There’s a line in Macbeth where the sleep-walking Lady Macbeth keeps remembering the killing of King Duncan and cries out ‘Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?’ The Pope’s visit to Britain has had a similar effect. A number of frenzied attacks have been launched against him and the people making them sound as though they’ve gone a bit off their heads.
Take if you will Stephen Fry writing to the Guardian newspaper to denounce the Pope’s coming to Britain as a head of state, and in the same letter arguing that the Pope in fact is not a head of state. Take if you will Ian Paisley and the Free Presbyterians trudging up to Scotland to protest at the visit on the grounds that it will cost about a million pounds to the taxpayers while suffering temporary amnesia on the fact that last summer, three Orange marches in Scotland alone cost – yep, you guessed it – one million pounds. And then there’s Norman Hamilton.
Norman’s the moderator of the Presbyterian Church here and a couple of days ago William Crawley backed him into a corner on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback. William suggested that Rev Hamilton’s attendance at a joint service at Westminster Abbey sat oddly with his refusal to meet the Pope afterwards and shake hands. Didn’t he see the Pope as a brother in Christ? It was like watching an unhappy mouse that’s been backed into a corner. First Norman ran this way, then that, then a third; in the end he sort of sat there quivering, babbling about the different pressures surrounding him. It made for ear-curdling listening.
This varied craziness tells me that when Christians say they love their enemies, they may be telling the truth, but they find loving their fellow-Christians close to impossible. They claim to worship the same God, they claim to be followers of Christ, yet they can’t bring themselves to shake hands with the leader of over a billion fellow-Christians in case they might catch some doctrinal virus? Oh dear.
The Pope’s visit to Britain has flushed out a sentiment believed to be a thing of the past: anti-Catholicism. It’s come to the surface in recent weeks and can now be found bright-eyed and spitting throughout Britain, slithering its way into letters by such civilized fun chaps as Stephen Fry, burrowing its way into interviews with decent skins like Norman Hamilton.
Don’t be too surprised if, any day now, you see a photograph of Ian Paisley doing a handstand and smiling broadly. It’s not every day sectarianism gets the chance to fasten its teeth on a Pope’s neck.