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Faith and reconciliation

Brian Taylor | 13:38 UK time, Thursday, 16 September 2010

The foreground, the image presented, is one of reconciliation and dialogue.

That is, of course, deliberately designed to contrast with a background, a history, which is one of conflict and tension.

Firstly, think of the theological and constitutional concatenation involved in the Queen and the Pope addressing each other at Holyrood Palace.

The Queen, Defender of the Faith, head of the Established church in England whose very origin involved a calculated break from Rome.

The Pope, head of that Roman Catholic faith.

Past tension

Some of that intrinsic past tension was reflected. Her Majesty referred to overcoming "old suspicions". His Holiness spoke of the need to stress the "deep Christian roots" present in British life.

Of course, both remarks also reflect the decline in avowed Christian faith generally, regardless of denomination.

In essence, the argument is that the Protestant and Catholic traditions should find ways to co-operate in the face of what the Pope called "aggressive" secularism: That they should recognise that they have an enemy in common rather than regarding each other as opponents.

Specifically, the Queen suggested that there should be a closer working relationship between the Roman Catholic church, the Church of England and the Kirk.

Other tensions, other conflict. It is certainly no accident that both the Queen and the Pope praised efforts to entrench peace in Northern Ireland. Religious conflict there has tended to generate rather more than "old suspicions".

Other tensions, other conflict. The Pope - once a conscripted member of the Hitler Youth - praised Britain's stand against Nazi tyranny.

Sex abuse

Other tensions, newer tensions. The visit has been marred by the sustained scandal over child sex abuse within the Catholic church.

On the plane over, the Pope expressed his shock at these revelations alongside his sadness that the church had not acted with sufficient vigilance or speed.

Other tensions, older tensions. Those "old suspicions" were prominent in Scotland in the past, often virulently.

In the earlier part of the 20th Century, those suspicions had a political dimension. The Tories in Scotland were known as the Unionists and had a distinctly Orange tinge.

Labour cultivated votes among Catholics, some of whom were said to suspect that a distinct Scottish Assembly might resemble the old Stormont and were disquieted as a result.

It is against that background that the Scottish National Party has, for several decades, sought to neutralise and placate that Catholic disquiet, to prise Catholics from the offered embrace of the Labour Party.

That is just one of the reasons why First Minister Alex Salmond has been so effusive in his welcome to the Pope. The others being decency, courtesy, humanity and diplomatic dignity.

Sunny parade
Other tensions, older tensions. In visiting Scotland, the Pope is visiting a nation where the Reformation was intended to end the influence of Catholicism.

The Union of 1707 was designed to entrench the Protestant succession to the throne.

Article Two of the Union Treaty bars "Papists and persons marrying Papists" from wearing the Crown.

Such matters went, quite deliberately, unmentioned: a reflection of an altered, encompassing Scotland.

At Edinburgh Castle earlier this week, Cardinal O'Brien made a passing droll reference to the Reformation. Basily Fawlty style, I think he got away with it.

But these tensions, these conflicts, these old suspicions, these new concerns, are the deep background to the gloriously sunny parade, the Popemobile, the Papal tartan and the rest.

The tone, the endeavour, is of reconciliation - but also a reassertion of the function of faith in an apparently secularised society.

Mutually defending, if you like, not a solitary faith or denomination but the concept of faith itself.


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