The Church: ‘appalling, yet wonderful'

by
08 September 2009

Diarmaid MacCulloch has just completed a sweeping history of Christianity. William Whyte dragged him from his indexing to talk about it

Arrow points the way: the Revd Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch — a still from his forthcoming BBC4 series

Arrow points the way: the Revd Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch — a still from his forthcoming BBC4 series

DIARMAID MacCulloch and the Church Times go back a long way.

As a sixth-former, in fact, he won a literary competition in these very pages, receiving two whole guineas for his fantasy of the Isle of Man’s unilateral declaration of indepen­dence. He still reads the paper, which he sees as embodying “the best of the Church of England: humorous, detached, interested in getting to the truth”. Yet the Church Times can also infuriate him. It is now the only publication that he still “regularly flings down with an oath”, furious with the news or with the letters page.

So it was with some trepidation that I went to interview him about his new book, A History of Chris­tianity. Weighing in at rather more than 1200 pages, this is truly a magnum opus — “the distillation of a lifetime’s work”, as he puts it.

Global in scale and panoramic in vision, the volume takes the reader from Homer to Hans Urs von Balthasar, and from the mega-churches of contemporary America to the forgotten remnants of seventh-century Christian commu­nities in China. More than this, it is to be accompanied by a BBC series that has taken Professor MacCulloch to no fewer than 21 countries over the past four years.

Little wonder that, having fin­ished the project, he put his suitcase back in the wardrobe and shut the door; nor that, when I saw him — still halfway through compiling an enormous index — he was a little tired.

None the less, he is still enthusi-a­stic about his adventures: a journey that took him to tea with the Mia­physite Patriarch of Antioch, and which brought him face to face with protesting Buddhist grannies in China, furious at the preferential treatment granted to Christian re­mains in the People’s Republic. It has been a work of love as well as a work of scholarship.

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Now Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford, Dr Mac­Culloch was brought up in a Suffolk parson­age, and the book is, as he put it, “history from the rectory window”. This does not mean that it is a cosy read. He is unsparing on the Church’s failings, and often sardonic about its pretensions. He is clear about the bad as well as the good in the story he has to tell.

He does not spare some people’s heroes — including Cardinal Newman, whom he sees as the “most overrated theologian of the 19th century: devious, slippery, manipulative”. But the work has, in his words, “made me realise how fond I am of the Church” — even if he is fond of it for reasons that may surprise his readers.

He does not spare some people’s heroes — including Cardinal Newman, whom he sees as the “most overrated theologian of the 19th century: devious, slippery, manipulative”. But the work has, in his words, “made me realise how fond I am of the Church” — even if he is fond of it for reasons that may surprise his readers.

THE first great surprise of the book is that it tells the story of three — rather than two — thousand years of Chris­tianity. More than that, it begins with the history of ancient Greece rather than an account of the Old Testament. “It has to,” Professor MacCulloch maintains, “because the New Testament is in Greek — because Christianity begins in a Greek culture.”

Unless you understand the “con­stant dialogue” between an “earthy, world-affirming Judaism” and a Hellenistic world-view, which seeks an unchanging, unearthly spiritual beauty, you cannot understand Christianity at all.

The founders of Christianity — Jesus and St Paul — “jump in-between these two cultures”. The result is a religion that, from the first, offered a host of different, and even conflicting, accounts of God, of goodness, of human nature, and of salvation.

The second surprise is just how global the book manages to be. In this story, the Western Church — the Latin Church of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism — is only one part of the puzzle. Indeed, that dominating and divisive figure St Augustine, the single most impor­t­ant theologian the West has ever produced, is deliberately introduced very late — some 300 pages in — “to emphasise how unimportant he is to most of the Church”.

For the Orthodox, he is irrele­vant. For the Eastern Churches, he is simply unknown. It is just a single example — one of many — but nevertheless a significant one. It highlights the effect of taking a truly worldwide perspective: a view that makes many of the preoccupations of the Western Church seem provincial — even parochial.

