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Witchcraft and magic; film and academia

In which we ponder why both serious historians and the entertainment industry were dealing with the same subject at the same time


There’s a lot of pressure on the Symbolic Towers bookshelves at the moment, stacked several deep with books falling off the ends. The pile of books-to-be-read is growing, too, with books arriving on it faster than I can read them. Frankly, the cause is obvious – apart from me not spending enough time reading, I mean. The cause is: shopping trips to Whiteladies Road and Cotham Hill, and to the charity shops thereon. Several are specialist charity bookshops, and all seem to have a better quality of book stock than charity shops elsewhere in Bristol, presumably because of the university being close by. Recent selections have included God’s Architect, a biography of Pugin by Rosemary Hill; 25 Jahre Deutsche Einheitslokomotive;* and a classic historical work from 40 years ago: Religion and the Decline of Magic by Sir Keith Thomas. I’ve just started making my way into the latter, and it has started a few thoughts going round in my head. Not because of the book itself, interesting though it is, but because of other things that have coincidentally come together alongside it.

Last Friday, by contrast, we went along to The Cube for the monthly Hellfire Video Club horror night. This month’s theme was Folk Horror, with a British cinema double bill: Cry of the Banshee (1970) and Blood on Satan’s Claw (also 1970).** The latter has rather higher production values; the former, although a British-made film, was part of American International Pictures’ series of Edgar Allan Poe films. It’s one of the later, lesser-known entries in the sequence: directed by Gordon Hessler rather than Roger Corman, but still with Vincent Price as the top-billed star.

What struck me straight away was the similarity of content: which, obviously, was why they were put together on the same bill. Cry of the Banshee is set around the start of the 17th century; Blood on Satan’s Claw is set around its end. Both deal with witchcraft, beliefs about witchcraft, and intra-community conflict; in very different styles, and with different levels of seriousness, but still at heart the same subject. It was not, moreover, a particularly unusual subject for British film at the time: a couple of years earlier Vincent Price had starred in Witchfinder General, covering similar subject matter and with slightly more claim to historicity. Not coincidentally, it was a co-production between American International and the producers of Blood on Satan’s Claw, Tigon. Recently, in his BBC series A History of Horror, Mark Gatiss put forward a claim for this group of films to be considered as a “folk horror” subgenre,*** together with The Wicker Man (1973): another look at essentially the same themes, updated to a modern-day setting.**** In that film the side of witchcraft is represented by a modern pagan revival; Cry of the Banshee shows the mythical pagan witchcraft of Charles Leland and Margaret Murray, and Blood on Satan’s Claw shows the Satanic witchcraft which the real-life witchfinders of the 17th century believed they were hunting down.

The point of this post, though, came when I realised that the subject of these films – the period ones, at least – is in effect the same subject as their contemporary Religion and the Decline of Magic. That book covers the same period: roughly, 1500 to 1700. It covers the intersection between religion and folk magic, and how folk belief in magic and witchcraft changed due to the political-religious upheavals which occurred in the period under study – following the anthropological distinction between magic and witchcraft.

Being an academic history, it is slightly easier to see how Sir Keith came to write the book when he did. His interest in the period came from studying under Christopher Hill, the great Marxist historian of 17th century England; and at the time he was writing magic and witchcraft were being seen in a new light as a subject of historical enquiry. Thomas received input from Alan Macfarlane, whose research on witchcraft prosecutions in East Anglia is another work that is very much still on the historical and anthropological syllabus. The significance of Dr Macfarlane is that, as a historical anthropologist, he married anthropological frameworks and theories to historical primary sources. This level of academic interest in historical witchcraft beliefs is also what led to the complete discrediting of the previously-accepted idea that early modern witchcraft was a fully-fledged ancient and pagan religion, in works such as Norman Cohn’s Europe’s Inner Demons, published in 1975. In general, it is fair to say that Religion and the Decline of Magic is a major work within a subject that was getting a great deal of interest in academia at the time, and for the first time was getting serious interest paid to it which involved deep analysis of primary source material.

