Simon Barrow

The Pope and alternatives to imperial Christianity

By Simon Barrow
October 17, 2010

"To work in the world lovingly means that we are defining what we will be for, rather than reacting to what we are against." - Christina Baldwin.


The week after Pope Benedict’s recent high-profile arrival in Britain, the Baptist Times published, on its front page, a range of responses to his visit from non-Catholic church leaders and Christian commentators (including one from me). What was noticeable was that they were mostly incredibly positive, even laudatory.

When I was growing up forty years ago, that would have seemed unthinkable. My devotedly evangelical father took for granted the prime placing of ‘the Roman Church’ in the copy of Oswald Sanders’ Cults and Heresies that he passed on to me. Yet, for the most part, the instinctive anti-Catholicism of that era has (thankfully) gone. Indeed it was Pope John Paul II’s landmark pastoral visit in 1982 that probably laid its gravestone in mainland Britain.

For this reason, Ian Paisley and his vocal band of Free Presbyterians seemed a curious legacy of a not-so-fond past as they gathered outside Westminster Abbey a few weeks ago to object to Pope Benedict’s participation in Evening Prayer alongside a range of Anglican, Protestant, Orthodox and Free Church dignitaries – and members of the Evangelical Alliance.

Instead, the most visible mantle of opposition to the papal presence had passed from hard-line Protestantism to a very different kind of demonstrator – embodied in the atheist and humanist-led Protest the Pope coalition, which drew 20,000 people to central London while 80,000 gathered to greet Benedict in Hyde Park. Theirs was not a theological objection, but one based on secular-liberal opposition to the power and influence of the Holy See on public policy.

I found myself experiencing profoundly mixed feelings both about Pope Benedict’s visit and about the protests against it. On the one hand, despite differences of outlook in a number of areas, those who came out to welcome the pontiff were fellow Christians and I wanted to share their joy – as St Paul enjoins us. The demise of religiously based anti-Catholic prejudice ought to be thoroughly welcomed by Anabaptist-shaped Christians, among others. It is hewn from the same kind of bigotry that has been a terrible part of persecutory Christendom history, and of which Anabaptists have been notable victims. Recent formal conversations between the Vatican and Mennonite World Conference have involved acknowledging past sins and developing a new relationship. That is important.

On the other hand, it is this particular Pope who, despite his gentle personal demeanour, has continued to perpetuate a top-down, imperial brand of Christianity which has been disabling or damaging for millions and which is inimical to the Anabaptist spirit. The Vatican remains an alliance of altar and throne, symbolised and enacted in what Geoffrey Robertson QC calls the ‘legal fiction’ of City statehood. This ought to raise serious concerns and questions for all those who believe in the church as a voluntary, associational and exemplary expression of the way of Christ.

Moreover, I personally know two of those whose brave and faithful work has been condemned by the imperious hand of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly headed up by Benedict (when he was Cardinal Josef Ratzinger). They are former nun Lavinia Byrne, for her book Women at the Altar, and the late Tissa Balasuriya, a Sri Lankan priest and activist, for Mary and Human Liberation. Many Anabaptists will also be acquainted with the officially ostracised writings of Leonardo Boff – whose Ecclesiogenesis and Church, Charism and Power demonstrate a fascinating congruence between radical Catholic and radical Reformation approaches.

Then there are the cases of Jacques Dupuis and Roger Haight, the Jesuit scholars whose attempts to relate core Christian beliefs to a plural, multifaith world brought the full weight of Vatican authority down on their heads. I read both with great profit when I was on the staff of Heythrop College, succeeding Lavinia as an editor on The Way, the international journal of Christian spirituality. By this time, my fiercely Protestant father had reconciled himself to having a son whose portfolio included working at a Catholic college. But the hierarchy of the Church was simultaneously in the process of lurching to the right, a process that Benedict has determinedly continued.

At the same time, radical Christians – those who look to the redeeming roots of the Gospel and to a historic counter-cultural tradition – are unlikely to be persuaded that an adequate response to the manifest shortcomings of the Christendom church (emblemised, but by no means confined to, the Vatican) is to be found in the triumph of rationalist individualism and idealist liberalism – as the modern legions of the anti-Pope appear to think. That does not mean that we cannot work with, or sympathise with, non-religious people and organisations. Far from it. But it does require an acknowledgment that our starting place and vision is quite different.

The media narrative that imposes a stifling ‘choice’ between either a top-down religiosity or an eliminative type of secularism in the public sphere will be equally problematic for Anabaptists – committed though they are to the separation of church and state. To many observers, including several atheists, the Protest the Pope coalition, though many of its participants strived not to be anti-Catholic per se, seemed unable to escape a rejectionist approach (religion has a ‘poisoned heart’, declared columnist Polly Toynbee) leading to purely negative conclusions (contain, constrain and exclude what we dislike).

Yet what we surely need to effect positive change – and to move from control to witness (that is, good example) as a means of influencing one another – is bridges, not barriers. Millions of Catholics long to re-make the church from the ground upwards. They are deeply committed to the Gospel tradition and to Catholicism, yet they question the dogmatic stance of the Vatican on birth control and the HIV-AIDS pandemic, the ministry of women, and the treatment of LGBT people.

Grassroots Catholics have joined the very necessary outcry against the institutional Church's multiple abuse scandals. They are working for participation and church democracy based on a renewal of the sensus fidelium.

They need to be embraced, not isolated - along with many others of all beliefs and none - in a damaging war between religion and anti-religion.

Similarly, Catholic social teaching on the economy and the environment, peace and justice movements within the Church, and the embracing of spiritual change can open up many channels of cooperation between Catholics and non-conformist Christians (whatever their denominational or confessional label).

There are likewise strong traditions of Catholic Humanism that can help move the secularism debate in an open, pluralist direction.

Pope Benedict has come and gone, but the post-Christendom challenge to re-imagine public faith beyond its imperial versions remains.


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He is a Mennonite-shaped Anglican, a trustee of the London Mennonite Centre Trust, and helps to coordinate the Anabaptist Network Theology Forum. This article is adapted and developed from one that will appear in the forthcoming Anabaptist Network Newsletter. As part of the Root & Branch Network of radical Christian organisations (, Ekkesia associates itself with the AN ‘core convictions’ (

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