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A HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY
The First Three Thousand Years
Allen Lane, 1161p–, hbk 978 0 713 99869 6
In 1931 a young Cambridge don wrote a book that caused a minor sensation among historians. He was Herbert Butterfield and the book was The Whig Interpretation of History.
In it he attacked two characteristics of the work of members of the profession senior to him: the pronouncing of moral judgements and the writing of history with an eye on the present. Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch begins this book by identifying himself with both of them: ‘although modern historians have no special capacity to be arbiters of the truth or otherwise of religion, they still have a moral task’. And he links that with the contemporary political scene. The higher purpose of historical writing is ‘to curb the rhetoric which breeds fanaticism.’
The Whig historians of the nineteenth century called that cause ‘religious toleration’. The most important of them was Thomas Babington Macaulay whose background is intriguingly similar to Professor MacCulloch’s. Of Scottish descent, Presbyterian and Episcopalian respectively, patriarchs of both families journeyed south and became Anglicans. Thomas’ father was Zachary, a member of the evangelical Clapham sect, and Diarmaid’s father was a Suffolk country vicar who brought his son up ‘in the presence of the Bible’.
Both lost their childhood faith. MacCulloch writes about his rather wistfully: ‘I remember with affection what it was like to hold a dogmatic position on the statements of Christian belief.’ As for Macaulay, when standing for Parliament in 1832 he said he was a Christian, but then he would, wouldn’t he? As for Diarmaid, he can afford to be more straightforward; in fact he takes pride in being so, calling himself ‘a candid friend of Christianity.’
The precise nature of his candour – and indeed friendship – is revealed in the next sentence: ‘I live with the puzzle of wondering how something apparently so crazy can be so captivating to millions of other members of my species.’ That Christian belief is crazy was Macaulay’s view too, despite his public professions to the contrary, though
he would not of course have used the Americanism. Neither would he have wanted his curiosity about this collective delusion to be regarded in the way MacCulloch does, as ‘an apophatic form of the Christian faith’, which he thinks it might be by those ‘familiar with theological jargon’.
In that sentence MacCulloch asks for ‘charity’ from the users of this jargon and in that spirit I would like to point out an error in his own use of it taken from the first page of the first chapter of his book. There he assures us that the Johannine logos is ‘not so much a single particle of speech, but the whole act of speech, or the thought behind the speech, and from there its meanings spill outwards into conversation, narrative, musing, reason, report, rumour, even pretence.’ Since he offers no reference for this absurd interpretation which defies the rules of grammar (the difference between singular and plural), I can only assume that it is MacCulloch’s own.
So why is MacCulloch so keen to render logos as logoi though he knows perfectly well that the subject of the Prologue is Jesus Christ? The answer is that he wants to make St John speak in his historical jargon. For MacCulloch, Christ is not one, but many. He is what people in the past have made him (up) to be. He is the creation of history. And it is not just Christians who have been inventive in this respect according to MacCulloch. The chapter in which this bizarre exegesis of John 1 occurs is about Greeks and Romans, i.e. pagan non-believers.
There is more than a hint of the post-modern in all this – the one history of Christ and the Church deconstructed as multiple individual stories (including those of the non-Christian Other).
Certainly A History of Christianity abounds in the latter. MacCulloch has read widely in the secondary literature and writes well: just like Macaulay again. In fact, having inspected most of its 1016 pages of text I conclude that, in both its virtues and vices (and I’m not sure whether its size is one or the other), this is a very Victorian history book. MacCulloch has given us a Whig interpretation of the history of Christianity to go alongside Macaulay’s Whig interpretation of the history of England.
So a last word about that. Butterfield’s critique of the Whig historians does not concentrate on their propensity to make moral judgements and to view the past in terms of the present. The twin pillars of the Whig interpretation of history are not them, but Protestantism and Progress. Not being a Christian believer did not stop Macaulay taking the Protestant side in the conflicts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries because in his mind it represented liberty, understood principally as freedom from religious authority, especially that of the Catholic Church.
As to evidence for MacCulloch’s belief in Progress, we need look no further than his account of Junia, the female ‘apostle’. But about her he is entirely mistaken. He needs to get hold of the important review article
which appeared in Touchstone, October 2008, entitled ‘Junia Among the Apostles’. Luckily for him, its author, John Hunwicke, is the Senior Research Fellow at Pusey House just across the quad from Professor MacCulloch’s own college, St Cross. I trust our Whig historian is willing to break with the stereotypes of the past and learn from a High Church clergyman.
ORDO RECITANDI OFFICII DIVINI SACRIQUE PERAGENDI MMX Saint Lawrence Press, 64p–, pbk
£11 from <www.ordorecitandi.org.uk/page2.htm>
You can find illumination in the most unexpected places. What is the difference between the Byzantine Rite and the Roman? Well, that’s a big question; let’s narrow it down to the calendar and to a comparison with the modern Roman Rite.