What intrigues me about all this, however, is the confluence here between academia and entertainment. What was going on, what underlying forces were at work, which led to the production of both horror films and weighty academic histories on the same topics at the same times? It is worth saying that Blood on Satan’s Claw, at least, does appear to present an underlying thesis which is not unrelated to that of Keith Thomas. Thomas points out that the Reformation led to the Church in England abandoning a large number of practices which can be described as magical; or which, at least, are barely distinguishably from magic both in an anthropological analysis and in the minds of the ordinary population expected to take part. In Blood on Satan’s Claw the village priest, apparently a Low Anglican, is ineffectual against the forces of witchcraft, and knows it; the heroes are the scientifically-minded local physician and the Jacobite judge, presumably still secretly following the old religion just as he secretly follows the Old Pretender. To defeat Satan, only a Catholic will do; but nowhere is this spelled out explicitly for the audience, and you will only realise it if you have some awareness of the film’s historical setting.

I’m not, of course, trying to posit a direct connection between the two things: for one thing, both of the films shown at Hellfire Video Club were released the year before the book was. Rather, there seems to have been an undercurrent of some sort, forty years ago, which made this sort of subject a popular one in several ages. I have a feeling it was important in music, too. Also on the squeezed bookshelves is a work which for once I didn’t get second-hand: Electric Eden by Rob Young. It is a history of the folk themas which pervaded English music in the 20th century – which makes it sound also very academic. It isn’t, and its writer is a very approachable sort of chap, but it doesn’t exactly answer the question I’m posing, because it tends to follow a linear path of musical trends, parallel to the rest of culture.

There is possibly an answer in the growth of modern paganism. Modern Wicca emerged in the 1950s; by the time we are talking about, it was well known in mainstream culture and in the popular press. Moreover, as historian Ronald Hutton has shown, not only can the view of spirituality expressed in Wicca can be shown to have strong antecedents in British culture from the Romantic poets onwards; but even though the view of pagan witchcraft expounded by Margaret Murray can be shown to be false, modern witchcraft can nevertheless be seen to be descended from the types of magical beliefs and activities described by scholars such as Thomas.***** In other words, as a religion, it is a concrete expression of a number of strands of British philosophical thought and folk belief which have been rooted at some level in the national psyche since the medieval period.

However, that argument would seem to be the tail wagging the dog. Rather, modern Wicca became known in the mainstream for the same reasons that academics were studying the history of magical belief, and for the same reasons that popular entertainment was portraying the same themes. What these reasons were is presumably something deeper, and I am not enough of a cultural historian to tell you what they were and are. I do think it is somehow significant, though. At the start of the 1970s, something important was happening, culturally, that made the same themes arise right across the cultural spectrum: in academia, in film, in music and in religion. I feel as if, noticing the parallel dates between books and films, I’m trying to grip the edge of an iceberg.

* published in 1950 by Miba, in case you were wondering.

** you can see the event’s poster on Flickr.

*** Of course, other people might have said it before him, but I’m not well-versed enough in film history to know.

**** Incidentally, both The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw have fantastic soundtracks, although each very different in form.

***** Also incidentally, given that I bought my copy of Religion and the Decline of Magic on Cotham Hill, and that most of it has been marked up by a studious reader, the chances are it used to belong to someone studying on one of Professor Hutton’s courses.

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The trouble with religion (part 94)

In which we discuss a suitable Sunday topic


The Mother phoned up today, as she does regularly, to tell us all the latest exciting goings-on in her social circle. Her friend George, who she knew from church, has died aged 85, after a long illness. “Of course, he’d been ill for years,” she said, “and he was in great pain. By the end he was screaming. ‘Take me, Lord, take me!’ It was a blessing when he died.”

When it comes to religion, The Mother is a great fan of this sort of logic. If The Family Car Crash Of 1988 ever comes up in conversation, The Mother will no doubt say something along the lines of “You had such a narrow escape! It just proves that God was looking down on us.” Now, it’s true that I almost lost a) my life b) an eyeball;* but I’m not sure God deserves much in the way of credit. It is fair to argue, though, that the Family Car Crash Of 1988 was a Good Thing: the insurance windfall paid for a piano and a university education.

You can’t really argue, though, that taking the life of an old man after he’s had a long and painful illness, so bad he begs you to kill him, is a good way for any deity to behave. If God really wanted to bless a man who had been a devout churchgoer all his life, a churchwarden and church committee member for many years, someone who every Sunday had been up at the altar receiving the body and blood of Christ devoutly believing that the said God had personally told us all to do this every week,** if He had really wanted to grant him a boon, wouldn’t he have saved him the several years of pain and suffering?*** But, no, in The Mother’s religious logic, bringing the death after George had been calling out for it loudly for a while is the kindly Godly way to behave, not letting him die after a short illness a few years ago. It leaves me thinking: just what does count as compassion, for the religious?

