Thursday 20 May 2010

A Turbulent Priest

I mentioned in a blog that I wrote last month that I grew up in the Church of England and have a lingering respect for its rituals and its institutions, for the important part that it played in the history of this nation. In the course of this I said;

If I did not feel affection, a lingering sense of respect, I could look upon the pronouncements of Rowan Williams, the muddle-headed Archbishop of Canterbury, with equanimity; but I cannot: he retains the power to madden me with some of his more outrageous statements.

Well he has done it again, this hopeless, pseudo-intellectual, much given to ‘thinking out loud’ as a substitute for thinking at all. Much given, I have to say, to the most vacuous speculations. Now it seems that Henry VIII, the man who has a singular responsibility in the formation of the independent English Church, the man to whom Williams owes his unique position, might just be in Hell. There again he might not for “If Henry VIII is saved (an open question, perhaps) it will be at the prayers of John Haughton.”

Please note the ‘an open question, perhaps’, the kind of slippery evasiveness, get out of trouble quick card, that we have come to expect from Rowan ‘Sharia’ Williams. Anyway, the prayers he will depend on if he is in Hell, an open question, perhaps, are those of Haughton and his fellow Carthusians, executed in 1535 as traitors for refusing to accept the Act of Supremacy, thus recognising the King as head of the English Church. Houghton himself was declared a saint by the Pope in 1970.

I’m not going to say anything about the theology here as Williams is the expert, not I, and he surely knows that no amount of prayer or intervention will be enough to release the denizens of Hell; a closed question, definitely. No matter; Williams went on to say that “In many ages and many places authorities more appalling than Henry VIII have believed that they could abolish God and the cross of God; and they have had to discover that while they may vanquish, they cannot destroy.”

What can I say? Should I agree with Christopher Howse writing in The Telegraph that Williams, in a service aimed at healing the ancient divisions between Catholics and Protestants, should be able to speak freely without being taken amiss? Am I to take it that Henry VIII is to be ranged with modern tyrants like Stalin as one of those who attempted to abolish God?

Poor Henry, a man far more orthodox in his beliefs that Archbishop Williams, a man who believed that while he was a schismatic he was certainly not a heretic and most certainly not an enemy of God. He died, by the lights of his own beliefs, a true Catholic, one who just happened to release the chains binding the national church to the cause of a foreign prince, far more secular at the time than spiritual, a prince whose adherents were at that time and in those circumstances objectively speaking traitors to the English crown. To suggest that he might now be in Hell is an unusual proposition for an Archbishop of Canterbury but not one a fair-minded person would dismiss out of hand, so said Andrew Brown in his Guardian blog.

Well, I dismiss it out of hand, though I confess that I’m not at all fair-minded when it comes to such matters. I could say that Archbishop Williams has even less understanding of Hell than he does of Henry, of the politics and theology of the day. I could say that I do not believe this man fit to be the leading prelate of the English Church; I could say that he himself might very well appear to some as a heretic as well as a schismatic. I will say none of these things because I do not believe in Hell or any kind of afterlife. After all, it’s an open question, perhaps, that if I did that I might end up in the same place as Williams for all eternity, which for me is an open question, perhaps just a little too far.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Hello, Ana,

    Poor Henry! Is he in Heaven or is he in Hell?
    Poor Rowan! Another sad soul who cannot tell.

    It's a puzzle, is it not? I suppose what was going through ++Williams's mind was the likely fate of a man who had executed dozens of Christians and dissolved all those monasteries, throwing thousands out of work and leaving them homeless. The doctrines seem to be a bit harsh on these points ; so I suppose he had to bear in mind the possibility of divine judgement, while also bearing in mind the possibility, and even the hope, of divine mercy.

    It is said that prayer can lead to the saving of souls. How evil were Rowan's motives for him to entertain the possibility that Henry might have been helped out of his seemingly just fate by the prayers of one of his victims? Or even, how wild were his motives? There is always the chance that his motives were neither evil or mad.

    I do note that ++Williams was careful to distance Henry from some of the worst sinners that he called to mind. Perhaps he thought that, while Stalin and Co. might be difficult cases for redemption, Henry was in with a chance. But, of course, he wisely did not try to pre-empt the decision of the ultimate judge.

