Flashback: B16 at Westminster Abbey

GetReligion is well into its sixth year and, every now and then, I am reminded how much the writing that I do here has changed me in my work as a columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service, a task that I've been at for about 23 years. Yes, every now and then, I read the coverage of a major news event and I can't help but think, "Why in the world did everybody cover that part of the event and not THIS part of the event?" At that point it's pretty easy to justify in my mind a quick column about the angle of the news event that I am actually interested in reading about, especially if we're talking about a global story. Duh.

However, as any wire-service columnist knows, there is this thing called "lead time" that must be taken into account.

For example, the timing of the recent visit to the United Kingdom by Pope Benedict XVI could not have more lousy, from my point of view. I write on Tuesday nights, before editing and shipping the column early on Wednesday mornings. However, most newspapers do not run the copy until the weekend. Thus, the entire papal visit -- generating gazillions of headlines -- took place between my deadline and the days on which my column would appear. How do you write about that event, without the gift of prophecy?

Well, you try to write about some angle that rarely appeared in other coverage. You can see the GetReligion connection in that process.

In the case of papal visits, most media coverage follows the following iron-clad rules.

(1) Controversy is job one.

(2) Any papal comments with political implications come next.

(3) Lengthy passages about issues of faith and doctrine come in dead last, if they ever see the day.

Thus, I knew that everyone would write about the pope's address in Westminster Hall, about faith and politics, but that few journalists would focus on the content of the Westminster Abbey sermon -- unless the pope bluntly addressed actions by the Church of England that have fractured ecumenical relations with the Vatican. However, popes rarely say anything blunt and newsworthy, preferring a more subtle approach to addressing those kinds of issues.

This leads me to my Scripps Howard column this past week which is, naturally, about the Westminster Abbey text. I few readers requested that I post it here, this time around.

It was nice to get to open with a historical note, for a change. This was a visit that was about history, more than anything else.

During his long exile in Normandy, the Saxon prince who would become known as Edward the Confessor vowed that he would make a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Peter once he returned to England.

After his coronation as king, the pope released Edward from this vow -- if he built a monastery dedicated to the first bishop of Rome. Thus, St. Peter's Abbey was rebuilt in Westminster.

Pope Benedict XVI gently stressed this history in the first words of his address during his recent visit to Westminster Abbey, where he prayed with the archbishop of Canterbury.

"I thank the Lord for this opportunity to join you ... in this magnificent abbey church dedicated to St. Peter, whose architecture and history speak so eloquently of our common heritage of faith," said Benedict. "Here we cannot help but be reminded of how greatly the Christian faith shaped the unity and culture of Europe and the heart and spirit of the English people. Here, too, we are forcibly reminded that what we share, in Christ, is greater than what continues to divide us. ...

"I thank the Lord for allowing me, as the successor of St. Peter in the See of Rome, to make this pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Edward the Confessor."

Yes, it is interesting to read the text and note the multiple references to St. Peter. One might be tempted to say that Benedict is saying, "I am the successor to You Know Who and, well, you are not."

Since I write a column, I was also free to offer another piece of analysis. In addition to the references to St. Peter, it is interesting to note the number of times that, when mentioning church unity, Benedict connected that subject with references to claims of absolute truth.

... Benedict repeatedly stressed that unity must be found in scripture, creeds and moral doctrines that date back to the early church. These words, however, are controversial in an age in which the global Anglican Communion is divided over teachings as central as the resurrection of Jesus and claims that salvation is found through Christ, alone.

"Our commitment to Christian unity is born of nothing less than our faith in Christ, in this Christ, risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father, who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead," he said. "It is the reality of Christ's person, his saving work and, above all, the historical fact of his resurrection, which is the content of ... those creedal formulas. ... The church's unity, in a word, can never be other than a unity in the apostolic faith, in the faith entrusted to each new member of the body of Christ."

Finally, Benedict stressed -- yet again -- that he was speaking and acting in "fidelity to my ministry as the bishop of Rome and the successor of St. Peter, charged with a particular care for the unity of Christ's flock."

No news there, unless one is interested in sacraments, doctrines, confessions and things like that.

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