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some reflections on Christianity in the 1630s

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puritans off to benight the new world

puritans off to benight the new world

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there

L P Hartley,  The go-between, 1953

You occasionally read that atheists or non-believers are having a hard time of it these days, and I’ve certainly encountered some Dawkins-haters and ‘arrogant atheist’ bashers, both in person and online. I’ve even had a go at the likes of Terry Eagleton, Melvyn Bragg and Howard Jacobson for their puerile arguments – which I’m really quite fond of doing. But the fact is that we atheists have never had it so good, and it’s getting better all the time.

This post is partly a response to one by the Friendly Atheist, in which he expresses skepticism about a report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) on the worldwide treatment of non-believers, but doesn’t really develop his argument. It’s also partly inspired by a book I’m reading, God’s fury, England’s fire: a new history of the English civil wars, by Michael Braddick, which is extraordinarily detailed and begins with a comprehensive scene-setting, describing the civil and ecclesiastical context in which ordinary lives were lived in England circa 380 years ago.

I’ve written before about taking the long view. We tend to be impatient, understandably, for our lives are short, and we’re keen to see worldwide transformation within its span, but I invite you to travel back in time to another country, our ‘mother country’, or mine at least, to see for yourself how foreign, and how hostile to non-belief, it was back then.

Essentially, there were no atheists in Britain in the 1630s, and the way Christianity was practiced was a hot political issue, central to most people’s lives. Sunday church attendance was compulsory, subject to government fines, but there was a plurality of positions within both Protestantism and the more or less outlawed Catholicism. Due to the horrific religious wars then raging in the Germanic regions, there was more than a whiff of the Last Days in the air. Parishes often took up collections for the distressed Protestants of Europe, and although the government of Charles I maintained an uneasy neutrality, many volunteers, especially from Scotland, went off to join the fighting on the continent.

Braddick’s book begins with an event that underlines the everyday religiosity of the era. In 1640, a Scottish army passed solemnly through Flodden, just south of the border with England. It wasn’t an invasion, though, it was more like a funeral procession. The Scots were engaging in a very public mourning of ‘the death of the Bible’. Trumpeters death-marched in front, followed by religious ministers bearing a Bible covered by a funeral shroud. After them came a number of elderly citizens, petitions in hand, and then the troops, their pikes trailing in the ground. Everyone was wearing black ribbons or other signs of mourning.

This was not quite an official Scottish army, it was an army of the Covenanters, essentially Calvinists or Presbyterians, defenders of the ‘true religion’, who were protesting about the imposition, in 1637, of a new Prayer book upon their congregations. Considering the history of Scots-English warfare, this was a provocative incursion, but the Scots met with little resistance, and after a brief battle at Newburn, they marched into Newcastle, a major northern English town, unopposed.

To understand how this bizarre event could’ve occurred involves analysing the complex religious politics of Britain at a time when religion and politics were almost impossible to separate – as any analysis of the contemporaneous Thirty Years’ War would show. The fact is that many of the English were sympathetic to the Scots cause and becoming increasingly disgruntled at the government of Charles, the long proroguing of parliament, and the perceived turning away from the ‘true religion’ towards a more embellished form that resembled the dreaded ‘papism’.

England and Scotland were both governed by Charles I, a nominally Scots king who, since moving to London to join his father as a young child in 1604, had never been back to his native country. However, as is still the case today, the two countries perceived themselves as, and in fact were, quite distinct, with separate churches, laws, administration and institutions. The Covenanters, were in a sense, nationalists, though their attitude to Charles was, unsurprisingly, ambivalent. In a propaganda campaign preceding their march south, they generally made it clear that they had no quarrel with England (though some went further and hoped to ‘rescue’ England from religious error), but were acting to defend their religious liberty.

Charles and his advisers were naturally alarmed at this development, and a proclamation was issued describing the Covenanters as ‘rebels and traitors’. At the same time it was felt that Charles’ physical presence, if not in Scotland at least in the north of England, was needed to stop the traitorous rot. Charles’ attitude was that if he was to enter ‘foreign territory’, it had better be at the head of an army. However, to raise and arm a military force required money, which required taxation – usually sanctioned by parliament. It also required the goodwill of the people, from whom a force would have to be raised, and here’s where politics, bureaucratic administration and religious attitudes could combine to create a dangerous brew, a brew made more poisonous by the king’s unbending temperament.

