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The Popish Plot.

November 5, 2009

Tonight, all over Britain, bonfires will burn. For weeks, children have been piling up branches and old furniture and anything else they can find that is combustible, and the pyres have risen on village greens, in gardens, in the countryside. And mothers have been badgered into making “Guys” – life-size rag dolls, dressed like scarecrows in old clothes. And for the past week or so, children have been hanging around on street corners, begging, in the time-honoured phrase “A penny for the Guy” (though today if all they got was a penny, great would be the indignation of the little darlings!). With this money, fireworks are bought, to be set off round the bonfire.

My British readers need no explanation for these folk customs, but some of you Americans may be wondering what I’m talking about. Well, believe it or not, it is about the attempt in 1605 to blow up Parliament in protest at the persecution and execution of Catholics. Whether it was a prelude to an uprising to assassinate King James VI & I and restore the Roman Catholic Church is a debatable question, but that is what was widely believed at the time. Pope Paul V had thundered excommunications and declared that it was no sin to overturn the monarch, so there was understandably a mighty hatred of the Papacy and its political manoeverings.

The plot failed; the plotters were executed; and the day was entered into the Prayer Book as a Day of Thanksgiving for the preservation of monarch and parliament. It was dropped in 1859, but the folk ceremonies continued. Even to this day, in Lewes, Sussex, it is an effigy of the Pope that is burned, not Guy Fawkes.

Today, there is little anti-Catholic feeling in the UK – except in Northern Ireland, of course. But since Benedict XVI issued his pastoral invitation to disaffected Anglicans to join his Church, mutterings about a new Popish Plot have been heard far and wide. Most outside observers seem to view the pastoral provision as a thinly disguised recruiting scheme for a Church that is short of priests thanks to celibacy rules and the fall-out of scandal.

More informed theories include one that may well prove true, though I doubt if the Pope gave it a moment’s thought. This is the view that the General Synod of the Church of England can now breathe a sigh of relief, and stop bending over backwards to try to keep within the fold Anglo-Catholics who will not accept women priests and Bishops. I am quite sure this is not true, but what’s truth got to do with rumours of a nice juicy Popish Plot?

Before we start collecting the faggots for Benedict XVI’s bonfire (now there’s a punny idea!) we should take a deep breath of skepticism. As I’ve said before, there are many more Roman Catholics flowing out of the RC Church than Anglicans flowing into it (for one thing, there are a lot more RCs to flow) and the changeover probably does all of them good. Let’s have a real Christian revolution and help anyone who wants to change Churches. We could even have farewell parties with fireworks and bonfires, and burn effigies of the Devil on them – after all, he’s the only one who profits from our petty squabbles.

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