Saturday, 14 July 2012

The History Boy

I really wish I had done history O-level. 

When I reached the age at which you had to choose your subjects, it had become clear I was the arty type.  Not that I was any good at what we called “art” at school.  My middling academic strengths were clearly going to lie in what were then called Modern Languages; and indeed I went on to do French and German (alongside English) at A-level and subsequently at university.  Already at the age of 14 it was plain that I had a fairly astringent aversion to mathematics and science; and my aim was to avoid them as far as possible for the rest of my education – and ideally the rest of my life.  I couldn’t avoid doing maths O-level, because like English Language, it was compulsory.  But I could avoid physics and opt for history instead.  But this was an age when most of us still did pretty much what our parents thought best for us; and my Dad was concerned that I should retain a breadth in my education that he thought would serve me well in later life.  So he made me do physics.

I continue to believe this was a mistake, and not just because I got an ‘H’ in the physics O-level.  I seem to have spent a good part of my adult life wishing I had a better grasp of the history of my own country and planet; and doing a fair bit of later-life learning about it.  But knowledge acquired in middle age doesn’t stick as well as that inculcated in childhood and adolescence.  I can still manage in French and German (I’m writing this in France) and although my once decent command of both languages is now laughably hesitant, I know that the linguistic structures are deeply embedded somewhere inside my head, and would creak back into life if I found myself in a French or German speaking context for any length of time.

But with history, I have to check basic facts over and over again.  While I have developed a kind of mind-map of English history, watching the current BBC Shakespeare history productions The Hollow Crown and reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies sends me back time after time to historical sources on the Wars of the Roses and the English Reformation.  The point of this, for me, is that the events of both periods were formational in terms of where – and who – we are now.  And they are of course not the only such periods - there’s the subsequent multiple tsunami of the Civil War, Commonwealth, Restoration and Glorious Revolution - 60 years that changed not just Britain, but the world.  Understanding our route thus far can help with seeing current events and pre-occupations as part of a continuing journey.  Patterns emerge; underlying tendencies are revealed - and modern controversies come to look like major weather events taking place inside items of domestic crockery.

It’s the corresponding lack of historical perspective that allows the Church, idiotically, to describe the prospect of gay marriage as “one of the worst threats it has faced in 500 years”.  No, my dears; among the worst threats during that time have been the Commonwealth suppression (during which Anglicanism was effectively abolished); the Non-Jurors scandal (in which 7 bishops and hundreds of clergy split the Church by refusing to swear allegiance to William & Mary); oh, and just possibly (if that’s all a bit too 17th century for you) the Church’s steep loss of public support, respect and influence over the last 50 years.  Of actual “threats” to the Church since the Elizabethan Settlement, gay marriage is probably about 89th out of 100 on the seriousness scale.

And you don’t even have to read history to learn about it.  The likes of Schama, Starkey and McCulloch offer it digestibly and engagingly on TV.  Even The Hollow Crown offers a version of the English history of the late 14th and early 15th centuries whose consequences we live with to this day.

The history of my country and my Church is one of high drama, appalling conflict and true heroism in the face of seismic shifts in human perception, loyalty and conviction.  Gay marriage?  Women bishops?  Do me a favour.

History on my doorstep: the Talbot Memorial in Castillon, SW France, marking the spot at which the Hundred Years War ended in 1453, and England finally lost Aquitaine to the French


  1. Oh, I do so agree (and have copied it to Facebook and Google Plus). I'm thinking of commissioning an embroidered cushion with your conclusion:
    "The history of my country and my Church is one of high drama, appalling conflict and true heroism in the face of seismic shifts in human perception, loyalty and conviction. Gay marriage? Women bishops? Do me a favour."

  2. Thanks for the history lesson, useful for someone else, who left school at 15 with no qualifications whatsoever.

    However, I digress. The ABC Called Human Sexuality a 2nd Order issue. The highest being our Mission and Evangelism and Social Justice. So, why does it get such prominence in the media and even within the church?

    I can recall in the Armed Forces in the late 90's, when the Court of Human Rights had told the British Government and the MoD that discrimination against Homosexuals was illegal, and they were obliged to pay compensation to all of those who chose to claim it and to abolish the rules that prevented military personnel being homosexual, the outcry that it caused.

    Generals and Colonel blimps were quoted in the media that they would resign. A huge exodus of troops was forecast, all of which proved to be a lot of hot air.

    On the shop floor (where I was) we couldn't have given a damm about people's sexuality. Like Religion, in the Armed Forces it was a private matter and not discussed in the mess or anywhere else. All we asked from our comrades was that they worked as part of the team and watched our back.

    Sure there was quite a bit of prejudice about, but the services set out on a huge education campaign (I become on of it's intstructors) in Equality and Diversity. Now, the MoD is one of the employers recognised for best practice and serving military personnel are free to march in Gay Pride events officially in uniform. Something they are not permitted to do for political rallies.

    So, why if a disciplined force can accept things and change their entire culture, can't the church get it's head around the idea that both Clergy and Lay People have their own integrity and individual sexual genetics, which are part of them, and get over it. Or will it take similar pressure from the Court of Human Rights to sort them out?