    Now to inquire of my fairest of fair reporters of this interesting speech. Dare I ask? Shall I risk it? They say that it is not bloggers that matter, but the courage that one brings to them. So, here goes.

    What on earth is a non-Christian doing getting all worked up about some friendly theological speculations of an archbishop? Or any theological speculations for that matter?

    It's a curious thing how religious ideas attract the attention of non-believers. It's as if they have some primal urge to contribute to a religious discussion, even though they have no intellectual interest at all in the subject matter ; even though the discussion has no practical consequences for any non-Christian alive today.

    This is a long rant, Ana, and I shan't be in the least put out if you don't publish it. But, in truth, it is meant kindly to one I admire so much - yes, wayward though she is! And I do bear in mind that I might have misunderstood what you wrote and what really upset you.

  4. Good morning, Jamie. The thing is Henry was not unique in that regard: Christians had been killing other Christians for centuries before his time. Henry's actions, wicked as they may seem in retrospect, were born of rational and dynastic considerations. Besides, as I said elsewhere, the annulment to his marriage to Catherine was effectively frustrated by Charles V, her nephew, who held the Papacy in a kind of Babylonian Captivity after the sack of Rome in 1525, during which priests, monks nuns and other clerics were massacred wholesale by the Imperial army.

    Can prayer save souls? My understanding is that once in Hell always in Hell. There is doctrine of Purgatory, of course, which does allow for amelioration by prayer, but this is not accepted by all branches of Protestantism.

    I do not believe for a moment that Williams had evil motives. I just think he suffers from the deepest forms of intellectual and moral confusion. I think he is the worst possible man for such an important job, one incapable of speaking in clear, simple language or giving clear, simple guidance.

    It get worked up, Jamie, if that's the right word, because I care. If I did not I would pass this over in silence. Anglicanism may not be my faith, but it's my tradition , one I grew up in; I simply can't feel indifferent when I see the Church damaged. My parents are Anglicans, though Anglo-Catholic verging on Catholic, verging away from the way things are at the moment, from the course being taken by Williams and his fellow travellers

    You don't rant, Jamie. You are a kind, thoughtful man, and I always appreciate your comments, whether you agree with me or not. I'm sorry I snapped in the other place but I tend to react badly when I feel I'm being patronised, something that has happened to me frequently in the past, with explosive results. :-) I think I misjudged you, though, and I would never seek to wound you.

    With affection and respect, Ana

  5. I understand all that political stuff, Ana. But, amidst it all, there were good people too (and the would-be-good) who might just have been trying to straighten things out in their own clumsy ways and in all the chaos and danger. But the bottom line is that one murder does not justify another. From our perspective we might see that many were damned in that time - or they might have been redeemed. We do not know, for we believe that God sees into the hearts of men as he judges, while we do not.

    "Once in Hell always in Hell"? But ++Williams didn't say that Henry was ever in Hell. Besides, our concept of time is taken not to apply in eternity, so concepts of past and future and 'once' do not apply. If you wish to pray for Henry's salvation, do so, and God will be listening.

    Protestantism? But Henry was not a Protestant ; and nor is Williams. Henry was a Catholic and so is Williams ; there is no schism and never has been as far as I know. My understanding from the Anglican catechism is that Anglican doctrines today are exactly as they were in the sixteenth century - i.e. wholly Catholic. The C of E quite properly did not give itself the authority to change them ; for the purpose of the C of E is ecclesial, not doctrinal.

    My belief re ++Williams is that he is a poor leader, but not an incompetent Christian. But there are many such nowadays. Just as the zeitgeist was evil in the times we speak of, so it is evil now, and we are all affected.

    I'll hazard a guess at why you get so worked up, shall I, Ana? It's because your heart is disguising its intentions! In all reason, nobody gets angry over a mere tradition that has lost all its purpose ; over mere sentimentality. In all reason, no-one gets angry at someone else's benign or impotent beliefs. Ah, but ... "the heart has its reasons which Reason knows nothing of".