Charles was married to a Catholic, the not-so popular Henrietta Maria of France. Henrietta Maria’s Catholicism was devout, public and extravagant. The famous architect Inigo Jones designed a chapel for her in a style that outraged the puritans, and she held her own court at which Catholics were welcomed and protected. Charles’ own tastes, too, were hardly in line with the move towards austere Protestantism that was sweeping the country (though there were plenty who resisted it). Charles had in fact been moving in the opposite direction since his accession to the throne in the 1620s, as had his father James I. It wasn’t that they were about to embrace Catholicism, but they were reacting against strict Calvinism, in terms of outward display if not in terms of theology. But in many ways it was the theology of Calvinism – not only the weird doctrine of predestinarianism but the ideas of justification by faith alone, and of a direct, unmediated connection with the deity – that attracted the populace, to varying degrees, though it never caught on as strongly in England as in Scotland. The term ‘popery’, which didn’t always refer in an uncomplicated way to Catholicism, was increasingly used to indicate suspect if not heretical tendencies.

A key figure in all this turmoil was William Laud, the most influential religious authority in England. He was the Bishop of London from 1628, and became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633. It was Laud who was largely responsible for issuing the new prayer-book in 1637, along with many other reforms in line with Charles’ more formal approach to Protestant religious practice, an approach that later became known as High Church Anglicanism. But so much was at stake with even the mildest reforms, and by the end of the thirties, a wave of puritan hysteria was gripping the country, which created an equal and opposite reaction. Laud was arrested and imprisoned in the tower in 1641, and executed in 1645, by which time the civil war was in full swing, with the tide having turned decisively against Charles.

However, I don’t want to get into the details of the religious factionalism and strife of those days here, I’m simply wanting to emphasise just how religious – and barbaric – those days were. The civil war was horrifically brutal, and as the primary documents reveal, it was accompanied by wagonloads of biblical rhetoric and god-invocations on both sides. The royalists’ principal argument was the king’s divine right to rule, while parliament was always referred to as ‘God’s own’. It was theocracy in turmoil, though many of the points of discontent were decidedly worldly, such as taxation and what we would now call conscription – forced service in the the king’s military. Besides monitoring of church attendance there were the ‘Holy Days of Obligation’ such as Ascension Day and the Rogation Days surrounding it, when the bounds of the parish were marked out on foot – and sometimes by boat if it was a seaside parish – so that jurisdictions were imprinted in the minds of God’s subjects, for in those days the local church had control and responsibility over the care of the poor, elderly and infirm. Certainly in those days the church acted as a kind of social glue, keeping communities together, but it was never as idyllic and harmonious as it sounds. Rogation processions were often proscribed or limited to ‘respectable citizens’ because of the drunken revelry they attracted, and there were always the political dissensions, usually related to some church leader or other being too popish or too puritan. Just like today, it was a world of noisy, opinionated, half-informed people, some of them very clever and frustrated, who demanded to be heard.

Witchcraft, though, was very much a thing in this period. Recently a workmate was expressing understandable disgust at the brutish burning of infidels or traitors or whatever by the Sunni invaders of northern Iraq – and she might also have mentioned the brutish slaughter of women and children as ‘witches’ on our own doorstep in Papua New Guinea. When I mentioned that our culture, too, used to burn witches, the response was predictable – ‘but that was in the Middle Ages’. We like to push these atrocities back in time as far we can get away with. In fact, the largest witch-hunt in English history occurred in East Anglia in 1645, when 36 women were put on trial, 19 were executed and only one was acquitted. Like an earthquake, this mass trial caused a number of aftershocks throughout the country, with some 250 women tried and more than 100 executed. A large proportion of all the witch-killings in England occurred in this one year. These women were hanged rather than burnt, but burning at the stake – the punishment reserved for heresy, an indication of how theocratic the state was – wasn’t abandoned until 1676, under Charles II.

We should be grateful for having emerged from the theocratic thinking of earlier centuries, and we can look around at theocratic states today, or just at those with theocratic mindsets, to see how damaging they can be. To have gods on your side is to be absolutely right, fighting against or punishing the absolutely wrong. In this superhuman world with its superhuman stakes, the mere human is a cypher to be trampled in the dust, or burned, beheaded, sacrificed on the altar of Divine Justice. The past, our past, is another country, but we need to visit it from time to time, and examine it unflinchingly, though it’s sometimes hard not to shudder.

Written by stewart henderson

February 8, 2015 at 11:24 pm

how has our Christian society changed in the last millenium?

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some Lollards hanging about

some Lollards hanging about

I happen to be reading an enjoyable little book in the ‘brief history’ series, A brief history of life in the middle ages by Martyn Whittock. His focus is England, and he covers a period from around the ninth century through to the fifteenth, but he provides enough interesting data from approximately a millennium ago and onwards to make the above question worth pursuing – with a bit more research too of course.