  3. "Adiaphora". Not perhaps a very slinky sort of slogan in a sloganising world, but one with potentially great value. It means "things indifferent", and it was used in the 16th century to describe those things about which Christians could validly disagree without falling out. You'd think that would be quite a useful tool today. We may disagree about gay vicars and women bishops, but we aren't prepared to shove the Scriptures, the Creeds, the Ministry, and the Sacraments, out of the window along with them, are we? That would be foolish. Compared to those building blocks of the faith, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, as received and passed down, our present controversies are silly little things: "things indifferent - adiaphora". When the dust settles, we still have not just a part of, but the whole of, our Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, inheritance. We still have the means of grace, and the hope of glory. This is not a counsel of despair and snivelling. I am foresquare behind women as full participants in the threefold ministry of the church; I am foresquare in favour of an adult and sensible approach to sexuality in considering candidates for the ministry (straight, gay, bi, trans, or whatever). I am not saying these things don't matter. But I am saying they don't matter THAT much. Does an angel die when a gay man is made a bishop? I doubt it. Does a Seraph have a coronary when a woman is made a bishop? The jury isn't out, because there is no jury - there is no case to answer - God doesn't care. We care, sometimes too much, and sometimes at the expense of our charity and kindness. And God cares mightily about that. The idea of "adiaphora" was part of the genius of Anglicanism from its first days. You have only to read Cranmer's eucharistic rites to realise how much he wanted to appeal to everyone; only to read him on "The Lord's Supper" to realise that he thought it mattered less what each person thought was happening, than that they came to the altar to think it, pray it, be open to it, together. Our great foundress Elizabeth I did not desire windows into our souls. She wanted Christian people to come and pray together. She might have thought me an ass. Probably would have done; she was far better educated than me. But an ass who would come to communion with his neighbour, the queen, was a good enough ass for her. It was Elizabeth's first archbishop, Matthew Parker, who is most associated with "adiaphora" in England. The two of them, both single people, who would have raised a wry eyebrow at our present controversies, were the ones who set about creating an ecclesiastical polity that would work for the English people. And so it has worked, and so it can work still. If you don't like your bishop, you can always shove off and find another. For ordination, that was always so. The fearsome Bishop Warburton of Gloucester, in the 18th century, ordained almost no-one because they couldn't pass his test. He granted them papers to go elsewhere. John Wesley ordained priests for the American church because English bishops afraid of the government wouldn't. Generatations later, those same Americans ordained the first women en bloc. We change, we adapt, our little crises are not of ultimate importance. What actually matters? What is not indifferent? It is proclaiming, and living, and praying, the Good News of God's love revealed in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. The rest? Details. The bathwater without the baby is a pretty foolish thing. I guess you can drink it, but it will probably make you sick. Mine's a G & T - with Jesus.

  4. Thank you for these comments. I am instinctively drawn to and agree with the principle of adiaphora, of which Richard usefully reminds us; but conscious that it might be dangerous to categorise as indifferent matters to which I myself am indifferent or - more dangerously - by which I am threatened or wish to reject for reasons of personal circumstance or conviction.

    My point here was to put current controversies in the context of those things which have truly "threatened" the existence of the Church. I am personally convinced that women and gay people should be ordained and married by the Church; but that, compared to the threats which the Church has faced in the last 500 years, the arguments with which we are now pre-occupied in these areas are not just morally or theologically indifferent, but historically insignificant.

  5. I learned about this period (1399 - 1485) from Shakespeare. To many, that may seem odd for we are taught to believe Shakespeare was a genius dramatist, useless historian. In actual fact his histories were as true as his contemporaries' histories. He innovated no more than any other historian and was true to his sources, mainly Holinshed. So 'The Hollow Crown' is still teaching us our people's history.

    The Henry VI plays (not currently being televised) are most like the sources from which they are derived - an onstage rehearsal of the chronicles, perhaps. In that way, they are not great drama. However, there are profoundly moving moments. Talbot's death in Part 1 (commemorated by the plaque which you have photographed) is done in couplets. He orders his son to evacuate. His son refuses, despite knowing he will die, because he fears bringing shame on his father's name. They die together, fighting for England, whilst the nobles back home squabble and bicker.

    One thing which fascinates me about history is that you can never run out of causes. The English Reformation was caused by Henry's need for an heir to secure his dynasty. The Wars of the Roses having only just been ended by his father, Henry's anxiety is understandable (and with so many rival claimants still alive, the wars did not appear as final to him as they appear to us now). In this way, you can (if you want) trace the Anglican church's origins to Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke, where these same dynastic troubles began. Keeping a clear view of complexities such as these may help us all to understand who we are, where we are and why we are.

    It is not for me to wade into the Church's own discussions on these matters but I know there is always the potential for recrimination, which is entirely avoidable if people look beyond the immediate here and now.

  6. Thanks for this, Ian; and also for the reminder of the Henry IV plays and Talbot's death (as you may have seen, today - 17 July - is the anniversary of the very battle in which he died). I agree with you about the value of Shakespeare's plays in terms of illuminating turning points in our history. WS may not have been an academic historian, but history is about more than facts: it is also about conveying underlying truths. And we have much to thank him for in that area.

    As to the English Reformation, I would say that it was not caused by Henry VIII's need for a male heir: that was the merely the cause of the break with Rome - which was subsequently restored under Mary. Henry himself was unsympathetic to the Protestants and strongly and consistently resisted deviation from Catholic theology and ecclesiology. The English Reformation has its roots (as you identify) much further back, and was heavily influenced by what was happening on the continent.

    I would say that the Church of England and Anglican tradition as we now understand them did not exist until the Elizabethan Settlement; and that, historically, it is Elizabeth rather than her father who established them - after 25 years of religious turmoil. It is this Settlement, itself a response to the Catholic and Protestant martyrdom which had been such a feature of Elizabeth's early life, which comprised the religious backdrop against which WS was writing.