Theresa May once remarked that a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere. Unlike those liberal commentators who reacted to this with outrage, I think that she was right. I cannot be committed to the kind of living together as a shared project which a philosopher like Aristotle would have had in mind when he talked about citizenship of a polis along with every human being on the face of the planet if I also owe my loyalty to a modern nation-state. The loyalty demanded by modern nation-states is ultimately absolute, it is loyalty-unto-death in war, which makes nationalism seem very much like a form of religion. Be that as it may, Theresa May is right. It’s just that I’d take the other fork of the dilemma: if I cannot serve both Britain and humankind, so much the worse for Britain. I don’t think that I have any choice in this matter as a Catholic. I belong, by my baptism, to a worldwide communion which anticipates sacramentally the coming Kingdom, the new Heaven and new Earth, in which people called ‘out of every nation’ live and worship in peace.
Something like this lay behind my astonished anger as I walked towards Westminster Cathedral this morning,
A Catholic cathedral flying the Union Flag! One of the great gifts of English Catholicism in recent centuries has been the un-English feel of the whole business. Pushed to the margins, perpetually under suspicion of being somehow foreign or disreputable, the English Church has been better placed to emulate the Galilean itinerant preacher than it would have been were it more acceptable in polite society. Invitations to society events and civic chaplaincies could be left to the Anglicans.
Not everybody is happy with this state of affairs. Whether rooted in romantic fantasies about the conversion of England (don’t get me wrong, I think the conversion of English people is an excellent thing, but countries cannot be converted, and when people talk as though this is otherwise, they are invariably talking about converting the ruling class of any given country – which evangelistic mission invariably turns out to involve dining with them) or in a nationalism absorbed from the wider culture, there have always been people who wanted to make the Church more English, more accessible, less alien. Two thousand years ago you can imagine a similar refrain, “do we really need to always bring along the tax collectors and prostitutes, there are lots of good people in the synagogue who agree with us in principle”. The life of the Church should be alien in a homely way for all of us, since the Church is the place where we journey in (international) communion towards that which we see “as through a glass darkly”. One of the worst ideas floating around Vatican II was inculturation, the idea that the gospel ought to find particular cultural expression. If by this is meant the banal observation that we always speak of divine things in, historically conditioned, socially located, human words, then that is OK (but hardly needs saying). If it is meant that there are different ways of being the Church for different national and ethnic groups then that is, however well-intentioned, ecclesially sanctioned racism, and flies in the face of catholicity. In our buildings, our liturgy, our traditions we show what the Church is. And the Church is universal.
The Church, it seems to me, understands something of this when it insists, in the Order of Christian Funerals, that national flags be removed from coffins before they are brought into churches. We belong, ultimately to God and his Kingdom, not to nation-states. And our churches, above all our cathedrals, are signs of that Kingdom. They are not, cannot be, British in anything other than a geographical sense.
There are specific features of the Union Flag, of course, which make flying it from Catholic churches in Britain questionable from a pastoral perspective. It is the flag which flew across an Empire which killed, enslaved, and wounded the ancestors of a good proportion of the people who attend those churches. In its present form it issues from a union between Britain and Ireland whose effect on Irish Catholics is too recent and devastating to need repeating here.
But I don’t want to dwell on that aspect of the flag. Because whatever the national flag, it doesn’t belong on or in our churches. The idolatrous attempt to ally Catholicism to national projects has a sinister past, the proper response to which is repentance: Franco’s Spain represents its gruesome extreme. Similar tendencies are apparent in Poland and, in a different way, in the United States. In the face of all of these, there needs to be a clear reassertion of the universality of the Church. From what I saw today, that work needs to begin at home.