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Is the Pope poaching, or is this, in marketing terms, just a smart move to include those customers who are discontent with their own sect?

I'm altogether in favour of the way in which ecumenism has spread through the Christian faiths these days. Look at Archbishop Martin speaking up in favour of Protestant schools. They're great, he said. Protestant schools have added immeasurably to pluralism in this country. Bravo.

A generation ago, his predecessor would have opined that Protestants and their schools were simply 'in error'. But then his predecessor was Dr John Charles McQuaid, who was not only the Archbishop of Dublin but a Cavan man to boot.

No disrespect to Cavan men, but the sectarian tradition could always be a bit sharper along those border counties, especially where areas were poor. I recall Cavan folk saying, with an edge of resentment, "Och, the Protestants got the best land!" They were talking about the 17th century. Which was only yesterday, in agricultural terms.

But Cavan has changed, too. I know of a townland along the Cavan border -- by Lough Gowna -- where, when the little gem of a Church of Ireland church needed a new roof, the local Catholics held a fundraising dance to help with contributions. That's ecumenism. And didn't President McAleese visit an Orange lodge in Cavan not long ago and speak warmly to the old chaps who were its lifelong adherents? That's pluralism, to be sure, and it's altogether positive and harmonious.

But has the Pope now gone and upset the whole apple cart by inviting groups of Anglicans to become a semi-detached sect within the Roman Catholic communion? Disaffected members of the Church of England (which extends to the Church of Ireland, and the Anglican community throughout the world) have been invited by Pope Benny to form a kind of Anglican branch within the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic. And it has been predicted that some 400,000 Anglicans will take up the offer.

These would mostly be (it is suggested) church men and women who do not care for the modernising trend in the Anglican community, who do not accept women priests and bishops, who do not agree with the idea of conferring the sacrament of Christian marriage on gay couples, and who wish, generally, to return to a more historic interpretation of Christian doctrine.

Oh dear. Ecumenism, surely, depends upon mutual respect, rather than enticing each other's congregations. In the 19th century there were widespread attempts by Irish Protestant organisations to evangelise Catholics in the west of Ireland, but such missions often created hostilities between the faith communities. Those who changed faiths were called 'jumpers', and it was observed that even if they 'jumped' from the Papacy to the Reformed faith, they often 'jumped' back again.

Is the Pope poaching, or is this, in marketing terms, just a smart move to include those customers who are discontent with their own sect?

And there are such disaffected ones. "Oh, how often we look longingly across the Tiber," a (High) Anglican priest said to me earlier this year, replete in a soutane that you wouldn't have seen in the Roman Catholic church since before 1963. It was his poetic way of saying that he was inclined to 'jump' over to Rome himself (except that he had a living to consider within the Church of England).

The priest had been a married man, but was now a widower, so there would have been no impediment in his being ordained as a Roman Catholic. He especially admired Pope Benedict. "My heart sang when I learned that Ratzinger had succeeded to the throne of Peter!" For this cleric, Cardinal Ratzinger represented the true orthodoxy of faith, and all that traditional razzmatazz that once went with it.

However, traffic can flow two ways, and I also know cradle Catholics who have chosen to become Anglicans -- quite a few of them in the Dublin and Wicklow region. If Protestant schools are to be praised and conserved, as Dr Martin says, there are indeed many parents who concur, some of them raised as Roman Catholics.

In a way, you could say it is all of a flux. Those Christians who feel drawn to the spiritual traditions of the Vatican feel freer to move towards Rome, or a branch of Rome, while those who feel that Canterbury delivers a more relevant brand of Christianity go with the contraflow.

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The old Co Tyrone joke, anyway, should now be well past its sell-by date: 'Catholics and Protestants Unite Against Ecumenism.'

It is, isn't it?


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