    I truly do not patronise you, Ana - I try to meet you on equal terms and with equal force of expression. Poor ++Rowan! You can see his problem, can't you? He has to deal with Bolshie people like us. Being a leader has never been tougher than in these days. :-)

    With equal affection and respect, Jamie. x

  6. I cannot make a comment on the subject as I know very little about it; Jamie on the other hand has always intrigued me and I would like to reply to his question as to why non Christians would get themselves worked up on any theologian speculation.
    Truth is, for me anyhow, that the revolt I feel towards the Church and its leaders is motivated by my upbringing in their faith, and most importantly, the society they created for me.
    So, being a part of this society, and meaning to improve it, I feel strongly about the conduct of the Church and its leaders.

    I most likely totaly missed the point here, but still, it was good to get this off my chest. :)

  7. Enjoyed this, Ana. Can prayer save souls? Why not?

    Apparently, there is no pricise doctrinal point on the matter regarding whether Christ descended into Hell or not on Holy Saturday. If He did - and I think He did - then it would not have been to eat cheese sandwiches :-)

  8. Jamie, that’s the trouble with Williams, his evasive use of language. He implies that Henry was not just an atheist but an enemy of God; at least that’s what I take. It’s a complete travesty of the truth.

    Yes, I know that Henry considered himself a Catholic to the point of his death, but it is possible to be both a Catholic and a schismatic, and the breach with Rome in Henry’s eyes was a schism.

    It’s not so much that I get ‘worked up’, Jamie, over this man’s latest pronouncements, but rather I get irritated. His intellectual slovenliness irritates me, his incapacity to convey a clear message irritates me, his guidance of the church irritates me. I confess that I don’t have a wide experience of C of E archbishops, but surely, surely there has to be someone more fitted than this.

    Nobby, you tell me. :-) Is the Last Judgement not the Last Judgement?

  9. Hello, Rainer. I understand your revolt against the Church. I, too, have been offended by the conduct of priests, especially bishops ; and including Anglican bishops. But this is anti-clericalism, and doesn't involve any loss of faith in my religious beliefs. I am anti-clerical because they are not doing their jobs right.

    I am also anti-politicians. Not because I don't believe in politics, but because the politicians are not doing their jobs right.

    I am also anti-scientists. Not because I don't believe in science, but because scientists are not doing their jobs right.

    In the case of the Church, without it we would still be savages. For, despite the faults of its bishops, etc., it has been a force for good - and it will be such a force again one day soon.

  10. Good morning, Ana,

    Well, strictly speaking, Henry was an enemy of God. What else can you call a man who murdered in cold blood and damaged the Church almost beyond repair? And all for his own ambitions. You see, this is what it all boils down to ; and the fact that others were doing the same makes not on whit of difference.

    But God is merciful. That is Williams's message - just plain orthodoxy.

    I don't think he is intellectually slovenly. He inherited an impossible task - to hold together a fragmenting world-wide communion. A communion so democratic that it eventually tear itself to pieces. The poor man is doing his best with all his considerable diplomatic skills.

    The people I reserve my bile for are those who are actively subverting the C of E for their own secular ends.

  11. Thanks, Jamie. The author of Assertio Septem Sacramentorum was never an enemy of God. He 'murdered' no-one; those in breach of the law of the land were tried and sentenced in accordance with the practice of the day, harsh, I know, but that's the way it was. They were traitors, More, Fisher and the rest, having a primary loyalty to a foreign prince, one who was being used against the interests of England. Henry did not act out of his own ambitions but for the benefit of the state, in the interests of stability. We could go round and round in circles here!

    On Sharia Rowan we shall just have to agree to differ. :-)

  12. Ana, What happens in eternity is not privy for those who exist outside of it. Not yet anyway.

  13. Dammit, Ana, it's another pax! Am I going soft in my old age? :-(

  14. Nobby,

    I sent my soul through the infinite
    Some message of that afterlife to spell:
    And by and by my soul returned to me,
    And said, “I myself am Heaven and Hell.


    Jamie no, I'm just an imovable object!

