Monday, 6 July 2015

Historic formularies

Fresh from a great workshop in Stratford-upon-Avon celebrating the 30th anniversary of the late, lamented Pat Collinson’s lecture on so-called ‘iconophobia’ in Reformation England. Briefly, we all agreed that he was wrong, but that few of us could ever hope to be so interestingly, provocatively and fruitfully wrong.

                Lovely contributions from a range of people – Helen Pierce on popular print and AngelaMcShane on a rich but virtually unknown seam of Puritan ballads stood out – but the oneI’m going to single out was from a young Swiss scholar named Antoinina Bevan Zlatar, who’s working on Milton but who spoke today about a Star Chamber case from 1632, in which one Henry Sherfield was tried for destroying a stained glass window containing several depictions of God the Father.

                The outcome was predictable enough – good order and decency trumped any Calvinist scruples about idolatry. William Laud, then bishop of London, was one of the judges, and commented that removing images from churches was ‘distasteful’ (Antoinina managed to convey his fastidious disdain wonderfully well).

                What struck me was the comment of another judge, Richard Neile, the archbishop of York and another ceremonial enthusiast. He considered the awkward fact that the Edwardian Homilies – an authoritative text for the early Stuart church – bluntly condemned images of this kind. Neile’s answer was to relativise them:

As for those divine Homilies … set forth in king Edward’s days, … we know the times did not bear them: nor are they to be taken or understood, as not to allow any manner of pictures or images (though it may seem so) of Christ upon the Cross; but it is like the forbearing of food for a time. … I say that for the crucifix, there may be a very good use made of it.

The image of food is beautifully provocative: linking the attacks on ‘popish’ images  to a ‘popish’ devotional practice which Puritans like Sherfield had made their own, and at the same time implying that images were an essential part of a normal Christian life, only abandoned for a while until England had recovered from an intemperate late-medieval bout of binge-idolatry.

Nowadays Anglican ministers have to do no more than nod towards the Church of England’s ‘historic formularies’ – the Prayer Book and Ordinal, the Homilies and the Thirty-Nine Articles – leading some to mutter that this is indefensible relativism. Which perhaps it is. But it’s been going on for a long time.

Updated 7 July

Friday, 19 June 2015

Stars and bars behind bars?

An honest question, provoked by two news items from the US, one horrible and the other curious.

It's been widely reported that the alleged gunman from the Charleston church massacre had a Confederate flag bumper sticker on his car. At the same time, a closely-fought Supreme Court decision has held that the state of Texas may (as it wishes) refuse to issue licence plates with the Confederate flag on them, without infringing free speech.

Now I get that the Confederate flag is a very powerful symbol: it symbolises racism and white supremacy, but because it also symbolises more respectable causes - Southern identity, a certain wilful romanticism, affection for Gone with the Wind - it serves as a much more palatable wrapper for racism and white supremacy than, say, a swastika or the letters KKK would. For that reason, it's harder to marginalise and easier to defend, and therefore, a better vehicle for the racists and white-supremacists who want to use it. Hence the repeated disputes over it. Truly, I think I get that.

Here's what I don't get: that flag is also, very specifically, the symbol of the most serious armed rebellion the USA has ever faced, a rebellion which threatened the country's existence more gravely than any external threat since the War of Independence, and which incidentally cost the lives of more than half a million American citizens.

Now, OK, that was a while ago. But why isn't the display of that flag within the USA simply an act of treason?

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Journal of Ecclesiastical History: vol. 66/2

Volume 66/2, the April 2015 number of JEH, has been out for a few weeks now, so I am sure you’ve all already read it. But for the laggards,  my I-hope-regular editor’s service underlining personal highlights.

