Vincent Nichols is the new Archbishop of Westminster
And Cranmer was talking about him only a few days ago, bemoaning that the appointment looked unlikely. But the white smoke has been sighted (brilliantly by Ruth Gledhill); the waiting is over. Pope Benedict has googled Vincent Nichols and not discovered a whiff of anti-Semitism or of anything else which might have embarrassed the Holy See. Archbishop Vin may have advocated a few strange policies as head of the Catholic Education Service (like Catholic schools providing prayer rooms for and special toilet facilities for Muslims); he may favour a multi-faith agenda in education; he may be attracted to the catholic celebration of all religious festivals. But none of this is (apparently) too serious: he has been appointed to the See of Westminster, while Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor is off to the House of Lords and to work for Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation.
Cardinal Cormac was to Cardinal Basil Hume what John Major was to Margaret Thatcher – perpetually in the shadow of a colossus and dwarfed by their predecessors’ almost sacred legacy. The Hume-Thatcher strengths only served to focus on their successors’ weaknesses, inconsistencies and unpreparedness for their roles. Cardinal Cormac was inadequate simply because he was not Cardinal Basil. In that sense, Vincent Nichols could not do much worse than his predecessor. But whoever had been appointed, this episcopal role is a focus of considerable internal tension and it will not be possible for the Archbishop to feed all of his lambs all of the time.
Vincent Nichols inherits a monumental religio-political struggle every bit as muddled, murky and complex as that which faces the Archbishop of Canterbury. While Dr Williams dances on pinheads in order to sustain his historical via media, the new Archbishop of Westminster faces the task of holding together the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales which is itself rent asunder by warring factions. On the one side are the ‘conservative’ hard-line adherents of The Catholic Herald – pro-Benedict, pro-Tridentine, pro-orthodoxy. And on the other are the ‘liberal’ soft-line of The Tablet – pro-Vatican II, pro the Episcopal Conference, pro-ecumenism. Both factions in this Catholic civil war manifest their Protestant tendencies, for both spit out their contempt for the other and seek to justify their rejection of whichever spiritual authority (England or Rome) they happen to despise. In the Bishops’ Conference, the ‘magic circle’ (as they are termed in another place) has created a liberal closed shop which marginalises and isolates any bishop which dares to utter a dissonant word of orthodoxy. The new Archbishop will determine whether the Catholic Church in England and Wales can be united, or whether the spirit of Protestantism will permeate deeper and perpetuate the crisis.
Politically, Vincent Nichols enters national public life at a time when a rabidly-secular and anti-Christian government is weakening abortion regulations, undermining the family, threatening church schools, forcing the closure of Catholic adoption agencies, and elevating ‘gay rights’ to a place above religious conscience. Labour has created a public space in which Christians are almost obliged to apologise for their faith. They justifiably burn with a righteous anger.
It will be for Archbishop Vin to find a way of challenging ‘inadequate orthodoxy’. His beliefs are so antithetical to Labour’s Godless agenda that one cannot be in any doubt that the Archbishop will be looking forward to a new Conservative government led by David Cameron. His ‘Compassionate Conservatism’, his ‘Social Justice’ agenda, his proposal to liberate faith schools all accord with fundamental facets of Catholic doctrine. What used to be the faith of the working class has found a home within the broad church of Conservatism. It is the Conservative Party which permits their upward mobility, and it is now the only party pledged to defend their liberties.
England has become the most secular of Europe's large nations. We are in an era in which personal opinion passes for official doctrine, and any Christian leader who dares to cling to orthodoxy is insulted and derided – from both within and without the Church. Ruth Gledhill observed some months ago that ‘the Roman Catholic Church in Europe is in turmoil’:
“Bishops are in open and unprecedented rebellion. Under this Papacy, it seems that one debacle follows another, as sure as one encyclical followed another, one canonisation another, under Pope John Paul II.”
It will be for the new Archbishop of Westminster to help restore theological unity and moral authority to the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales. And it will be for the Archbishop of Westminster to confront the increasing secularisation of the nation, for the Church of England has largely abdicated its leadership responsibilities, confusing humility with appeasement.
Cranmer is delighted by the appointment. He looks forward to seeing how the Archbishop copes with being outranked by Cardinal Cormac in the House of Lords.