* Strangely, although my life was saved by a pretty narrow margin, I never realised until many many years later just how close I’d come to being killed. Instead, I concentrated on the irony that my eyeball was probably saved by my poor sight, as the thick plastic lens in front of it absorbed the impact of the shards of glass that hit me. With extra irony, the sight in my other eye is almost perfect.

** Although of course, Jesus didn’t want me for a sunbeam do it on a Sunday morning.

*** Let’s not get into the tragic story of George’s wife, either.

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Calling Dr Jones (part two)

In which we discuss lost relics once more


Time to return to Tudor Parfitt‘s documentary The Quest For The Lost Ark, which I started to discuss last week. A brief recap: Prof. Parfitt has discovered, in a museum in Harare, a 14th-century southern African war drum whose descent can, arguably, be traced back to the Biblical Ark of the Covenant, as described in Raiders Of The Lost Ark Exodus:

“Have them make a chest of acacia-wood: two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold, both inside and out, and make a gold molding around it. Cast four gold rings for it and fasten them to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other. Then make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. Insert the poles into the rings on the sides of the chest to carry it. The poles are to remain in the rings of this ark; they are not to be removed. Then put in the ark the Testimony, which I will give you.

If you remember the film: the prop-makers on Raiders Of The Lost Ark followed this description pretty much spot-on. Tudor Parfitt, though, has another theory. As the Ark’s descendant is a drum, the original Ark must have been a drum also.

There are, though, a couple of glaring problems with this. Apart from one verse in the Quran,* the evidence we have for the Ark’s original existence comes from the Bible; from the Old Testament and related books. In all those Biblical references, it’s described in the same way, as a chest. That’s very clear. For Professor Parfitt’s theory to be correct, then we have to assume that although the ark existed according to our sources, all those sources are wrong about what it essentially was. It’s like saying “I believe the Battle of Agincourt happened just like it says in the chronicles – only it wasn’t a battle. And it was somewhere else.”

Furthermore, it makes good archaeological sense that the chest the Israelites built was indeed a chest. If you follow the description of the Ark in the Bible, it’s a chest, about a metre long, designed to be carried on poles. According to the Bible, it was built just after the Israelites had left their Egyptian bondage; and the Egyptians used very similar chests in their own religious rites. They had portable shrines, chests borne on poles just like the Ark, used to carry iconic statues in religious procession – just as the Ark was carried in procession in front of the Israelites. Indeed, Parfitt’s documentary covered all this, and pointed out that the description of the Ark quoted above is pretty close to a description of an Egyptian portable shrine. He didn’t believe in it, though, because it’s a very ornate object to be built by people wandering about in the desert.

In Deuteronomy there’s a different description of the building of the Ark:

At that time the LORD said to me, “Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones and come up to me on the mountain. Also make a wooden chest. I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. Then you are to put them in the chest.” So I made the ark out of acacia wood and chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I went up on the mountain with the two tablets in my hands.

None of the ornate decoration, just a wooden box. A box, note. This passage has led some people to believe that there might have been two arks, an ornate one in the Temple and a practical one for use in war; but equally, it could be that the Israelites built a simple chest first and decorated it later.** In any case, it’s still most definitely a box, not a drum.

In order to argue that the Biblical Ark of the Covenant was a war-drum, as Tudor Parfitt thinks, you have to argue that the Biblical Ark of the Covenant didn’t exist at all; and that the Israelites had some other holy object which they carried in front of them, some holy object for which there is no evidence at all. On the other hand, if you’re willing to embrace a more sophisticated model of archaeology and culture than Professor Parfitt apparently is, it’s quite possible that there is a 14th-century AD African war drum which is, in some way, a descendant of a 14th-century BCE*** Israelite reliquary. A lot can change in 2,800 years, after all. In the final part of these posts, we’ll talk about cultural change, the archaeology of Yorkshire, and why a holy chest might well become a holy drum over time.

Part Three of this post follows, here, even though I haven’t got around to the Yorkshire bit yet »

* Which agrees pretty much with one of the Torah’s description’s of the ark.