Apologies as ever to those not mentioned: picking out individuals is unjust, but not doing so is dull, and that’s worse. So I’ve no space to talk about other highlights, such as Nazi church architecture, or the wonderfully entrepreneurial eighteenth-century English cleric John Trusler – who made a fine living publishing sermons which were printed to look handwritten, so that time-pressed clergy could take them into the pulpit and still look as if they were penning their own improving thoughts.
The eye-opener for me is Stewart J. Brown’s article, ‘W. T. Stead and the Civic Church, 1886-1895: the vision behind “If Christ Came to Chicago!”’, on the British journalist, social activist and idiosyncratic religious liberal, W. T. Stead. After a conversion experience in 1885, in which he heard a ‘distinct and clear’ voice calling him to ‘be no longer a Christian, be a Christ’, Stead began pushing for what he called a Civic Church. This would be an inter-faith public betterment and civic renewal project whose only membership qualification would be love for humanity. This is what he meant by ‘being a Christ’.
He was most famous for the 1894 pamphlet If Christ Came to Chicago, in which that shockingly modern and godless city was used to imagine just such a spiritual-social renewal, and which sold over 300,000 copies on both sides of the Atlantic. In it he wrote:

How we believe in Christ ... is shown not by what we say about Him, not by the temples which we build in His honour, nor by the hymns which we sing in His praise, but by the extent to which we succeed in restoring in man the lost image of God.

That’s a lovely polemical manoeuvre: to begin with a classic Protestant attack on formalism and hypocrisy, and then slip that radically novel idea of what it means to be a Christian into the end, almost beneath the radar.
It didn’t work, of course. Other social reformers disliked both the implicit totalitarianism of his vision and the religious terms in which it was still couched. And church establishments naturally, and correctly, concluded that this had virtually abandoned Christianity as normally understood. One liberal Presbyterian replied with a pamphlet titled ‘If Chicago came to Christ’.
So what? It means that the wonderfully idealistic, tragically self-defeating 1960s notion of ‘religionless Christianity’ was already at work a lifetime earlier, and suggests, again, how difficult it was and remains for the liberal Protestant project to stay anchored. But of course, Stead’s opponents look as unappealing and sectarian as he himself looks impractical and ideological. Protestantism has been trying to steer a way through that one for at least a century and a half now. Answers on a postcard, please.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Coalition jaundice

Now that the scale of the damage done on Thursday is sinking in, some less cheery reflections. The emerging consensus seems to be that the Lib Dems' decision to enter the coalition in 2010 was inherently suicidal - an act which Tories are calling noble, as they swipe the seats, and Labour are calling a betrayal, as they swipe some (but only a very few) of the votes. And the emerging lesson is: no small party should ever again enter a coalition.

I don't buy it. Partly because it wasn't a 'decision' in 2010 - the arithmetic made the decision to pursue a coalition inevitable, especially once the Tories had publicly offered it. But also because I think what destroyed the Lib Dems wasn't the coalition as such, but a series of specific mistakes made before and during it.

Easy to say now, of course, but I'm a historian and so am allowed to show 20/20 hindsight. The mistakes were, I think:

1. The biggie, the absolute king of them all: that recklessly stupid pledge on tuition fees before the 2010 election. It is one thing to say you are against them, but this pledge was ramped up higher than any I can ever remember, at least before the Labour pledge-gravestone of last week. It was very specific. Individual MPs and candidates individually swore that they would definitely vote against attempts to raise tuition fees. There were no let-out clauses or weasel words. The point is not so much that the reversal on that particular policy was unpopular. It was that it set the whole framework through which the country then saw the Lib Dems: they had apparently thrown away their single clearest pledge for a chance of power, or, hardly less damagingly, they were so feeble they couldn't defend their one key principle when their new Tory owners said no. I can see why they did it. For decades the Lib Dems and their predecessor parties had been in the habit of making airy pledges which they had little risk of having to implement, and this one was undoubtedly popular. But the damage it did and will, for a while, continue to do is unspeakable. Don't make unbreakable promises unless you are really willing to refuse to enter government rather than break them.

2. The determination to show that coalition could work. Again very understandable in 2010, but the Lib Dems felt it was peculiarly incumbent on them to demonstrate this. Hence, especially at the start, not pushing too hard on key issues. Like, for example, tuition fees. And therefore looking as if their main purpose was to keep the Tories in power.

3. Linked to this: my guess is that Nick Clegg's decision not to take on a government department was a mistake. Deputy PM is an invisible role, and too easily becomes seen as spokesman for / lapdog of the entire Tory-led government, rather than a distinct voice within it. If he'd been Home Secretary he'd have had a very bumpy ride - Home Secretaries always do - but he'd have had the chance to impress and would in any case have actually been doing things, and, amongst it all, would have been being attacked by Tories for much of what he was doing. Which would have helped.

