Sun destroys
The interest of what’s happening in the shade.

So wrote Philip Larkin in The Whitsun Weddings. It’s a perfect metaphor for the condition of the church at this moment in time. The pitiless gaze of the press has (rightly) been on the unspeakable abuse and inexcusable deceit of multiple sex-abuse scandals. Exposé after exposé. This is where our attention has been focussed. This is what we’ve become used to expect.

But the sun has destroyed the interest of what has been happening in the shade. And in The Spectator’s leader this week – ‘The new God Squad: what Archbishop Welby and Pope Francis have in common’ – Damian Thompson takes a look in the shade.

Emerging there, he argues, is an extraordinary thing: a new ecumenism centred around evangelism. ‘The alliance between Catholics and evangelicals is the most important and surprising development in global Christianity for decades,’ he writes.

This is indeed remarkable – that an Archbishop of Canterbury enamoured with Catholic Social Teaching and devoted to Ignatian spirituality and a Latin American Cardinal who likes reading the bible with Protestant ministers were appointed within weeks of each other; that American evangelicals love ‘our’ Pope Francis and conservative Catholics increasingly find common ground with Protestants around hot-button moral issues.

I don’t think it’s exaggerating to see this development as the twenty-first century church’s ‘perestroika’ (‘reconstruction’) and ‘glasnost’ (‘openness’). A sea-change in attitudes. An almighty paradigm-shift. An opening out onto the ecclesiastical other, rooted in a conviction that what unites Christians of different denominations is far greater than what divides them.

So Thompson has indeed found something interesting in the shade. Something which has probably been happening in the developing world for some time, but which the West is only now catching up with. Where Thompson falls short, though, is when he falls back on old frameworks to interpret new phenomena.

The problem with words, said Dennis Potter, is that you don’t know where they’ve been, and the language of the ‘God squad’ is outdated. Mission was, is and ever will be central to the church’s modus operandi. And see it this way: we are rightly suspicious of cults and clubs precisely for the reason that they don’t do mission; that their model is not invitational but rather that they so heavily discriminate about membership. We’re (legitimately) sceptical about people who aren’t inclined to share what they have; but then when they do share it we castigate them as a ‘squad’!

Secondly, Thompson’s dichotomy between mission and social justice is passé and naïve. He says that as Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires the future Pope ‘distrusted Catholic liberation theologians, preferring the company of evangelicals who entered the slums to preach about God and Satan rather than models of economic justice.’ Um. This is the first Pope in history to take the name ‘Francis’! The first pope self-consciously to take as his inspiration the extraordinary saint of Assisi who gave away everything he owned to serve the poor. And who, furthermore, identified God and Satan behind the models of economic injustice. For Thompson to impose here the matrix of left versus right, to separate out Catholic liberation theologians from spiritually-minded evangelicals, is to create a wholly artificial distinction. In actual fact, it is a deep-seated concern about poverty which is another thing bringing together Catholics and evangelicals right now. It’s a passion for social justice that’s part of perestroika. And that has to be a good thing.