End of an era in British Catholicism

In these end-of-year days, which the BBC does not call the Octave of the Nativity of Our Lord, the broadcaster invites well-known people to "guest-edit" its flagship radio news program ’Today’.

This morning it was the turn of my old boss, the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. The Cardinal’s appearances throughout the two-hour show and the stories he chose are here. Highlights: standing in the Sistine Chapel with ’Today’ presenter Ed Stourton recalling the election of Pope Benedict, and an interview’ with the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who reassures Cardinal Cormac he is "totally against" changing the law prohibiting euthanasia and assisted dying.

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The other news generated by the show was the Cardinal’s distancing himself  from a mounting chorus of criticism directed against the government in recent days by a number of Anglican bishops, who have accused Labor of being "beguiled by money" and "morally corrupt" by creating a borrow-and-spend culture. The Government did not take kindly to the broadside, with one senior party figure suggesting the bishops had taken too much mulled wine over Christmas.

Asked whether he shared the bishops’ criticisms, the Cardinal this morning said: "I do not think that is the whole truth at all." And he made clear that blaming the Government for society’s failings was a cop-out.

There’s a nice carnavalesque feel to the program -- overturning, for a couple of hours on prime-time radio, the stereotypes of a secularist government, a hostile media and a defensive Church. The Cardinal must have been wondering why it couldn’t always have been like this the past eight years: playing the piano, discussing rugby, refining his pasta-cooking skills, receiving reassurances from the PM, distancing himself from excitable Anglican bishops -- while the BBC, microphone at the ready, respectfully encourages him to clarify his thoughts on everything from golf to Gaza.   

Carnavalesque -- but also valedictory, not just because the Cardinal is shortly to stand down (an announcement is expected in January or early February), but because his regular interviewer, Ed Stourton -- descended from an old Catholic ("recusant") family -- is leaving the ’Today’ programme as a regular presenter.

An era, in other words, is closing. The Cardinal and Stourton, who have clocked up many hours together on ’Today’ over the past years, have been two of the most constant voices of the British Catholic elite: His Eminence’s warm and clerical brogue, typical of the (now professional) children of Irish immigrants; that of "Posh Ed" redolent of an upper-class, Benedictine-schooled, effortlessly- establishment world. Both will be missed.

Adding to the slightly unreal feel to this year-end of British Catholicism comes the news that in the Archdiocese of Birmingham (the UK one, not the one in Alabama) a father and his son have both been ordained Catholic priests in the same diocese by the same bishop --  Fr Ron Cosslett, 70, three years ago;  his son Fr Dominic Cosslett, 36, on 20 December. (In case you’re wondering how this is possible, both are former Anglican priests).

Over Christmas, father and son concelebrated. Is this a world first?

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9 years 9 months ago
Father and son concelebrations are hardly new historically, just new in modern times. It used to be the norm when priests would marry and episcopal sees were hereditary. Of course, nowadays, you could go with non-profit corporate structures to keep the property out of nepotistic hands, thus taking away one more reason why priests are not allowed to marry (the other being the requirement of abstaining from marital relations prior to celebrating Mass - which is a particularly Latin heresy, rejected in the East).

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