4. A bad shopping list in 2010. I don't mean that what the Lib Dems actually did in coalition was bad. The tax-allowance thing was a brilliant wheeze, though the enthusiasm with which the Tories have nicked the idea is a little disheartening. The 'pupil premium', prioritising mental health, ending detention of underage migrants ... all excellent stuff. But all a bit second-order. The big-ticket items were voting reform and Lords reform, and both of them failed, in both cases essentially because only a minority favoured them and that wasn't enough. So they were left with nothing. Lesson: have at least one really big, clearly visible thing that will be an unmistakable contribution, and that doesn't depend on the outcome of a referendum.

5. No shopping list in 2015. Actually, I rather liked the 'give the Tories a heart or give Labour a head' angle, but it's a bit vague. What, specifically, would a government in coalition with the Lib Dems have had to do that it would otherwise not have had to do? The risk is that you are basically asking people to vote for a dose of centrist Establishment good sense, and that's quite a hard sell.

If they'd done all that ... well, they could plausibly have kept a hold of a many as half of the people who voted for them in 2010. And that would still have looked like a disaster and we'd be asking what went wrong.

Which also makes me think: it could, actually, have been worse. In first-past-the-post systems, especially with multiple parties, parties have been almost or wholly exterminated before (bye-bye, Canada's Progressive Conservatives in 1993). Eight MPs is obviously very bad but, hey, it's eight MPs. And the Scots Lib Dems held up much better against the SNP onslaught than Labour did, generally fighting their seats to a much closer finish. Perhaps the question is: given the experience of the last five years, how have we clung on to life at all?

Friday, 8 May 2015

Reasons to be cheerful

As a paid-up Liberal Democrat, I am a little in need of these after the massacre in the UK general election last night. But as a paid-up Panglossian, I can find some.

1.       Nigel Farage failed to win his seat, and UKIP only won one.

2.       George Galloway lost his seat.

3.       The British National Party secured less than two thousand votes across the whole country.

4.       On all three of those counts: the far right remains as marginal in British politics as it ever has been. This is very, very good news and could easily have been different. It shows that the Tories are still fulfilling their historical purpose of squeezing out right-wing populism.

5.       Apparently the British political system isn’t broken after all. We seem to be back to something like two-party politics (in England and Wales, anyway), not the multi-party melange of recent commentary, and we are evidently still capable of translating a decent lead in votes into a workable governing majority.

6.       Therefore: the political prize remains the centre ground. With only a little luck, a post-Miliband and post-Balls Labour will now elect a leadership which is willing to make a serious bid for that centre ground, and no more 35% strategies.

7.       In which case, the new government will need to keep fighting for that same centre, and will not feel the need to pander to the right-wing threat. So, for example, we can reasonably hope that, like last time, the Chancellor will not cut at the rate he feels the need to claim that he will.

8.       The SNP result … ok, as a unionist I need to work this one a little harder for a good news angle, but here goes. First, this is undoubtedly the SNP’s high-water mark: only one way to go from here. Second, the scale of the result is such that the Tories do seem so far to be taking seriously the crisis of legitimacy that this gives them north of the Border. Conceivably they will do something courageous about it.

9.       The EU referendum which is now coming: again this is a bit scary. But: (a) It would probably have to happen sooner or later anyway. (b) With UKIP a busted flush, it looks a bit more winnable than yesterday. Maybe this is the time to do it.

10.   And whatever the result of the referendum, it will finish UKIP, who would be as undone by a ‘out’ vote as by an ‘in’ one.

11.   And liberalism? Well, I suppose the likeliest path is that in a post-UKIP world the Lib Dems rebuild as a party of protest once again, which is a little depressing – especially as it turns out so many ex-Lib Dem voters have gone to UKIP. Alternatively, the Tories are tugged in a Borisite-modernising direction and become the old Liberal party in all but name, and Labour embrace the centre and become the SDP in all but name. But perhaps now my sleep-deprivation is catching up with me.

