The Pope, Mr Paisley and Presbyterians in a pickle
It is difficult to summarise the overall impact of the Papal visit to the United Kingdom while it is still taking place but, on the early evidence, it has been better than expected.
As I suggested earlier, Pope Benedict XVI has been given a courteous welcome, and the reception in Scotland was enthusiastic, though there was never going to be a John Paul II ‘Pope-fest'.
For his part, Pope Benedict appeared as we thought he would, as a gentle scholarly man with a quiet charm, and also with an increasingly sure touch in blessing babies.
Significantly, he also had some important challenges to express about the secularism in British society, and even if the Vatican distanced the Pope from the comments of Cardinal Kasper about the aggressive atheism currently in Britain, they had more than a ring |of truth.
For a long time, Christians in the United Kingdom have been treated with less respect than members of other faiths, including Muslims, and the Pope has reminded us of the importance of religion as a force for good.
Whether or not his visit will kick-start a spiritual revival in Britain remains to be seen, but sadly there were no surprises in the reaction from Northern Ireland.
The Rev Dr Ian Paisley, who seemed statesmanlike a few years ago in deciding to share power with Sinn Fein, demonstrated against the Pope in Scotland this week and showed that he has not mellowed as much as we had thought.
There he was, the Paisley of old, out on the street and protesting against Benedict XVI, as he had done against several of his predecessors. A BBC commentator said, sarcastically but rightly, that a Papal visit would not be the same without a protest from Dr Paisley.
All his life Ian Paisley has held a deep disregard for Roman Catholicism, though not for individual Catholics. Perhaps it was just too much for him to change now, even if a ‘statesman' should rise above such things.
There was something sadly predictable also about the attitude of the Presbyterian Church to the Pope’s visit. As everyone in the church knows, there is a rightwing rump which also takes every opportunity to denounce Roman Catholicism.
At one time I used to think that these protesters belonged to the theological backwoods of Northern Ireland where the sun of Christian tolerance never shines, but I fear that they may also have representatives in the more fashionable pews of Belfast and the larger population centres.
An influential section of Irish Presbyterianism is anti-Catholic but nobody inside the institution wants to admit this publicly. So the church tip-toes around the problem and resorts to masterly fudges which fool nobody.
The Church of Ireland, on the other hand, invites senior Catholic clergy to their General Synod, while the Methodists recently installed one of their presidents in a Catholic chapel in Cork.
The Presbyterians, in contrast, try to please everybody and currently end up by pleasing nobody. This time the Moderator, the Rt Rev Dr Norman Hamilton, presumably with help from his advisers, adopted the apparently shrewd tactic of attending the Westminster Abbey ecumenical service where the Pope was present yesterday evening, but declined an invitation to meet him afterwards.
What people do not like is a church facing both ways, particularly when it now appears that another senior Presbyterian met the Pope in Edinburgh.
Personally, I would have gone and met the Pope at Westminster but thank God I am not the Moderator of the General Assembly. However, I do differ from Rome but that does not prevent me from sharing what I have in common with my Catholic brethren, and meeting their leaders with an open handshake.
Or is that altogether too simple for a still-troubled Northern Ireland? The Presbyterians, as usual, have missed an opportunity to show strong leadership, and have ended up in a right pickle.