Since 1962 and all the more so since the Council, the Roman Calendar has been characterized by a puritan simplicity. One liturgical celebration on one day has one theme. If there are two saints historically associated with a day (St Hugh and St Hilda, for example) you observe one and ignore the other… possibly transferring it from its true day to an ‘unimpeded’ day. You’re lucky if you’re allowed to prepare for a festivity even by First Vespers. And as soon as it is over, boy, is it over. Not another murmur about it till next year.
Byzantines like it messy… or, rather, generous. Feasts are liturgically prepared for, sometimes by a fast; if more than one celebration hits a particular day, liturgical texts from both observances dance a kind of tango with each other. A major feast will linger in the liturgical memory until its leave-taking. Incidentally, this spirit is also found in Tractarian sermons which – if Good Friday coincided with March 25 as it did in 1842 and 1853 – expounded and combined both themes.
But this is just how the Roman Rite (and its English dialects such as Sarum) also was, for centuries until the legacy of the so-called Enlightenment prescribed, in the Sixties, a schoolmasterly didacticism and ‘clarity’. An example, from the Ordo I am reviewing: June 28. Anciently, you would prepare for the Feast of Sts Peter and Paul by celebrating its Vigil, in purple vestments and with a fast (if you are members of the Prayer Book Society, you do of course still fast this day). But in 1920, it was considered a Good Idea to keep St Irenaeus. So in he came. But the Vigil did not disappear… good heavens, no. It became a commenoration of the Nativity of St John Baptist. So he got a Commemoration too. Or you were permitted to say a private Mass of the Vigil with commemorations of St Irenaeus and the Baptist.
This was a liturgical culture of organic evolution rather than of instant ‘reforms’. A once popular saint whose cultus had ebbed away would be likely to find that a New Boy or Girl on the Block, as the latest devotional fad, had elbowed him aside and reduced him to a mere commemoration. Eventually he might slip entirely into oblivion like the thousands of other saints listed in the Martyrology but only noticed in some localities. ‘Commemorations’ enabled you to show synchronic and diachronic solidarity with what Christians in other ages and other places had done or were doing.
This Ordo – so different from the ‘modern’ one which I compile – will (provided you have the nous to negotiate some Latin abbreviations) give you the atmosphere of the Roman Rite as it was before the pontificate of Pius XII (which was when modernity began to creep in); a time when it was natural and human and chaotic and organic and evolutionary… as the Byzantine Rite still is. Only a few of you are likely to want to adopt it instantly for daily Office and Mass, but you'll find it an immense eye-opener.
JOY IN ALL THINGS A Franciscan Companion
Edited by Damian Kirkpatrick et al. Canterbury, 254p–, hbk 978 1 85311 747 3, £16.99
The appeal of Francis of Assisi continues down through the ages riding on the effectiveness of his imitation of Christ. G.K. Chesterton wrote: ‘Christianity has not been tried and found
wanting; it simply has not been tried!’ He then added: ‘only Francis of Assisi has tried it and has not been found wanting!’
This second edition of Joy In All Things brings together Franciscan history, hagiography and liturgy with an eye to the work of the Holy Spirit. The spirituality represented in this Franciscan Companion is Christocentric, oriented to the seeking of God’s kingdom and environmentally sensitive.
It is the great gift of Francis to combine self-denial with the affirmation of creation’s splendour as in his ‘Canticle of the Creatures’. The title Joy In All Things captures this aspiration.
Ecumenical and international in its composition, the volume provides a way into a rich tradition that serves the discovery of Christianity as humanity in its right mind. There are no better teachers than Francis, Clare and their companions about the corrupting power of wealth, exploitation, violence and individuality and its countering in the loving service of Jesus.
This Franciscan Companion includes a guide to Assisi, a glossary of Franciscan terms and commendation of relevant websites, as well as offices and devotions. It is brown, appropriately, but with gold cover lettering.
NEVER COMPLETELY SUBMERGED
The Story of the Squarson of Lewtrenchard as revealed in the Diary of Sabine Baring-Gould
Grosvenor House Publishing, 315p–, pbk 978 1 907211 034 4, £11.85 from Stable Cottage, Lewdown, Devon EX20 4DQ
‘I have just torn down the following notice at the Crossroads, painted in red: ‘Lord Fokestaff’s Stag Hounds will meet, Wednesday Jan 24 at Lew Trenchard at 7 p.m. by invitation; when good sport may be expected as the hounds will be hunded by that celebrated huntsman Old Tom.' The meaning is this. A young carpenter lives at Crossroads, married not long ago – only a few months; and the scandal is about that she has been unfaithful to him. So on Wednesday night there will be a stag hunt about their cottage, a man dressed in a hide with cows horns will run, followed by men and boys yelping like a pack of hounds, and Old Tom as a huntsman with a horn careering them on… It is an old custom and dies hard.’