** Or, this could be a brief summary of the previous chapter which didn’t need to delve into the full specification.

*** That date’s based on Moses’ traditional Jewish birth date, in 1391 BCE

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Calling Dr Jones (part one)

In which we go in search of lost relics


In our attempt to make sure we didn’t do anything too romantic on Saturday, we stayed in and watched an archaeology documentary on the telly. Or, at least, it said it was an archaeology documentary. It quickly veered off towards pseudoarchaeology, and stayed there.

The documentary in question was The Quest For The Lost Ark by Tudor Parfitt – a repeat, although neither of us had previously caught it. The titular ark in question was the Mosaic Ark Of The Covenant, as described in the Bible: built according to God’s instructions while the Jews were wandering lost in the desert, then later installed in the inner sanctum of Solomon’s Temple. It went missing, though; Jerusalem was sacked, the Temple was destroyed, and nobody knows where the Ark now is* – or, indeed, if it survived at all.

Professor Parfitt’s theory was, essentially, that the Ark of the Covenant can’t have been the chest described, in remarkably detailed fashion,** in the Bible. This is because he has found its descendant: an African war drum, currently in storage in an Harare museum. This drum and the Ark were both used something like a military standard was in later times, borne at the head of armies; except that unlike a standard, both the artifacts had unearthly powers. It was the Ark, for example, which brought down God’s destruction of the walls of Jericho, after it had been paraded around the city.

Some backtracking might be needed here, to explain the professor’s argument. This wasn’t any random African war drum. Rather, it belonged to a tribe called the Lemba, who, despite living in Zimbabwe, maintain that they are a lost tribe of Israel, having been led south by seven priests, back in the mists of time. They do, indeed, have religious practices that are similar to Judaism in some ways; more to the point, study of their Y-chromosome has apparently found that a large number of men from their priestly clan are probably descended from a small group of Kohanim.*** That wouldn’t really be that significant if they were a Semitic people; but, they’re not.

The Lemba’s traditional belief is that, as they were led south by this small group of priests, they took with them a holy war drum. Remade over the years, the descendant of this artefact is the drum now in Harare. It is, indisputably, a drum. So, says Professor Parfitt, if this 14th-century drum is modelled on the Ark of the Covenant, the Ark of the Covenant was a drum, and not the box described in the Bible**** – even if it definitely did exist, as described in the Bible. Hum. I can spot a bit of a logical gap here.

Putting on my archaeological hat,***** there’s nothing at all to say that the Lemba drum in Harare wasn’t inspired, in its use and construction, by the original Ark – or by traditions of the Ark, which is slightly different. That is, of course, if the drum in Harare is the genuine article, evidence for which wasn’t really discussed: Parfitt skipped over that bit in something of a hurry. However, you can’t then justify a logical leap to say that it is modelled directly on the original, so the original can’t be as described. There are sound archaeological reasons why the Ark of the Covenant is unlikely to have looked like the drum Parfitt found in Harare; and, for that matter, why the drum might have become a drum later. I’ll come to that, in the next part of this post.

Part Two of this post follows, here »

* although you might know the apocryphal story about the Nazis and an American treasure hunter…

** at least he’s not as bad as those of the von DĂ€niken school – I forget if it was von D himself or an acolyte – who stated baldly that if you build the ark according to the biblical plan, you get a radio receiver with a high-voltage battery. Unsurprisingly, they have not managed to replicate said item.

*** The Jewish priestly clan, if you didn’t know and didn’t want to follow the link.

**** It does get two contradictory descriptions, but in both it’s a reliquary, a chest for relics.

***** (it’s a bit dusty)

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Evolving

In which we remember Darwin


Happy birthday Darwin, two hundred today, and probably one of the most important scientists who ever lived. He may not have been the sole person responsible for evolutionary theory – certainly not for modern evolutionary theory – but, as well as being a great scientist, he was a writer, someone who could communicate scientific ideas. That’s more important, sometimes, than the idea itself.

If you’re near Bristol: to commemorate Darwin, Bristol Zoo is offering free entry to anyone who turns up this morning with a beard (real or fake). As I write, there’s about 2 1/2 hours left to claim, so you’ll have to rush.

As it happens, only the other day I was reading a book which reminded me how important it is to remember Mr Darwin, as important as it ever was. Counterknowledge, by Damien Thompson, a short book on a long long subject: how falsehoods such as creationism and pseudoarchaeology are presented as somehow equal to facts and truth. How they are presented by the media as a “debate”, when one side’s evidence greatly outweighs the other.* It’s easy to find people today who believe that evolution is wrong; that somehow, because they find life beautiful, there must be a purpose and a designer behind it. And from there it’s a slippery slope to believing first that species are immutable; and from there, that conservation is unimportant, that God must have given us everything we need, and that Genesis 1:28** gives humanity the right to use up any and all resources that there are.

