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.