The Scottish composer James MacMillan has composed a congregational Mass for the Blessed John Henry Newman which is to be featured at the venues of the Pope’s forthcoming visit to Great Britain. No surprise there. But what’s novel I think, is that MacMillan, unusually for a composer, is a bold controversialist and an unorthodox defender of British Catholicism who has started his own blog to comment on his own press interviews.
MacMillan first slammed sectarianism as “Scotland’s Shame” 11 years ago and has not been deflected since by the horrors of the abuse scandal – not that he makes any excuses for it. His comments (if not the blog, yet) reflect the sweep and passion of his music, from the ultra modern to strong traditional references.
He’s quoted today by the English Catholic writer Peter Stanford condemning much secular comment about the Church as “the new antisemitism of the liberal intellectual”. Stanford asks: ” So why don’t other Catholics follow MacMillan’s example and speak up more often in their own defence?”
Amid the abuse crisis, the nuanced contributions of liberal Catholics to the current debates around the Pope’s visit is a reminder that anti-Catholic bigotry is just as bad as the other disease without the “anti”.
During the visit, it will be interesting to see if Christians of all denominations will get a hearing for their common cause, to defend the place of religion in public life. Or will their cause be swamped by the attention inevitably focused on own bitter internal rows over different aspects of sex?
For all types of Irish, the separate British debate points up the contrast between the State within a State role long exercised by the Catholic Church in both parts of Ireland and the keep our heads down, not quite belonging position of the Church in England and Wales and Scotland since the Reformation which it hasn’t shaken off even yet. The grounds for Catholics failing to belong fully may have shifited, from specifically anti Catholic discrimination which has greatly declined, to the gap between Catholic teaching and acceptance of practices like abortion, but it is probably as wide as ever. Secular Britain is a bigger stranger to the conservative devout of all types of Britain perhaps, than the old Protestant Britain was for Roman Catholics in the last two hundred years.
The main factor that keeps Catholic isolation in check is the independent outlook of the Catholic laity. But even the furious response to the blatant cover-ups seems to have failed seriously to rock the position of self-perpetuating Church establishment.
Coming from the likes of James MacMillan, the case in favour of the Church carries more conviction than does the Pope.
In James’s background there are the familiar crossover links between the traditions on either side of the water, as he recently told the Herald.
He describes how, at around 10 years old, he joined a brass band, encouraged by his beloved maternal grandfather, George. “The coal mines are saturated in brass band culture and my grandfather had played euphonium in a colliery band as a young man,” says MacMillan, lighting up as he speaks. “Brass was a big thing in Cumnock and I felt as though I was following in his footsteps. It’s quite a big thing to march, play and read music at the same time. I was excited by that prospect.”
Only this marching was to the thud of an Orange walk. “This engagement came in for [the band] to play for an Orange walk somewhere in Ayrshire. I was going to do it – I didn’t bother about it – but my parents thought it would cause a scandal if I was seen, a little Catholic boy.” He chuckles quietly.
If MacMillan once saw nothing strange about a Catholic boy marching in an Orange parade, he is adamant now there is nothing contradictory about having working class roots and voting Conservative.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London