* as much as the inactive contents of a homeopathic remedy outweigh the active contents, you could say.

** “God said unto [man and woman],*** be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

*** Not “Adam and Eve”, note. Adam and Eve aren’t in the “six days” story of Creation, which this verse is part of. They’re in the second Creation story, which starts at Genesis 2:4; where God creates Adam from the barren earth and then Eden for him to live in.

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Choices

In which we find a lot of religions to pick from


Another day, another form to fill in. And, with it, an Equal Opportunities form, to make sure my opportunities are being equalised. This one, I thought, had a particularly exhaustive list of religions to pick from:

  • Ă?satrĂș
  • Baha’i
  • Buddhism
  • Christian
  • Druidry
  • Hinduism
  • Islam
  • Jainism
  • Judaism
  • Odinism
  • Paganism
  • Rastafarianism
  • Shamanism
  • Sikhism
  • Wicca
  • Zoroastrianism
  • Other

Never mind that Ă?satrĂș and Odinism are probably at least as similar as Catholics and Unitarians; or that both of those, Druidry, Shamanism and Wicca are all essentially subsets of paganism. My main gripe is: what if you’re not religious? Where’s the “None” option? Or Agnostic, Atheist, Humanist, or anything else vaguely similar? All we’re left with is Other, the grand catch-all. So I proudly ticked “Other” and wrote in “None”,* whilst wondering why, if it’s so important to sort and categorise all the proud followers of Wicca, Druidry or the Æsir,** there isn’t a box for the considerable number of people who don’t believe in any of the above.

* well, actually, “NONE”, because of course all these sort of forms prefer to be filled in in capitals.

** No “Jedi” box either, I noted, despite the success of the census write-in campaigns in various countries.

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Birth

In which we praise Parliament, a very rare thing


As you’ll have no doubt read in the news, Parliament has voted against reducing the abortion time-limit. I’m pleased and amazed – for once, a political decision has gone by which has been apparently been decided on the basis of fact, not emotion.* That’s been a rare thing for the past few years. Maybe we need to have free votes more often.

In case you missed it, the media debate leading up to this vote went something like this:

Religious fundamentalists:** We need to ban abortion reduce the abortion time limit.

Scientists, doctors, medical charities, and so on: [some facts showing that we shouldn’t]

Religious fundamentalists: [emotional handwaving]

Scientists, doctors, medical charities, and so on: [more facts]

Religious fundamentalists: [more emotional claptrap]

Lots of Conservative MPs [the religious fundamentalists’ surveys and anecdotes repeated wholesale]

Parliament: 190 in favour, 332 against.

Maybe I’m being slightly unfair, in that it wasn’t just the Conservatives voting for the amendment. Ruth Kelly did, of course, although I was surprised that Jim Dobbin, Labour, and leader of the parliamentary all-party pro-life group was nowhere to be seen. He’s a Catholic, and has previously said that he’s against both abortion and contraception. Well, I suppose he’s a better Catholic than Cherie Blair, at any rate. The Tories were the only party whose leadership was pushing hard on the issue, though – K’s MP, a Tory frontbencher for many years, voted with the party line. My own (Labour) MP, I’m pleased to say, voted against.

* This may not be quite true – I’m giving people the benefit of the doubt here. What is true is that Parliament voted for the fact-supported side of the argument; it may be a step too far to say that it was the facts which made them vote that way.

** Nadine Dorries, the apparent leader of the campaign, has claimed that she is not at all a religious fundamentalist. However, she worked very closely with religious campaigners, and admitted that they supplied a lot of the information she used in the campaign. The website run by and for her campaign was set up by and in the name of a group of very fervent religious campaigners, Christian Concern For Our Nation. Ironically, Dorries likes to go on about “the abortion industry” and how it needs to be stopped, when she was formerly a director of BUPA, one of the largest non-NHS abortion producers in the country. One wonders how much anti-abortion campaigning she did in their board meetings.

