There we were on the tarmac at Heathrow as the papal jet prepared to land. The cameras were trained on the night sky. The red carpet was rolled out. The charming Foreign Office people tried for the umpteenth time to remind me where to stand – and all the while my mind was whirring with a single question. It is a problem that goes to the heart of the relationship between church and state. It is a question that will be studied by future generations of students of theology and patristics, because the answer we give – and the answer you give, off the top of your head – is an indication of the balance currently existing between the privileges of spiritual leaders and the egalitarian demands of our temporal world.
Never mind abortion or paedophile priests. As Pope Force One taxied towards us, there was one issue still revolving in my mind at the speed of a Rolls-Royce fan jet. Should the Popemobile be liable for the congestion charge and, if not, why not? Should the Holy Father have to pay £8 to drive through Westminster, like everyone else? Or should that fee be waived, in recognition of his status as the vicar of Christ on Earth? It is a tough one, and I am sure there will be clear-sighted readers of this paper who will take opposite views; and it is that very division of instinct that is so revealing about the psychology of this country.
It was an honour and a privilege to be asked to meet the Pope at Heathrow, and I had spent the previous couple of days thinking what to say. Some of my Catholic friends said I should kiss his ring. I think they were having me on. Some said I should speak in Latin, or try some disarming witticism. I attempted to cook up a gag about Dark Ages Britain being lost to the See of Rome, and how thrilled the hard-pressed Christian community was when Saint Augustine turned up. The punchline was going to be “long time no See”.
You will be relieved to know that I abandoned all these projects when I saw the man himself, his white hair glowing through the Alitalia porthole. Here he was, Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, the upholder of Catholic teaching in a morass of relativism, with his stern but interesting critique of our secular world. Here was I, the representative of a teeming megalopolis, a place where hard work and hedonism seemed to be the dominant ethics, and where some people were not just apathetic about the papal visit, but positively hostile.
I felt like a woad-painted savage suddenly confronted by an effulgent vision from Rome, and called upon to explain the religious back-sliding of the tribe. We went up from the tarmac into the Royal Suite, and after a procession of cardinals had said goodnight to the Pontiff, and after some opening pleasantries about Alitalia in-flight cooking, I seized the moment to say something about the schism at the heart of the British relationship with Rome.
“It all goes back to 410,” I said, when we were on the sofa. He looked tired but patient, like a tutor dealing with an especially obtuse and excitable pupil. I didn’t mean 10 past four, I didn’t mean teatime, I gabbled on. I meant 410 AD, the year the emperor Honorius announced that Britain could no longer be protected by the legions – the year we were effectively cut off from the empire. It was that fifth- century crisis, I blurted, that plunged us back into darkness and paganism. Britain was the only significant Roman province to be completely abandoned, after hundreds of years, to non-Christian barbarians.
No wonder we had a complex. No wonder we had always been divided in our feelings towards continental Europe. We had a deep childhood sense of rejection. It may have been just my paranoia, but I had a feeling the Pope stole a glance towards the door; and sure enough, someone was there to say that the cavalcade was ready to take him into town. “Very interesting,” he said kindly as we said goodbye, and I am naturally proud to have given His Holiness the opening paragraphs of my thesis, explaining as it does everything from Henry VIII to Euroscepticism and the general British ambivalence towards any great continental power, religious or political.
And I mean it. It is partly a function of that ambivalence that readers will (I bet) be split on the Popemobile/congestion charge issue. Some will say it is outrageous, that no one should be above the law. They will say that it is an obsequious kissing of the ruby-red papal shoes, a shameful genuflection, the like of which has not been seen since the Holy Roman emperor grovelled to the Pope at Canossa in 1077. And others will say: come off it, mate, this is the Pope – the leader of the oldest and largest organisation in the world, a man who speaks for the faith of a sixth of all mankind, the apostolic successor of Peter himself. What’s the point of being Pope, they will say, if you can’t be exempt from the congestion charge? Why should the people of London begrudge the Holy Father £8? To which the others will say, why should the Holy Father begrudge the people of London £8? They’ve got a bob or two in
It is, you will appreciate, a grade-A political dilemma, of a kind we cowardly politicians are keen to shirk. So I was delighted when Transport for London’s traffic engineers – themselves a priestly caste – clarified the matter. We were not actually exempting the Popemobile, they explained. It was rather that the congestion charge was applied only to vehicles making “normal” use of the roads; and since the roads had been closed for the Popemobile, the charge did not apply. When the Pope was travelling in other vehicles through the London traffic, he and his retinue would most certainly pay, they said. So the Pope is only immune from the congestion charge when he sits in the Popemobile, just as he is only infallible when he sits in cathedra. TFL locutus est, as they say in Rome, causa finita est.
The article can be found in The Daily Telegraph