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Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth has burst on to the global religious media stage thanks to an interview he gave recently to the anti-abortion website LifeSite News. British parliamentarians who vote for abortion or civil recognition of same-sex nuptials, he said, should be banned from Holy Communion. He has since said that MPs who voted for abortion and “against the family” should withdraw from the Eucharist.
One local Catholic MP, Conor Burns, who holds strong anti-abortion views, has withdrawn from taking Communion in the diocese, having voted for same-sex marriage, because he would not wish the bishop to discipline any priest who offered him Eucharistic hospitality.
This could look like a row among Catholic friends. But these pronouncements were made just ahead of European, local and general elections.
Take the hyper-marginal constituency of Portsmouth South, which is home to Bishop Egan, his cathedral and thousands of Catholic voters. When the sitting MP, Mike Hancock, steps down it is likely that he will be succeeded as Liberal Democrat candidate by the local council leader and vice-chairman of the Local Government Association, Gerald Vernon-Jackson.
Vernon-Jackson, an erstwhile Mass-goer at the Catholic cathedral, is openly gay and recently entered into a civil partnership. Vernon-Jackson also leads a ruling group, many of whose members are up for re-election in marginal wards this May. In this seat, only Ukip has a problem with the prospective Liberal Democrat candidate’s support for gay marriage. Thus far Vernon-Jackson’s pro-gay-marriage stance has not impacted on his popularity, but as the bishop ramps up the heat, the question arises as to whether Egan is trying to instigate a local culture war, or is inadvertently intervening in national politics?
If the latter is the case, it is worth noting that the Diocese of Portsmouth is home to at least four other marginal seats where the Catholic community is more than double the sitting MP’s majority, not to mention being the region from which four of the current Cabinet are elected. Is Egan trying to sway the Catholic vote? Either way, because this region is home to thousands of commuting civil servants and journalists, there is no way the Catholic Church, even if it wanted to, could contain the matter locally.
So given that the Archbishop of Southwark, Peter Smith, and Arundel and Brighton’s Bishop Kieran Conry are responsible for geographies represented by the same MEPs as much of Bishop Egan’s diocese, and where UKIP is even more strongly present, what will be the Church’s common line in the European constituency of the south east?
This raises a question for Cardinal Vincent Nichols as president of the bishops’ conference, and the papal nuncio, Archbishop Antonio Mennini: Do they need to clarify whether the logic of Egan’s demands is legitimate grounds to ignore the Nolan principles for public life (objectivity, selflessness and so on)? Is the Holy See content with comments that could have political implications locally, nationally and in a pan-European context?
Those who meet Egan speak of his warmth rather than the anguished tone they encounter in his media appearances and written statements. But whatever one thinks about them, those comments have already had far-reaching implications.
Francis Davis is a former trustee of Portsmouth Diocese and is Visiting Fellow in Civic Innovation at Portsmouth Business School