Australia is generally regarded as a Christian country, but Christianity sure ain’t what it used to be. Generally when talking about the decline of Christianity, pundits refer to the past few decades, but it’s worth taking a much longer view to see just how Christianity is faring compared to what it once was. It’s also convenient that Christianity is around 2000 years old – so going back a thousand years takes us to half its life-span up to now. We don’t know how much longer it will live, but I’m more interested in its ‘quality of life’ compared to what it once was. Is it in a near-vegetative state, or is it still thriving?

Obviously we can’t look at Christianity in Australia 1000 years ago, so England seems the obvious choice as the nation that brought Christianity to this country, so very recently.

Eleventh century England was thoroughly Christian, chockful of powerful bishops and clerics. The Norman conquest had little effect on Christianity generally except that the sees of bishops tended to be relocated to the commercial centres along continental lines, and the continental style of church architecture replaced the Anglo-Saxon, resulting in the loss of virtually all the great Anglo-Saxon churches. Edward the Confessor had already signalled this change before the Norman invasion with his reconstruction of Westminster, but of course after William I’s accession this rebuilding process was a deliberate sign of the new order – an erasing of Anglo-Saxon taste, style, and political influence rather than its version of Christianity.

The Church, undivided as it was then, played a vastly greater role in eleventh century society than it does today. The Church hierarchy, with its higher levels of literacy, played a significant, indeed dominant, role in civil administration, and of course the Church was a major landowner, charged with all the minutiae of running large estates, so that you could be a senior Church official without being in any way engaged in what we see as the domain of Christian workers today – sermons, spirituality and charitable works. The Church was in fact an international administrative network dominated by Rome, and administering estates for two masters in a sense – the ‘local’ royalty or nobility, and the pope. Chancery was run more or less entirely by Church officials until major changes occurred in the early fifteenth century.

It’s probably fair to say that atheism wasn’t even a concept in eleventh century England or Europe. Godlessness might’ve been a term of abuse for those who weren’t sufficiently orthodox, but essentially everyone was Christian, to a degree unthinkable today. One quite small but economically successful religious minority existed, namely the Jews, expelled from England in 1290, and increasingly harassed and oppressed from the mid-twelfth century onwards. The whole nation was divided into parishes, each overseen by a diocesan bishop, over-ruled by two archdioceses, Canterbury, which had seniority, and York. It was expected that everyone in the parish attend mass on Sundays, and on various festival days. A yearly procession called Rogationtide served to remind everyone of the boundaries of their particular parish.

All parishioners paid a tithe of their income to the church. A tithe is literally a tenth, though the amount no doubt varied. The practice originated with Judaism, and has been followed in a variety of ways by Christianity and Islam, as well as in secular terms, though this was caught up in the confusion of medieval views of Church and State, with the monarchy being seen as a quasi-religious inheritance.

In the wealthiest parishes tithes were held in tithe barns, for all to see, but of course there was always tension about this form of taxation, especially if the churches or monasteries and their abbots were displaying conspicuous wealth, as a good part of the tithes were expected to support the needy of the parish.

Of course, as among the religious today, the Church presided over all the Main Events – baptism (for babies), confirmation (for toddlers) and penance (for all the rest), as well as the Eucharist (regularly), marriage, ordination (for many, but only performed by bishops) and extreme unction (for everyone in the end). However it would be wrong to assume that religious belief was uniform, either in thought or practice. It was always changing, over time, and according to many and varied regional influences. Early medieval Christianity interacted with local folk practices, and various trends and fashions had a general impact, such as the rise of the mendicant friar movement, as a response to the perceived or actual corruption of the fixed monastic orders. This movement, largely intended as a return to the simple peripatetic teachings of Jesus, in turn suffered from its own popularity, and eventually became associated with a new form of parasitism. Another major impact on religious thinking in the later medieval period was plague, and the devastation it brought, which led to a darker and more personal relation to the deity among many. Chantry chapels for the burial of the dead were built, with special clergy to deal with the overload, since priests were only allowed by law to say one mass a day.

