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Wasting Christianity [and Bishop Willie]

Extracts from article in New Oxford Review, September 2004 by William J. Tighe

William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, and a Contributing Editor of the New Oxford Review (NOR).

Saving Christianity: New Thinking for Old Beliefs.  By Hilary Wakeman. Foreward by Bishop Willie Walsh. The Liffey Press (Ashbrook House, 10 Main St., Raheny, Dublin 5, Ireland). 171 pages. $19.75.

This is a fatuous book, instructive (if at all) only due to its intellectual incoherence, but nevertheless worth the attention of NOR readers for a reason that bears acutely upon the confusions so prevalent in the Catholic Church today. Hilary Wakeman, so she tells us, was raised a Catholic, “a very devout child,” but in her late teens “became an intellectual rebel and left the Church.” Ten years later she began to attend the Anglican parish church in her English village, became active in it, and in 1994 was among the first women ordained to the priesthood in the Church of England. In 1996 she moved to Ireland, became Rectoress of an Anglican parish in County Cork, from which she retired in 2001.

In this book she presents us with her version of the thesis more notoriously expressed by Jack Spong, the retired Episcopalian Bishop of Newark, N.J., in his book How Christianity Must Change or Die, that Christianity must, if it is to survive as a world religion and avoid “fundamentalism,” jettison just about every element in its doctrinal proclamation and moral teaching that has characterized it throughout its history. Spong supports his case with arguments based on social change and the views of a certain coterie of theologians, but Old Mother Wakeman (henceforth referred to as OMW) dispenses with most of that, relying on “experience” and on the dictates of “right-brain” (experiential, intuitive) as opposed to “left-brain” (rationalistic, discursive) thinking. As she writes, “the question ‘True or False’, ‘Yes or No’ cannot be applied to religion…. If something is true for you, if this or that is the way God becomes accessible to you, then that for you is truth.”


Readers of the NOR may well agree with the ascription of the term “fatuous” to this book, but they may be puzzled why such a book ought to be reviewed in this journal. They might suppose that its very fatuity renders it unworthy of such attention, and Catholic readers might wonder what “Catholic interest” it might have. But there is a “Catholic interest.” The book comes with a Foreward by Bishop Willie Walsh. Readers will probably imagine that Bishop Willie is a bishop of the (Anglican) Church of Ireland, the body of which OMW [Old Mother Wakeman] is currently a “clergyperson,” but, alas, in this they would be mistaken. He is the Catholic Bishop of Killaloe, Ireland.

His two-page Foreward is a masterpiece of obscurity and fence-straddling. “I read much of this book traveling by air from Rome to Dublin. I had just attended a three-day Conference of Bishops where our beliefs were secure and unquestioned. I was returning to Dublin where, at this time, much of what we were taking for granted in Rome is being questioned and sometimes rejected. I found Hilary Wakeman’s Saving Christianity disturbing….” But he commends her approach for its resemblance to Pope John XXIII’s words about finding new ways of expressing old truths, but he is “disturbed” because “it seems to me in some cases she concluded that the old truth is simply not true.” But it is also “engaging,” especially as he found himself agreeing with many of her conclusions, such as “that Jew and Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist worship the same God and that we hardly do justice to that God by limiting Him to our small vision.” He does, however, find himself “in sharp disagreement with others — her interpretation of the Resurrection stories and of course the very basic question of who is Jesus.” Nevertheless, it is “a profound and scholarly book…which uses the author’s own lived experience and significant clarity of thought to explain her beliefs. Hilary Wakeman asks many questions that some of us dare not ask and yet it is surely only through prayerful reflection and courageous struggling with our doubts and questions that we can seek a faith which allows us to live with integrity…. Hilary Wakeman’s book challenges all of us to be courageous, honest and loving. I am grateful to her for challenging me to be courageous, honest and loving in writing a Foreward to this book.”

Do these words have any clear meaning? If so, what do they mean? We can set aside the Bishop’s ability to recognize the qualities of profundity and scholarship which he so strangely attributes to this frothy and derivative screed in favor of the more important question of why a Catholic bishop — a figure whose function is to act as a true shepherd of souls in the image of the true Shepherd and Bishop (1 Pet. 2:25) by “guarding the deposit” of faith and “avoiding the vain and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim. 6:20) — has produced such an effusive, if qualified, endorsement of a book whose general tenor and overall incoherence can be described in the words of the previously cited verse from St. Paul’s First Epistle to Timothy: “idle babblings and contradictions.” Bishop Willie himself merits only one citation in OMW’s book, but it is a revealing one. OMW writes that “In the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, clerical scandals plus a serious shortage of ordinands have led Bishop Willie Walsh to say publicly on television that ‘Local people have to take over ownership of the Church.’” Vagueness of phrasing (plausible deniability?) seems to be an ever-present characteristic of Bishop Willie’s mode of discourse, but it looks as though we are dealing with a bishop whose invocations of courage, honesty, and love conceal a dissenting mindset, one which he lacks the ability or the courage to express openly. Perhaps he ought to pluck up his courage and speak his mind. After all, if worse comes to worse, he could become an Anglican, and in that case would find himself, it appears, happily at home in the “Church-of-Where-It’s-At,” together with the ex-Catholic Old Mother Wakeman.