  15. I have always found the idea that the universe is ruled by an omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent deity incomprehensible, and I will never cease to marvel at the obduracy (and sometimes the ingenuity) of those who persist in this belief in the face of all available evidence. But it is not the Christian idea of God that defines my attitude towards the Church (of whatever denomination); it is its idea of man (though one idea might be said to follow from the other). The Christian “virtues” of humility, obediance and self-mortification (whether this is undertaken for its own sake, or for that of a suffering world) have always repelled me. I much prefer the Greek and Renaissance ideal that the affirmation of our powers and sensibilities should be the highest goal of man. And whilst it’s only fair to acknowledge that it has come a long way from its origins in a hysterical slave cult – partially rehabilitating and assimilating the classical heritage, and making significant cultural contributions of its own in the Medieval period and beyond - Christianity will never be entirely free from the taint of the nihilism and ressentiment of its early protagonists; and, unless I am very much mistaken, these tendencies are making something of a revival in the Church of England today.

    Coleridge once looked upon the clergy of the Church of England as the cornerstone of what he called the “clerisy” – namely, the body of learned and upright men whose great charge it was to cultivate intellectual and moral excellence in our national life. It is difficult to see how this ideal could have been more cruelly mocked than by the state of today’s Anglican Church, as it drifts listlessly towards disestablishment, irrelevancy and oblivion.

    It used to be taken for granted (and not just in M.R. James stories) that the parson would be an educated man, learned in theology and ecclesiology, and perhaps also a keen local historian and antiquarian. Nowadays a learned clergyman is very much the exception to the rule of mediocrity. But it isn’t just mediocrity I complain of here; it is a regrettable change of attitude of many in the Church towards its historic and cultural heritage. This changed attitude is hard to define succintly, but if I had to sum it up in a phrase I would call it the revenge of the spirit of self-mortification on the pursuit of excellence. Of course, this is not the self-mortification of the flesh practiced by the primitive Christians – its modern day practitioners appear sleek and well-fed enough; nor is it of the dour and mirthless Puritan variety – a certain kind of mindless and “happy clappy” jollity is looked upon very favourably, I understand (and must come as a welcome relief from the mournful strains of ‘Kumbaya’, I imagine). It is, rather, what might best be described as a self-mortification of the spirit, where this word sheds its fuzzy connotations of amorphous and effusive sentimentality and assumes a narrower, more specialised meaning denoting the highest expressions of our powers and sensibilities.

    Continued in post 2 ...

  16. ... continued from post 1

    This new wisdom manifests itself in diverse ways. It can be openly iconoclastic (in what T.S. Eliot called “the vulgar, the trivial, and the pedantic” revisionism of the New English Bible, for example), but mostly it is content to assert its malign influence in more subtle and insidious ways. These include the unspoken rule that we shouldn’t be permitted to enjoy any genuinely sublime or beautiful cultural artefact without the admixture of a becoming sense of guilt or irony. “Guilt” here encompasses not only the more familiar ritual of futile (not to mention hypocritical and nauseating) handwringing about “our brothers and sisters starving while we, the privileged, enjoy this extravagant, but essentially frivolous, experience, etc.” (I’ve never been able to see the link between my enjoying a fan vault or a Tallis motet a little less and the alleviation of Third World poverty), but also the more sinister sentiment that it is somehow wrong to place the highest value on something from which many are wholly or partly excluded, not from want of opportunity, but by want of capacity to enjoy it. Irony, too, has its part to play in the war on cultural elitism. Not only does the juxtaposition of some tawdry contemporary “art” with the finest work of Medieval master masons detract from our enjoyment of the latter, but it also carries the subversive message, intended for the immature and the impressionable, that the two works are actually on a par (“this is how we expressed our faith in the thirteenth century, and this is how we express it today”).

    My antiquarian interests mean that encounters with this kind of negative attitude are frequent and unavoidable. As a lover of Gothic architecture, I like to visit old churches. While I find that non-religious visitors are still welcomed in some parish churches, in others I have encountered reactions which range from blank incomprehension through to open hostility. Of course, this is less true in cathedrals or those churches geared up for large numbers of tourists. But even there I sometimes feel as though I’m venturing into enemy territory and, as they say in John Le Carre novels, that “Moscow rules apply”. An incident that occurred during a visit to a cathedral in the south of England will, I hope, help illustrate what I mean.

    Continued in post 3 ...