The concept of the ‘clergy’ in medieval Britain was necessarily vague – to the advantage of offenders against the law. In the 13th and 14th centuries any schoolboy (only boys of course) who achieved some literacy could be given the tonsure, the clerical cut, and wrong-doers could claim ‘benefit of clergy’ if they were literate, the test for which was to recite psalm 51:1 in Latin – ‘ Have mercy on me, Oh God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.’  The verse became known as ‘the neck verse’ presumably because it saved your neck, canon law penalties being much lighter than secular ones. A reaction against this avoidance of proper justice led to the benefit of clergy provision being restricted to minor crimes by the end of the 16th century (when England had broken with Rome). Of course, this controversial relationship between canon and secular law is still a problem today, with the Catholic Church still unable to accept the paramountcy of secular law.

Orthodoxy and its maintenance was a problem, as ever, what with Dominicans (blackfriars), Franciscans (friars minor, or greyfriars), Cistercians, Carmelites (whitefriars), and other assorted monks, nuns, canons, priors, churchwardens etc roaming the land or administering estates and distributing finances (at least 20% of all land was owned by the Church in the late middle ages), not to mention anchorites and mystical eccentrics such as Margery Kempe keeping the pot stirred. The Peasants Revolt of 1381 and the Lollard movement, both led by religious figures and both savagely repressed, gave an indication of the tenuous hold of religious authority in times of stress, but again these movements never threatened Christianity and were aimed at reinforcing it through renovation.

And then came the great church schism that fueled the genocidal treatment of the Catholic Irish, not to mention the Thirty Years War in middle-Europe and the English civil war…

As a lover of history I could go on and on, but the essential point is clear. We’ve never lived in a more secular age, nowhere near it. We can easily live our lives without interference from Christianity, to a degree that was impossible even 200 years ago let alone 1000. A situation which certainly gives added perspective to such recent apologist texts as The Twilight of Atheism.

Here in Australia, voted the happiest country in the world for the 3rd year in a row by the Paris-based OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), the rise of the nones is as spectacularly speedy as it is anywhere else. And it seems to me there are great historical reasons for embracing secularism. The current approach of the Catholic Church with respect to canon law and the behaviour of its clergy is an example, but one just has to look at those states where the churches, mosques, synagogues etc have political power, and compare them to those where religion plays little or no political role. Compare also the Europe and England of today with the pre-Enlightenment versions, when the official language was God-saturated but when the kind of justice we now take for granted was in very short supply. It’s taken a long time, and the situation continues patchy, but Aristotelian empiricism, so far as ethics is concerned, is winning out.

There’s no turning back. It seems to me that, as far as Christianity is concerned, it’s the long, long fade-out.

Written by stewart henderson

December 2, 2013 at 5:02 pm

a harem-scarem of heretics and heresies: Marcion

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That's Marcion on the left, with John the Apostle, apparently

That’s Marcion on the left, with John the Apostle, apparently

Christianity’s a funny religion, custom-built for ‘heresy’, heresy which will never be resolved because of the massive and, to a non-believer, frankly hilarious conundrum at its inception, the creation of a new supernatural being, who’s the son of another supernatural being, while at the same time being the same supernatural being, and also at the same time, or for a tiny part of the time, being completely human, or natural. Thus we have a monotheism with two heads, and a supernatural and also natural object of worship at the same time, not to mention some abstruse entity called a holy spirit or ‘Paraclete’. This mess will never ever have a chance of being resolved, because of course nobody can ever prove anything where the supernatural is concerned. Precisely for this reason, the only ‘resolution’ to this conundrum, now as throughout Christian history, is one involving power and violence – which isn’t always so hilarious.

Of course, there are many theological bones of contention, and sources of heresy, within Christianity apart from the status of Jesus (an area of dispute called ‘Christology’), such as the status of Mary, the meaning of sainthood, predestination and other eschatological matters.

Theology is, IMHO, the most inane pursuit humans have ever invented for themselves, but of course when it’s the only game in town, its political implications are explosive. It’s entirely about power. It’s the power that’s of interest, historically, and the political machinations. So let’s have a little look at Christianity’s battles and brutality in trying to enforce an orthodoxy amongst all the equally valid, or invalid, interpretations of Jesus’s true identity.

Marcion and Marcionism

Marcion, an apparently wealthy bishop’s son from near the Black Sea in what is now Turkey, who landed up in Rome around 140CE, seems to have been one of the first early Christians smart enough to realize that the new religion needed a thorough rethink, and one of the first Christians prominent enough to make an impact with his thinking.