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That, in a way, is the key message of this book. Rather than revealing a clear, unified, and coherent Chris­tianity, this is an account of the many different Churches and creeds that the Christian faith inspired. Professor MacCulloch’s account of Christianity shows it as a debate from the beginning: a constant argument between Greek thought and Jewish ideas, between hierarchy and equality, order and inspiration. Indeed, for him, “the history of Christianity is a history of division.”

This is not, however, a problem for Professor MacCulloch — much less something to be mourned. He rejects what he calls a “neurotic obsession with unity” in favour of a celebration of diversity: a history that reveals the ways in which the Church has changed and accommo­dated itself to historical circum­stance.

Small wonder, then, that Profes­sor MacCulloch is so dismissive of those who have tried to enforce unity, and especially doctrinal uni­formity. “Confessional purity”, he argues, “is always a chimera.” Take, for example, the Council of Chal­cedon — the critical meeting of 451 which defined the two natures of Christ. This was, he argues, “a catastrophe, a disaster”. As he points out, fully two-thirds of the Church refused to sign up to it, and the ensuing battles ensured that the unity it was in­tended to enforce was never — and could never be — achieved.

Small wonder, then, that Profes­sor MacCulloch is so dismissive of those who have tried to enforce unity, and especially doctrinal uni­formity. “Confessional purity”, he argues, “is always a chimera.” Take, for example, the Council of Chal­cedon — the critical meeting of 451 which defined the two natures of Christ. This was, he argues, “a catastrophe, a disaster”. As he points out, fully two-thirds of the Church refused to sign up to it, and the ensuing battles ensured that the unity it was in­tended to enforce was never — and could never be — achieved.

IT IS for that reason, too, that he is so keen to celebrate the Church of England — at least as it evolved from the 18th century onwards. “Born of an almost risible historical accident”, Anglicanism can never claim to be a confessional Church: it is a compromise between different theological positions.

Nor is it a centralised Church, capable of enforcing dogma or dis­cipline: there has always been room within it for the independent- or simply bloody-minded, people such as his father, “a man with a high view of episcopacy, but a low view of bishops”.

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In that sense, for Professor Mac­Culloch, the Church of England is a picture of the “Church as it might have been” — de-centred, decent, and dispassionate: able to deal with division; able to stand back and reflect on the complexities of faith; able, too, to laugh at them. That is why Robert Runcie remains his hero, and why he is pictured in the book, umpiring a cricket match at the Lambeth Conference of 1988. Perhaps prophetically, the teams are Australia versus the rest of the world.

In that sense, for Professor Mac­Culloch, the Church of England is a picture of the “Church as it might have been” — de-centred, decent, and dispassionate: able to deal with division; able to stand back and reflect on the complexities of faith; able, too, to laugh at them. That is why Robert Runcie remains his hero, and why he is pictured in the book, umpiring a cricket match at the Lambeth Conference of 1988. Perhaps prophetically, the teams are Australia versus the rest of the world.

ANGLICANISM is not the only Church that could have been — there are many others. For this is a history of failure as well as of suc­cess. As Professor MacCulloch shows, the difference between the two was often marginal, and almost always unpredictable. An accident of history — the rise of Islam — de­nuded Christianity of the Eastern Church, which was at one point by far the largest and most successful branch of Christendom. Yet, if it was an accident, it was a monu­mental one: “a tragedy”, in Professor Mac­Culloch’s view.

It ensured that the dogma-driven, heretic-hunting, Augustinian West triumphed, while the more fluid, less narrow Eastern Churches de­clined. Worst of all, it enabled the “Bishop of Rome to get ideas above his status”.

The decline of the Orthodox Church only made matters worse. Not only was the pope left unchal­lenged, but the papacy became an instrument for enforcing a spurious and unworkable unanimity on the Western Church. Professor Mac­Culloch shows how unlikely this outcome was — and he is also clear how unhappy he is that “any bishop should falsely claim to be head of the Church”. With no single Church, no one person can claim any such thing.

This account, which stresses dis­cord rather than harmony, accident rather than providence, and which makes the compromises and “con­flictedness” of Anglicanism its ideal, is bound to upset some. For Profes­sor MacCulloch, however, that is the wonder of history. He seeks to cap­ture “the ability of people to behave appallingly and wonderfully at the same time”, and the “one operative law in history — the law of uninten­ded consequences”.

