THE POWER OF A MYTH

NEVER UNDERESTIMATE the power of a myth, advises Diarmaid MacCulloch, a Professor of History of St Cross College, Oxford, towards the end of BBC2’s How God Made The English. (available at iPlayer until 8.59pm 7th April 2012)

THE BBC writes: Professor MacCulloch chronicles the roots of the idea that the English think themselves better than others and duty-bound to play a leading role in world affairs. He argues that the roots of this attitude lie in a tangle of religious motives. He traces its origins to the notion of a ‘chosen people’ – a Biblical idea which the monk and historian, the Venerable Bede, took lock, stock and barrel from the Jewish scriptures and applied to the early English.

This is fascinating and, I believe, salutary viewing. Enough material in this hour long programme for a Decade of Lent Courses! Professor MacCulloch, a wholly engaging presenter, has described himself as “a candid friend of Christianity”, but has moved away from an earlier Anglican “orthodoxy”. Fascinating, salutary and also important viewing for 21st century English Christians because the “tangle of religious motives” here presented requires some untangling!

The “received Christianity” that some forms of “orthodoxy” hang on to for dear life needs constantly to be reassessed in the ever changing light of historical perspective sharpened with hindsight. The proper exercise of untangling myths – seeking to understand their power and worth in our narrative, whilst at the same time being appraised of their destructive potential – is a task, I believe, of crucial importance. Thinking of men like Pope John XXIII, John Robinson and Richard Holloway – to name but a few – reminds me that the Church does not always show herself overly fond of those who set about the untangling task, though some of them are supremely good at it. Excitingly, television of this standard and quality is one of the most potent resources we have at our disposal to do just such a work. Still more excitingly for this English parish priest is the possibility that a “Church of England in (much reported) Crisis” might, for that reason alone, be nudged and encouraged into doing some of the necessary untangling.

We need a new myth so that in our day, as yesterday, the eyes of the blind (mine, and those of other churchmen and women) might be opened to fresh vision, and that the restoring and reconciling word and works of Jesus of Nazareth might yet be brought to deep fruition in us: “You will see greater works than these” (John 14.12) – for, like him, we’re all “going to the Father” – to the Mother and Father of everything that is.

Archbishop Rowan, speaking to the Press Association the other day, said:

Over the last few years, there have been all kinds of ideas about the Church, about the faith, which I have longed for more time to explore and write up a bit.  So I’m hoping for more space to write and to think in that way.

So, all is not lost. Even the exhausting Archbishopric of Canterbury will not have prevailed over the life and soul of this pilgrim, and the richness of humanity is seen as pure gift in Diarmaid MacCulloch’s willingness to explore – before the very eyes of a million armchair critics.

Men and women in our time “seek peace and pursue it”. Letting go of one myth, and then another and another – grateful for all that they have taught and graced us with in their time – leads us on into the light of another and another until all our humankind has been set free, and all the fullness of God is seen in us and in all creation’s having evolved, “from glory into glory”, into all that mothering Wisdom herself has – over aeons – untangled us to be.

ALMOST SPELLING ‘HOLY’

WRITING ABOUT stained glass fragments “blown apart in wars” and haphazardly reassembled later, the priest poet David Scott, in the second stanza of his A Window in Ely Cathedral, tells of

A leering bit of face with twisted lips,
a bit of beard, and letters almost spelling ‘holy’,
a sheaf of corn, a leaf, and then the sun dips,
lighting Mary in her simple glory.

Piecing Together
A Window in Ely Cathedral,

stanza 2 of 3, page 29

In the economy of God there’s something afoot. I can feel it in my bones. The downtrodden, the dispossessed, the shattered, the fragmented and the forgotten, wherever they are in the world, are raising their voices. They cry for the reconciliation, resurrection and restoration of a humane humanity – for people of every race and nation, and of every creed (or lack thereof), or “class”, or colour. Too much has been blown apart by wars and for too long. But days wear on, the sun dips in her course, illuminating that which speaks of life’s real glory, and is thereby truly holy.

