HANDMAIDS OF TRUTH
EVER SINCE JANUARY 1993 when Directions first made its presence felt it was immediately recognised that a new voice was being raised in the rather stuffy, closed world of established ecclesiastical journalism. Many of those who first read the monthly eight page supplement in the Church of England Newspaper were surprised to find in-depth, sustained and theologically articulate articles written by a huge variety of contributors ranging from (amongst the clergy) Roman Catholic bishops and Anglican archbishops right through to Free Church, House Church and Black Church leaders and from (amongst the laity) professors, lecturers, lawyers, and church commissioners. Moreover its regular contributors are often acknowledged experts on scripture, liturgy, mission, patristics, canon law, healing, parish practice and church politics. So popular did this supplement prove to be that in 1995 it emerged in a new magazine format and now New Directions is heading for a circulation of some 20,000 with the reasonable boast that it can now be regarded as being on an equal footing with other long established senior religious magazines.
Nevertheless, despite such success New Directions has come in for a lot of criticism. It is too negative, many argue. It is only anti- women priests, many opine. It is so irreverent others allege. It always rocks the boat others suggest. And it must be confessed and admitted that many of these accusations have a grain of truth in them.
In a sense New Directions is negative in so far as it does not automatically toe the party line (which, contrary to what many liberals allege, does exist; if you don't believe me try resisting it for a day and you will soon discover what I am talking about). It is unshakeable in its conviction that the decision made in November 11, 1992 was the wrong one and it will continue to remind the Church of this unpalatable fact. It is irreverent in so far as it does not unthinkingly defer to authoritarianism and it does rock the boat and make life uncomfortable for those who are in for an easy ride and who wish to climb the ladder of success in peace.
Yet behind all these allegations lies a deeper phenomenon and it explains both the variety of the criticisms and the passion with which they are made. And it is simply this. New Directions unashamedly confesses to all that it is contending hard both for Scriptural and orthodox Truth and Truth inevitably and necessarily divides.
In my view this is what gives New Directions its cutting edge and this edge is perhaps most visible in those parts of the magazine that do not hesitate to employ satire, wit and humour. To be sure many Christians find such wit unsettling. It is perceived as being somehow not nice and Anglicans are nothing if they are not always optimistic, smiling and pleasantly agreeable. So it is difficult for culturally conditioned Christians to appreciate wit and satire, especially when it is directed either against institutions or against individuals.
At this point it is necessary to understand the aim of satire and wit and when this is properly understood it will be readily appreciated that in a very real sense it belongs hand in glove with a Christian witness to Truth.
In the first place, as John Dryden wrote in his Discourse Concerning Satire, satire does not exist as an end in itself. On the contrary he was of the opinion that the true end of satire is the amendment of vices. Daniel Defoe concurred. Writing in The True Born Englishman he argued that the end of satire is reformation. In other words what both Dryden and Defoe are aiming at is something that is incalculably precious and positive both for the institution and the individual under attack. True humour and wit does not aim to laugh at, ridicule or mock just for its own sake. In this sense it is far removed from other literary devices that are content to exist in their own right and for their own ends. On the contrary it is concerned with amendment, reformation the censuring of folly (Dr. Johnson) and truth. Indeed Alexander Pope claimed, in his Epilogue to the Satires, that satire is nothing less than truths defence. Understood in this way it
is not surprising to discover that satire, sarcasm, wit and mockery are extensively used, not only in Scripture but also in the Fathers, Reformers and the great Anglican Divines. Indeed it is an almost indispensable weapon that has to be used whenever the defence of Truth is at stake.
And this leads me to my second point. In order for this type of literary or journalistic device to work, its subject must a great one. This is inescapable for the device to work. For this type of humour is not intended to exalt or praise. Rather its whole aim is to deflate, flatten and cut down all institutions or individuals that are acting out of hubris and pride and therefore it is wholly inappropriate for these sorts of devices to be deployed against the vulnerable, the weak or the oppressed. As a consequence satire rarely deals with death (for example) on the simple basis that it is well nigh impossible to deflate death!! Typically its subject matter is therefore religion (surprise, surprise), sex, pomposity, greed, and deceit and as can be seen it is very much concerned with the stuff of this world; with men's foibles, passions, vices and corruption. In short it has nothing romantic about it.
In this sort of humour there is not even the barest hint of the world forgetting, by the world forgot. It is very much rooted in everyday political realities and it is perhaps this that offends many Christians. For Christians are rightly concerned with another world, with the world to come. And very often such devout folk have something about them is very much concerned with world forgetting and so they find it difficult to apprehended this sort of rapier sharp wit. In short they are heavenly minded, but as I was reminded only recently, there is no point in being so heavenly minded that one is no earthly good!! And it is because of satires concern to be specific and detailed that much offence is caused. For in seeking amendment and reformation it will leave its opponents no room in which to hide.
As Alexander Pope argued general satire in times of general vice hath no force and is no punishment; people have ceased to be ashamed of it when so many are joined with them; and 'tis only by hunting one or two from the herd that any examples can be made.
From what has been argued it cannot be said that there is anything unchristian about using these sorts of literary devices in a confessing, orthodox magazine. Yes, New Directions might well, in places, be sarcastic and more than prepared to lampoon the sacred liberal cows of modern Anglicanism. But it only does so because its subject matter is a great one and it longs to see the Church of England return to her Apostolic and Scriptural roots. In pursuing that aim New Directions will use all weapons at its disposal so long as they are inherently Christian.
Nigel Atkinson is the Warden of Latimer House, Oxford.