effect on our credibility...

But Christian people will still get married and need examples of holy living to inspire and to emulate.

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