The date is 1883, and the diarist who gives this account is none other than the author of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, the Devon squarson, antiquarian, hymnographer, folklorist and priest, Sabine Baring-Gould. So here, on the threshold of our own age, we find the ancient rituals of social shaming which for thousands of years, more powerful than any legal code, sustained the cohesion and the ancient accepted mores of a community. It is as distant from us as the Hottentots; nowadays the young woman would be surrounded by the minions of the social services assuring her that she had every right to be as promiscuous as she wished and that the State, if necessary, would support financially herself and as many bastards
as she chose to have, or, if she preferred, would abort them for her.
Baring-Gould’s recently discovered diaries, transcribed and admirably annotated by Dr Ron Wawman, give a vivid picture of an age which is only just yesterday. You will find in this volume the jokes with which the gentry amused themselves and each other… such as the Archbishop of Canterbury sitting at dinner convinced that he was having a stroke because, although he repeatedly pinched his own leg, he could feel nothing (‘Console yourself’, said the Duchess of Sutherland, who sat beside him, ‘It is not your leg but mine you have been pinching under the table’); jokes which, to our age of sound-bites, can seem laboured – but perhaps the Victorians had the time and inclination to structure, deploy and relish such stories.
You can follow the efforts of a young gentleman with not quite enough money to earn, by his writings, the means to recreate his ancestral Manor House and its adjacent church, while providing dowries for an endless stream of daughters. You can trace his relationship with the Yorkshire mill-girl with whom he fell in love and – after, Pygmalion-like, having transformed her into a Lady – made his wife and his dimidium animae: half of his soul.
You can follow the young antiquarian as he makes notes of what the local churches contained before the Victorian ‘restorations’; as at a nearby church where a late medieval rood screen (‘it was quite perfect and very rich’) was burned because a Miss Pierce would only restore the church on condition that the screen was totally destroyed.
Above all, readers of NEW DIRECTIONS will enjoy following the second generation of the Catholic Revival – the generation in which the Catholic Faith was taken out into the countryside. Baring-Gould’s diary offers many hours of delving and delighting.
ST JOHN MARY VIANNEY THE CURE OF ARS A Parish Priest for all the World
St Pauls, 102p–, pbk
978 0 85439 765 5, £5.25
‘Hagiography’ is usually taken to be a derogatory term. We too readily presume it will be dull, tendentious and uninspired. This only goes to show, perhaps, that it is not as easy a genre to deliver as one might suppose. The writing of the life of one of God’s saints, so as to kindle within us the work of God’s grace, is a difficult and relatively rare skill. This little book is an excellent example of how to do it.
Note first that there is no simple chronology of John Vianney’s life, as you would tend to expect from most similar slim paperbacks. Exactly. This is not a biography. We are not even given the exact date of his death: if you are a church-going believer you already know it is 4 August and that 2009 was the 150th anniversary of his death; if you are not, such precise detail is neither here nor there.
The life of the Cure d’Ars is an extraordinary one, but not in terms of events. It needs devout and sympathetic telling, so that we can begin to believe, let alone understand the extraordinary outpouring of grace that occurred during his ministry in that small and unspectacular village.
Ours is a sceptical age, and so inevitably with a life so extraordinary in its effect while so ordinary in its unfolding, there is a need to answer the inevitable questions and to explain the background to a society so different in its expectations. In this, I was particularly impressed by Bogle’s description of the effects of the French Revolution and its virulent anti-Catholic persecutions, which in turn helped to create the vision of priest-as-hero, the crucial ideal that inspired this young member of a farming family.
It is light reading, but well-attuned to combat the cynicism of our century, and would be well worth sharing with a sceptical or lapsed friend.
A PRIEST’S GUIDE TO HEARING CONFESSIONS
Fr Michael Woodgate
CTS, 140p–, hbk
978 1 86082 530 9, £9.95
It has been remarked of late, as the Ordinariate is discussed, that Anglo-Catholic priests make the best confessors. Why? Because for them each penitent has been dearly bought. Each one has come through learned conviction, and each confession is said and heard as a sacrament won against the odds.
Passionate commitment: this is what Anglicans might bring to the feast. And yet, do all Anglo-Catholic priests hear confessions with this deep, hard-won intensity? Of course not. Do not many wish they could do better, and yet never in fact do enough to make it happen? Is it not the case (whisper it not in Gath) that some self-confessed Anglo-Catholic priests do not even go to confession themselves.
We have much to learn, and if our Roman cousins may have become lazy, dispirited or formulaic, they still hold to a shared sacrament with greater knowledge than do most of us. This is a simple, practical guide, with innumerable and easily digestible short sections, dispensing trustworthy and most helpful advice. If in doubt, read it. It will be money well spent.
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