29 APRIL 1989, Page 8


A meditation on Russia's reasons for inviting the Queen of England


Ispent the year 1963 in southern France and so did not visit North Yorkshire to discover whether or not the inhabitants of Whitby were planning anything to cele- brate the 1300th anniversary of the Synod of Whitby, which settled the future direc- tion of the Christian Church — first in the kingdom of Northumbia, then in the whole of England — until the break with Rome in the 1530s.

Apologists for the Church of England make much of the pre-Augustinian Christ- ian Church in England, supposed to be tolerant, Celtic and vaguely Pelagian in tone, as the true expression of our national religiosity until suppressed by the bureaucracy and dogmas of the Roman Church following in the wake of St Augus- tine's mission of 597.

In fact the Roman legions may have left a little (Roman) Christianity behind when they finally withdrew in 436, but it was more or less entirely wiped out in the subsequent Saxon invasions. The Celtic missionaries from Iona arrived after Au- gustine, and the period of their dominance was only 30 years. After the Synod of Whitby in 663 the Celts withdrew and the Christian Church of England accepted the Roman practices which, under the author- ity of Rome, were to prevail for the next 870 years. According to Bede, King Oswiu's reason for preferring Rome to the mild, ineffectual leadership of the Celtic church was that he thought the former more accurately reflected the guidance of St Peter. Whitby Abbey itself had been founded only eight years before the Synod, and its long history, until its dissolution in 1539, was entirely dedicated to the Roman Church. Perhaps the greatest significance of the Synod of Whitby is that it marks the first conclusion by a British decision- making body, after lengthy debate, that Britain was part of Europe, rather than a quaint island of misunderstood soccer hooligans on its own.

I do not know, as I say, whether Whitby celebrated the 1300th anniversary of this glorious event in 1963. This year, however, the churches of Whitby thought it would be a good idea to get together to celebrate an entirely different event — the 450th anniversary of the dissolution of its mona- stery by Henry VIII. In the euphoria of the moment, they even asked the local Roman Catholics along to make it a truly ecumenical occasion, and the Catholics, one gathers, eagerly agreed, until news of it reached the Bishop of Middlesbrough who put the kibosh on it. By this time the proposed celebration of this heinous event, to which the ruins of the Abbey above the town give stark witness, had been altered a little. It was to be a mildly penitential affair, an act of ecumenical atonement. Some Protestants objected to this, so it was to be at one and the same time a celebra- tion of throwing off the foul yoke of Rome and an act of atonement, with the accent, perhaps, on joy and hope for the future.

I am not quite sure how the Service of Remembrance and Reconciliation would have worked. Perhaps the Catholics would have atoned for any sins of gluttony or lust which might have been committed by the community in the Abbey's 873 years as a Catholic institution, while the Protestants might have atoned for hanging quite so many abbots 450 years ago. Then they could all have got together and celebrated ten years of Mrs Thatcher's rule, the Channel Tunnel, the Princess Royal's mar- riage, the thinning of Prince Edward's hair, etc.

In the same way, one is not sure exactly what the Queen is planning to celebrate with her proposed visit to the Soviet Union. She has missed the 70th anni- versary of her cousin's murder at Ekaterin- burg — that occurred last July. No doubt the Russians would be prepared to mount a tasteful re-enactment of the scene now that, in the spirit of glasnost, they have finally admitted that it took place. Some little ceremony combining forgiveness, atonement, celebration of a job well done and hope for the future in a spirit of perestroika can, no doubt, be devised by the appropriate authorities. I can well understand why the Queen should be so anxious to go. I can well understand why the Prime Minister should be lukewarm. The Queen as an international peace figure upstages even Mrs Thatcher on her Green bandwagon. But I am puzzled why the Russians should be keen to receive her.

'It is quite simple, really,' explained a fellow I sat next to at lunch the other day. 'It makes the Soviet system respectable.' He then launched into a lengthy harangue about how glasnost and perestroika were cunning ploys, hiding a new determination on the part of the Soviet Union, working through the West German Trojan horse, to take over the whole of Europe. By the same argument, unrest in Georgia, Arme- nia and the Baltic republics had been deliberately fomented by the Russians as part of their great scheme to convince the West and make it drop its guard. Glasnost was entirely for Western consumption. It would be snuffed out like a candle as soon as it had fulfilled its purpose.

The only thing my companion was pre- pared to concede was that the Soviet Union was in some sort of trouble econo- mically. These troubles would be tided over by enormous trade credits from the West, as soon as our gullible political leaders could be persuaded that Gor- bachev's survival depended on them. In Gorbachev, they believe, reside all hopes of disarmament, world peace and the emergence of a free market economy in the Soviet Union.

In support of this apparently lunatic theory, I would agree that we have heard no reports of nationalist unrest in the huge Soviet republic of the Ukraine. It is Ukrai- nian nationalism which the Russians really fear, not Armenian, Georgian, Latvian, Lithuanian or Estonian demonstrations in the street. I would also agree with him that it is extremely foolish to give the Soviet Union enormous trade credits just at the moment when it is beginning to be con- fronted by its own internal contradictions.

But I cannot accept his argument that the pressures are coming from the top as part of a diabolical, controlled policy of world domination. No doubt there is some such system of apologetics being circulated among the military and the KGB. But It has to ride in harness with changes which are being forced on the Soviet Communist Party by a growing public awareness that socialism is a load of rubbish.

I remember how at the beginning of the great Common Market debate of the 1970s, one could meet people who solemn- ly assured the world that the whole thing was a cover for the Pope to take over the Church of England. I think the real reason that the Russians have invited the Queen to the Soviet Union is the same as the reason why the Roman Catholic Bishop of Middlesbrough was invited to celebrate the Dissolution of the Monaster- ies at Whitby. They have gone slightly soft in the head.