  17. ... continued from post 2

    My visit was drawing to a close, and I was starting to think about lunch, when I noticed an interesting Elizabethan burial monument, one that didn’t appear to be described in Esdaile’s English Church Monuments, in the south aisle of the nave. The only problem was it was obscured behind some hideous chrome and plastic exhibition boards, to which were affixed posters about AIDS or famine in Africa, and some very indifferent children’s drawings which would have struggled to make it into the under-five category on Vision-On. Anyway, I moved some stacked chairs which were blocking off the narrowish gap between the display boards and the wall, and proceeded to make my way carefully towards the tomb. I was just about to bend down to make my inspection, an operation which would have involved giving the display boards the gentlest nudge with my posterior, when I heard a noise like snort and a shrill stentorian voice erupted from somewhere behind me. “Excuse me,” bellowed the voice, which might have issued from a Wodehouse aunt, “what do you think you are doing?” Composing myself, I turned around to be confronted by a pugnacious-looking obese woman of mature years. Smiling, as I thought, in a friendly and disarming manner, I explained that I was merely trying to inspect the tomb. Looking at me incredulously, as if the proffered explanation could only have been an absurd ruse designed to conceal some baser purpose, she stated unapologetically that it wasn’t possible to move the display boards for health and safety reasons. This seemed odd to me at the time (- when “health and safety” was not yet a ready-made excuse not to do almost anything -) because the display boards were firmly anchored in a bulbous and sturdy base, and there was quite clearly no danger of them toppling over. When I asked if I might at least read the inscription, she retorted triumphantly that there was a translation on a plaque which could be read without disturbing the display boards. To this I objected that none of the “translations” on the other plaques bore much resemblance to the original inscriptions, and were evidently intended only to satisfy the casual curiosity of the average tourist. There was a brief hiatus in our exchange, and for a moment I thought I might have gained my point. But my adversary was not to be so easily cheated of her victory. Her complexion, already somewhat florid, was now distinctly purplish. She puffed herself up like a particularly obnoxious species of poisonous reptile, poised to deliver a venomous strike: “If you don’t come away immediately“, she hissed, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave”. It was a fight or flight moment, and I’m ashamed to say that, in the best traditions of Bertie Wooster, I funked it, repairing to the pub round the corner to lick my wounds. When I returned an hour or two later, resolved upon a second assault on the tomb, it was with dismay that I discovered that the bloated Harpy was still at her station in the gift shop, a vantage point from which she enjoyed a clear view of the display boards in front of the tomb. She glared at me menacingly. The element of surprise lost, I admitted defeat. The tomb remained unvisited.

    It was only when I was on the train home, reflecting on my ignominious retreat from the gift shop ogress, and racking my brains for an esprit de l’escalier which might have served as an effective Parthian shot, that it dawned on me that it wasn’t my supposed breach of health and safety rules that had so enraged her, it was the implied contempt of the aesthete for her ugly display boards. In a flash I saw that it was my blindness to the true source and virulence of her hostility which had left me vulnerable to her attack.

    Continued to post 4 ...

  18. ... continued from post 3

    Sun Tzu counsels us to “know thy enemy” and reminds us that “never will those who wage war tire of deception”: wise words indeed. Now, following in the path of the great warrior, I prefer to win my victories without giving battle. Of course, it is not always possible to elude bossy and patronising busybodies, who seem to possess that peculiar instinct of the self-righteous for sniffing out the self-indulgent; but I find that guile and dissimulation, rather than frankness and rational argument, are the most effective tactics where a skirmish cannot be avoided. It has been suggested that showing greater courtesy and respect for the rules and values of my hosts might yield more favourable results than my wonted cunning. And this is all very well when one is dealing with a friendly and sympathetic counterpart (and I still come across them from time to time). But the wily adversary – the one who senses my purpose before I speak, and divines my insincerity when I do – will always scorn payment in such false coin: my polite request will be met with an equally polite refusal. Personal charm has never been among my meagre store of gifts; and humility, obedience and self-mortification just aren’t my style.

    And so ends my rant, without so much as a mention of Rowan Williams or the Defensor Fidei, for which omission I apologise. Another time perhaps.


  19. Allectus, I sometimes feel that while God may be great he is not good. At other times I slip into to a Manichean position, that the universe is a struggle between the forces of light and dark. Thank you for this deep and thoughtful contribution. I don't hear from you nearly as much as I would like.