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When asked where Providence fits into this account, he is clear. “Any attempt to show that history works like that strikes me as trivial and rather silly. If there is a God, he’s not like that.” God does not punish the Eastern Church for disunity by des­troying it, nor does he reward ortho­doxy with success. The idea that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church is comprehensively dis­proved by the experience of Japanese Christians in the 16th century. Martyrs were killed — but so was the Church. “The Holy Spirit is the spirit of ran­domness, the spirit of the unexpec­ted,” Professor MacCul­loch con­cludes. That is what works in the Church, especially in upsetting con­ventions and frustrating hierar­chies.

When asked where Providence fits into this account, he is clear. “Any attempt to show that history works like that strikes me as trivial and rather silly. If there is a God, he’s not like that.” God does not punish the Eastern Church for disunity by des­troying it, nor does he reward ortho­doxy with success. The idea that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church is comprehensively dis­proved by the experience of Japanese Christians in the 16th century. Martyrs were killed — but so was the Church. “The Holy Spirit is the spirit of ran­domness, the spirit of the unexpec­ted,” Professor MacCul­loch con­cludes. That is what works in the Church, especially in upsetting con­ventions and frustrating hierar­chies.

THAT is why Professor Mac­Culloch is so surprisingly optimistic about the future of the Church — and why this is just a history of the first rather than the last 3000 years. In his book, order is always ultimately subverted, with this generation’s heresy becoming the next generation’s orthodoxy. The present difficulties faced by Anglicanism, he asserts, are “just not very important” when viewed historically.

They are the equivalent to the battles over biblical interpretation faced by Bishop Colenso in the 19th century. He lost at the time, but, in the end, his liberal views won out — “just as the liberals will win” in the struggle to affirm homosexual relationships.

Indeed, Professor MacCulloch is struck by the irony of the Church’s divisions over sexuality. Recalling that Pope Gregory’s decision to send a mission to England was inspired by his encounter with attractive Anglo-Saxon slave-boys, he says he is amused by the fact that a Church founded “on a case of paedophilia” should now be so obsessed with sex between consenting adults.

The remarkable capacity of the Church to reinvent itself also struck him when he was in China, where he was amazed to see how sympath­etic the Communist Party has be­come towards it. President Jiang Zemin’s 2002 declaration that he hoped his legacy would be the re­cognition of Christianity as the official religion of China is certainly striking — even if it was not sin­cerely meant.

The elderly Buddhist protesters whom Professor MacCulloch met certainly believe that, in comparison with the Christians, they are poorly treated; and the number of adher­ents to the Church is growing. In fact, the combined total of Indian and Chinese Christians is now est­imated at 120 million: enough to count as the world’s fifth biggest religion. Perhaps, Professor Mac­Culloch wonders, a truly Eastern Church is once again possible.What this would do to Christianity as a whole remains to be seen.

REFLECTING on the past four years, Professor MacCulloch regrets his unplayed piano and his unvisited friends. He is exhausted — but also exhilarated. The book has taken him all over the world, and introduced him to a thousand new and fascinating ideas. But it has also refocused his atten­tion on old ones.

Not least, he is pleased to have returned to the biblical story that he was taught at home and at school and studied with Bob Morgan and Paul Joyce at Cuddesdon. Re-reading the Sermon on the Mount, he re-encountered Jesus as a blood-and-thunder preacher, full of hell-fire, full of paradox, full of wit. “A religion which has that sort of founder”, Professor MacCulloch concludes, “can’t be all bad.”

No book as long as this, nor story as complicated as this, can have a simple conclusion. But Professor MacCulloch is clear about his own message: “Avoid dogma. Avoid thinking life is simple. Above all, avoid trying to make people into versions of yourself.”

And having delivered himself of this blockbuster book and a tele­vision series — what next?

Rushing away, to get back to his index, Professor MacCulloch pauses and says: “I’ve been asked to give the Gifford Lectures at Edin­burgh. I think I’ll give them on silence.”

A History of Christianity: The first three thousand years (Allen Lane, £30 (CT Bookshop £27) is published on 24 September.

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