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A Big Splash (Or, Films I’ve Never Seen, Part One)

In which we wonder what the film-makers were thinking


Every time I’ve been to the cinema recently, I’ve had to sit through a trailer for newly-released film Evan Almighty. And it makes me slightly uneasy. Because – if you’re lucky enough to have managed to avoid the thing – it’s a lighthearted family comedy based on the story of Noah And The Flood, from Genesis. God comes down to Earth, visits an innocent politician, and tells him to build an ark because he’s decided to do the whole flood thing again.

Read that again. It’s a lighthearted family comedy, where God comes down to visit a politician, because (going on what happened last time) he wants to warn him that everyone else on the planet is going to be killed in the biggest natural disaster you can imagine. Did anyone even think at all about this film before it was made? Did they get beyond “comedy, sequel, some Bible story that everyone vaguely remembers”?* To my mind, the idea of writing a comedy about God breaking the only promise he ever made to the whole of mankind,** and apparently planning to kill everyone on earth apart from an American politician, is a little … well, perverse.***

I assume – not having seen the film – that not everyone (apart from the blessed family) gets killed at the end. Surely no Hollywood studio is going to release a big summer comedy where everyone on earth apart from a handful of people dies at the end? Drama, maybe, but not comedy. All in all, it sounds like a bit of a mess. Does God turn out to be nice in the end? Does he say: “Aw, I was only kidding. I just wanted you to learn how to be a better person.” How many people are killed by the flood that I did spot in the trailer? I really don’t want to find out.

* Although most people forget the bit at the end where Noah gets drunk, and one of his sons is forever cursed for seeing his drunken father’s tadger.

** Because it – the promise that “I’m not going to kill you all ever again” – was made before the Tower of Babel incident, when God scrambles everyone’s brains and makes possible the Tourist Phrasebook – so, as everyone was rather samey, there wasn’t any one Chosen People. And he never does kill everyone all together again – after that, he limits himself to smiting one city at a time.

*** And not in the good way

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A failure of logic

In which we don’t always believe in belief


You often hear people saying something along these lines:

Something horrible happened, but we survived. And then something else horrible happened, but it could have been so much worse. Someone Up Above must be looking after us, because we got through it.

My mother has said it a lot in the past, but she’s not the only one. And every time I think: hang on a minute. If someone has their eye on you, if someone saved you, why did it happen to start with? Why did you need to be saved? If someone’s looking after you, how did something so horrible happen?

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The churchgoer in the street

In which major international issues do not disturb the local parish


Given that today, in the news, there’s rather a lot about the slowly-growing and now likely forthcoming schism in the Anglican church, I thought I’d ask the average churchgoer in the street about it. Well, the average churchgoer who is also my mother, at any rate. She’s a fairly average “active” Anglican, though. She’s white, middle-class, female, edging towards elderly, lives in a commuter village, and goes to church every week. She’s a Sunday School teacher, has organised the parish’s Christian Aid collections, sings in an ecumenical Christian parish singing group,* and generally is far more active and puts more effort into religion than most churchgoers, never mind the huge percentage of Anglicans who tick the relevant box on the census but never cross the threshold of a church for anything other than weddings and funerals.

So, I said: “what are you going to do if the church splits in two? Is anyone going to leave St. Nick’s over it?”

Her answer: “What split?”

“You know, the one that has been rumbling for the last few years.” I tried to explain how the rather homophobic Peter Akinola is a figurehead for a group of largely-American homophobic conservatives, who do not like the Archbishop of Canterbury and have been threatening for some time to lead a schism, sometimes in the hope of bending him to their will, sometimes apparently meaning it.

“I’ve not heard about any of that,” she said. “We don’t talk about that sort of thing at church. That’s nothing to do with us.”

So, there you have it. I don’t think The Mother is particularly ignorant. As I said above, I think she’s probably less ignorant than your average churchgoer is likely to be, because she takes a very active interest. But to her, the politicking of a motley band of Americans and Africans isn’t important. An earthquake in Lambeth Palace isn’t important. The Second Coming occurring in the Lady Chapel of our parish church probably wouldn’t disturb most of the congregation, so long as it didn’t disrupt the Mothers Union or the bellringers, and everyone still got a cup of tea (or coffee) after the Sunday communion service. For your average English Anglican, dogma is something you recite during the service without really listening or understanding. It certainly isn’t something to get all argumentative about.

* where “ecumenical” means “Anglican and Methodist”, because they’re the only churches in the village. I’m not sure what they’ll do if those often-suggested plans to subsume British Methodists within Anglicanism ever make much progress.

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