Marcion clearly had a problem with Christianity’s intimate connection with Judaism, and their sharing of the same god. His solution was a pretty radical one; noting that the essentially absent but much talked-about god of the New Testament writings bore little resemblance to the thundering, partisan dictator-type of the Old Testament, he declared that they were in fact separate beings, with the New Testament one being vastly superior. It was a mad gamble, which was never likely to come off, but it certainly stirred things up, and kept them stirred for a long time after his excommunication in 144. Marcionism as an official heresy lasted into the 5th century, and his ideas still have currency today, and why not? His criticisms of the Old Testament’s brutalities and its nasty god have a distinctly modern feel to them. He also argued, cogently enough, that the description in Genesis of the god walking through the garden and discovering Adam being naughty proved that this god was an embodied, and therefore minor, god, who couldn’t possibly possess universal knowledge.

Marcion’s views on the identity of Jesus were obviously influenced by his conception of the New Testament god. In Judaism, Yahweh or God is often spoken of as ‘the father’, or ‘our heavenly father’, because he is the creator of humans – and everything else, but humans were his ‘special creation’. So we are his ‘children’, made in his likeness. But in the New Testament, and especially in the writings of Paul, God the father is contrasted with Jesus the son, a different tweak on the father idea. Marcion, a great supporter and admirer of Pauline thought, with its more abstract and ahistorical god, took those ideas a step or two further, severing the Pauline god from the Old Testament god as a separate entity. In other words he was a kind of religious dualist. Not content with that dangerous innovation, he considered Jesus’s physical existence to be a kind of mirage, a phantom – no doubting in keeping with his view of the New Testament god as non-embodied. This view of Jesus, as essentially a being too important to have ever had something so lowly as mere physical or natural existence, came to be known as Docetism, and it was roundly rejected as heretical at the first council of Nicaea in 325. Marcion’s excommunication turned him into one of Christianity’s first heresiarchs, or founders of a heretical movement or tradition, but his writing and thinking profoundly influenced the orthodoxy. For example, he proposed the first New Testament canon. Though the canon finally agreed upon centuries later differed greatly from the one proposed by Marcion (his canon was notably short – an edited version of Luke, and the letters of Paul), it was Marcion who first saw the need for regulating on what was ‘in’ and what was ‘out’, among the enormously proliferating gospels.

Marcion considered the Old Testament god to be a ‘demiurge’ – something close to a devil. It’s a maltheistic view shared by more than a few modern secular readers (Mark Twain for example), though they would usually replace the theistic term ‘devil’ with ‘dictator’, ‘tyrant’ or ‘mass-murderer’. Interestingly, this god’s inflexibility and capriciousness led Marcion and others to be more rather than less convinced of his reality as the world’s creator. He felt the god’s activity pretty well explained the suffering and injustice of the world. With Jesus, a new god was introduced, superior to the demiurge, ethically if not in terms of power. Marcion’s emphasis on the non-Jewish text of Luke, and his suppression of genealogies linking Jesus to ‘King David’, was part of an anti-Judaic agenda which denied the idea of a Jewish messiah and emphasised the idea of a redeemer. He also highlighted Paul as the ‘one true apostle’ of Jesus, the only one who really ‘got it’ about Jesus’s universality, and the new hope he brought. However – and this is where Marcion leads us down the path into gnosticism, other-worldliness and the sort of contempt for physical reality that the likes of Malcolm Muggeridge were into – redemption could not be attained within the massively flawed world of the demiurge. This was a view in keeping with the apocalyptic eschatology that dominated the early Christian movement.

Marcion, one of Christianity’s first heretics, also seems to have been one of the most influential and enduring. He himself managed to avoid the fate of many heretics of the early Christian era, perhaps because his heresies were promulgated well before a well-attested orthodoxy was established (the Emperor Theodosius first promulgated a law declaring heresy a capital crime in 382), but also no doubt due to his wealth, prominence and popularity. He returned to Asia Minor after being ex-communicated, and apparently established a flourishing teaching and an alternative church in the area. He was a prolific writer, but almost all of his writings appear to have been destroyed by the control and power merchants of Catholic orthodoxy, along with the writings of many other heretics, probably in the fourth century. So we largely know about his thinking through the writings that have survived from that era – that’s to say the writers later accepted as orthodox, and so unsympathetic to Marcion. In fact most of what we know about Marcion derives from Tertullian’s work Adversus Marcionem.

Marcion’s ‘church’ may have survived even into the fifth century, and his teaching, still influential today, may have inspired the Cathars, a remarkably widespread and stubborn bunch of European heretics in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, who held similar dualist and gnostic views. The extent of the connection, if any, will never be known, as the Catholic orthodoxy destroyed Cathar writings as comprehensively as they destroyed the Cathars themselves.

Long live secularism.

Written by stewart henderson

January 4, 2013 at 4:15 pm