PS. One more ... Now we have a government which, unlike its predecessor, doesn't have a built-in House of Lords majority. It will, therefore, be harder for them to get away with doing stupid stuff.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Against Noah

Who could dislike the Noah story (leaving aside the merciless genocide aspect for a moment)? Every child is brought up on it, toys and books galore reference it, it's a reference-point so widely shared as to be endlessly retold, whether in affectionate and moving earnest (as in Kenneth Walker and Geoffrey Boumphrey's lovely The Log of the Ark, now sadly out of print) or in satirical parody (as in Julian Barnes' History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters). Even the Darren Aronofsky movie Noah was much, much better than we had any right to expect, and had the nerve to include the drunken, naked Noah bit at the end, though mercifully it never pretended to be anything more than hokum.

Well, sparked by his being in the lectionary today, here's my beef with Noah, and indeed with Adam and Eve, his only rivals for Sunday school and children's Bible stardom. When children are introduced to the Bible, it is to a remarkable extent through these two stories, possibly merely because they both have lots of animals in them. 

Then children grow up a little bit, and, especially if they really are interested in animals and the natural world, they discover that these stories are not literally true. So naturally, they conclude that the rest of what they are told in Sunday school  is probably also made up.

I'm not actually making a point about evolution or the historicity of the Noah story. True, I do strongly disagree with the Biblical-literalist approach here, but that's beside the point. If you are a literal, young-earth six-day creationist, you should also avoid teaching these stories too much to small children,  because they will quickly discover that they are, shall we say, controversial. To give anyone the impression that these stories are the fundamentals of the faith is, almost literally, to put a stumbling-block in children's paths.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

The Tyndale code

It's not often that the English Reformation manages a bona fide news story, and admittedly this one isn't a front-page lead, but it's exciting enough in its own way.

A manuscript has surfaced, from an as yet undisclosed source, of an English translation of Erasmus' devotional manual the Enchiridion militis christiani ('Handbook of a Christian Soldier'). The book's significant enough in its own right: this was probably the most influential devotional text of the early sixteenth century, a bestseller amongst Protestants and Catholics alike.

What makes it more tantalising, as the publicity around the export ban claims, is that we know that the Biblical translator William Tyndale made an English translation of the Enchiridion early in his career, in the early 1520s. But no authenticated copy of that translation has ever been found.

The only previously known English translation of the Enchiridion was published in 1533 and 1534 (slightly variant versions). The translator is anonymous. So it has long been tempting to put two and two together and guess that this was Tyndale's work (no English printer would have dared put that name on a book at that date). But there's very little evidence to support it. Anne O'Donnell's scrupulously careful edition of the 1533-4 text for the Early English Text Society, published in 1981, marshalls an impressive array of circumstancial evidence to test whether there was any link, and - despite clearly hoping that she'd find one - didn't come up with much. In particular, there is not much common ground between the translations of Biblical material in the 1533/34 Enchiridions and in Tyndale's own Biblical translations. (His Biblical work was done after the putative Enchiridion translation, so that's not a decisive argument, but it's indicative.) So since then, the Tyndale Enchiridion has seemed like a dead end.

This new manuscript doesn't solve the mystery by any means. But it certainly reopens it. The full text hasn't been published yet, just the first page:
Now when we compare that to the same section of the 1533 translation, we can see it's almost but not quite identical. Far too similar to be a coincidence, but the differences aren't simple copying errors. The insertion of 'of' in the first line might be, but in lines 4-5, for example, where this text has 'thow myghtest atteyn knowlege mete for a trew Cristen man', the 1533-4 text has 'thou myghtest attayne a vertuous mynde, accordyng to a true chrysten man'.

So what's going on? Well, hard to say until we've got the whole text published, and until the codicologists have had a proper stab at dating the thing. But it would be perfectly plausible for this to be an earlier version of the text later revised and printed in 1533/4. And since Tyndale remains the only known early translator of the Enchiridion ... well, on the face of it there is certainly something going on here, some new wrinkle in the textual history of the English translation, and it is entirely possible that Tyndale is somewhere in the mix.

If anyone has £242,500 burning a hole in their pockets and would like to buy it, that would be nice.

UPDATE: I'm told by Andrew Hope, who's examined the actual MS, that it's dated to 1523. And he reminds me that the source which describes Tyndale's production of the translation - in, pretty much, that year - also tells us that multiple fair copies were produced, in an attempt to seek patronage. (He also tells me the MS came from the duke of Northumberland's library, but since we don't know how it got there that doesn't help very much with provenance.) It starts to look genuinely plausible that this is the real thing.