This is exciting. This is the stuff of the reign of the Source of all of our lives, to whom we have prayed, and with whom we have yearned, in every time and place, in every political and religious tradition, for so very long. Whether we’re speaking of ordinary Libyans standing up to be counted, intent on “occupying” their own entitlement to a bit of their own space as human beings; whether we’re speaking of Occupy New York, or Occupy London, or occupy-a-space-in-the-queue for fresh air, or clean water, or a bowl of rice, something is most assuredly afoot. The sun dips, lighting Mary in her simple glory, and because at evensong we’re rather quieter than usual we may hear her softly say and pray

he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek

Come Christ-Mass this year the stable and the tent will not be featured only in hand-picked and glossy Christmas cards. Tents and stables are being raised up alongside cathedrals and churches. Tents and stables are being raised up in our dreams and in our slowly-awakening hearts. Here are opportunities to catch real glimpses for the possibilities of life’s glory, opportunities that are thereby truly holy. Some amongst us, nonetheless, will not look any more kindly upon such fragmented opportunities than they would ever have looked upon the teenage mother in the stable of Bethlehem.

But something of and from the divine is afoot. The leering bit of face with twisted lips, a bit of beard, and letters almost spelling ‘holy’, must give way to the sun’s dipping

lighting Mary in her simple glory.

ARCHIEPISCOPAL DUO

LAST EVENING IN MANCHESTER with Archbishops Rowan & Sentamu was always going to be time well spent for me. Billed as Relations between Church and State Today – (Paul Deakin has posted The Big Society)Archbishop Rowan delivered a tour-de-force on Citizenship – video of which will shortly be available at Manchester University.

Speaking of the need in any society for a polis – home of citizens and of citizenship, where no-one is a slave and everyone is afforded the status due to all human persons, each of them free – the Church, alongside the State is to be such a polis – adult and intelligent environment for argument about all that is best, about all that might be of God, with no desire to “force a vision on everyone else”, still less expecting to “told” by others to be what, in others’ eyes, archbishops – or Christians – are “supposed to be”, the ekklesia gathered around Jesus Christ can be a mature, faithful, trustworthy forum for debate about all that facilitates dignity for all humanity.

All good stuff. But I was particularly, literally, fascinated by the very high degree to which the archbishop’s own considered, considerate and cultured person illustrates the content of what he had to say. Archbishop Rowan is possessed of a most extra-ordinary charisma, one that helps me understand how tax collectors and fishermen 2000 years ago on the shores of Galilee could have been so easily persuaded to follow in “The Way”.

Were there 500 people gathered in the Whitworth Hall? – maybe more. But no more than a minute after taking a seat on the stage it seemed that the Archbishop had discreetly scanned the entire assembly, was comfortably aware of the crowd as individual persons open to learning something together, like he’d known them for years – and knew what they’d come for. There’s an instantly personable humility and a warm humanity about him. Standing at a lectern he leaned towards the large audience; the Archbishop of York, in the front row before him, acknowledged simply and warmly, without a hint of ecclesiastical pomposity, as “Your Grace”. Twinkling eyes, mobile eyebrows, gentle humour and smile, perfect diction, quietly spoken (yet heard by everyone) – definitely an archiepiscopal face.

Then Archbishops Rowan and Sentamu fielded questions. Graciously, and here again, and at the drinks reception afterwards, I noticed, perfectly at ease. Forum for learning, discussion, drinks and argument these teachers moved fluidly, and welcomed, IN a big society. I found myself warmed, somehow deeply touched, as was my URC/Methodist friend and colleague Geoffrey Clarke, to be in company with these two. It’s hard to imagine that the particular (Church of England department) of the polis that Archbishop Rowan spoke about could be in better hands than those of this – really inspirational – archiepiscopal duo.