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Faith and identity: Sketches of heavenly things

by
03 December 2021

Andrew Rumsey reflects on what history and the landscape can teach about faith and identity

Andrew Rumsey

The amended plaque in St Peter’s, Dorchester

The amended plaque in St Peter’s, Dorchester

Cardboard cover 

THE sins of England are written on our chancel walls, marbled and memorialised. At St Peter’s, Dorchester — like most parish churches, a crowding gallery of monuments — I am standing beneath one large but fairly inconspicuous plaque to John Gordon, a plantation owner who died here in 1774, aged 46.

Masking-taped beneath this information is a temporary panel of cardboard explaining that “The remainder of this memorial has been covered as it commemorates actions and uses language that are totally unacceptable to us today.”

When revealed, the inscription goes on to describe how Gordon “was signally instrumental in quelling a dangerous rebellion” in Jamaica — among slaves who “finally yielded to their confidence in his humanity”.

What that action indicated about Gordon’s confidence in theirs is left unwritten. It is an extraordinary epitaph, under which parishioners have murmured their prayers for two-and-a-half centuries.

The parochial church council has periodically considered how best to address this affront, until, lately, the memorial has become an understandable focus for regional concern and media interest after being highlighted by Topple the Racists, the campaigning group that emerged from the actions of Bristolians in forcibly removing the statue of the slaver Edward Colston.

 

THERE can be a blazing grace in protest, enabling us to see what we have been blind to for too long. St Peter’s has responded with exemplary good sense, researching the history of the Jamaican revolt thus recorded and drawing on pre-existing good relations with West Dorset Multicultural Network and the County Museum.

Conveniently situated next door, the latter will in due course be receiving the Gordon plaque for permanent display, not least because of its singular potential for demonstrating how enslaved people were agents of their own freedom, not simply “given” this by enlightened campaigners.

In the questionable way we allow cultural figures posthumously to colonise the landscape, this is Thomas Hardy Country. Indeed, a youthful Hardy was assistant architect for the refurbishment of St Peter’s (as another sign here indicates), and that conjuror of lost Edens is himself memorialised in stone at nearby Stinsford churchyard, where pamphlets from the Thomas Hardy Society mingle with pew sheets on the welcome desk.

In her insightful study, Dorset’s Hidden Histories, Louisa Adjoa Parker observes that Dorset has singular potency as an icon of England, and so might seem an unlikely county in which to consider black history.

If, however, Englishness is to be conceived more inclusively than hitherto, then it is the very place to address this: not simply to step over the artificial demarcation of minority ethnic communities as “urban”, but because the countryside is where love of the land is owned, unabashed. And unless all in that land have a route into loving it, alienation is the inevitable end.

 

THE Church of England, being so entombed in our country’s past, has a unique custodial role to play in curating such contested heritage — as its recent and welcome advice on the theme acknowledges — and in cultivating a patriotism that, as the proximate outworking of our love for the world, acknowledges the global reach of every local affection.

By virtue of what Anglicans believe about eternity (that it has a more powerful magnetism than time), and about redemption (that we are not captive to past transgressions), they have at their disposal a singularly useful set of conceptual tools. In particular, these imply that the rural past does not need to be quite so sacred, so unimpeachable.

However unlikely it may sound, the problem of Britain’s heritage is an eschatological one; for we remain enchanted by a vanished kingdom, not the coming one. The village church is rightly perceived as hallowing each plot, but rarely because of (or in preparation for) what lies ahead.

Consecration, furthermore, is no kind of indulgence — not exemption from scrutiny — but the sacrifice of torn and imperfect things to God, in whose hands those fragments may be restored.

Loving the land is a pastoral cure. The trouble is that idylls are so easily idolised. Yet the admission of “hidden histories” into the national story allows for a loyalty that may be balanced (rather than cancelled out) by the record of our wrongs, to which the countryside often bears a kind of protected witness.

 

IN HER recent and provocative study, Green Unpleasant Land, Corinne Fowler unpicks some of that tapestry, noting how rural England has ever been “a terrain of inequalities”, with many of its Arcadian treasures afforded through monumental folly and injustice.

This does not mean they are not also transportingly beautiful and worthy of conservation, but does suggest that our approach to national remembrance should be more akin to the kind we encourage when reviewing our personal past — a blend, in other words, of justifiable pride, aching regret, and, in maturity (one trusts), understanding, and acceptance of the whole.

Above all, as a nation we should love others as we love ourselves. Just behind St Peter’s in Dorchester is the prison, recently closed, where Robert Wedderburn — activist, Unitarian minister and the most prolific black writer in Britain at the start of the 19th century — was jailed for two years on a charge of seditious blasphemy.

His supposed heresies included a description of Jesus Christ as “a genuine radical reformer”. Wedderburn was visited here by William Wilberforce and upon release composed his work The Horrors of Slavery, informed by early experiences in Jamaica. Each generation is at liberty to interrogate those who came before (especially those with power and control), bringing them to a time of trial.

The tougher existential question is what sentencing power to give the current one, which again concerns the ultimate ends of things. In the Christian schema, earth’s last judgement was passed, once and for all, in the events surrounding Jesus Christ — especially those of his Passion and resurrection.

 

THE historic gospel is thus also our Domesday Book, and for this reason Christians ought not capitulate to the annihilating myth of an ultimate or absolute present — but, rather, one that is entirely contingent upon both past and future, and whose claims are responsible to both. Racial justice, like all other kinds, is demanded by our common destiny — that is, a new humanity, wrought (Christians believe) at the cross.

This does not downplay the “urgency of now” — as the Church of England’s report From Lament to Action frames the case — but means that justice is never captive to the present.

Instead it summons us like a voice through fog, drawing us on to see its emerging visage. That the appearance of righteousness has altered so strikingly through time — and will do so again — urges humility in all pronouncements upon our forebears, in light of our own eventual reckoning.

Dorchester’s street map forms a fallen stick man. It being a glorious afternoon, I explore further up the vertebrae of London Road to conclude my visit with a swift circuit of Poundbury, the Prince of Wales’s extravagant essay on the built environment.

A screen of sunlight and serene sky enhances the impression of this suburb as a kind of simulacrum — a faux-accidental collision of Victorian terrace, Georgian parade, and rustic cosiness. Impossibly pristine, Poundbury is a full-scale mock-up, flanked by site hoardings and poised JCBs, ready to confect more samples from the pattern book of English archetypes.

It should be scandalous to like it, but I do — and suspect that I could all too easily keep up the pretence. There is no parish church, tellingly — the one essential component of the rural scene that could not be admitted. A pity, as this could orientate the place a little, even offer a truer perspective on our heritage — and where this has been weighed in the balance and found wanting.

 

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Blowing roses 

OURS is a life lived in response. Response, primarily, to our real situation and what it calls for, elicits from us. Existence stands at the door, knocking, and the truly life-changing moments (being the sphere of our greatest freedom and potential influence) are those in which we decide how to answer. Even when overcome or closed down by circumstance, this much remains open to us.

istockBlowing roses beneath a window

Consequently, those who shape life most profoundly — who, for good or ill, end up forging the reality the rest of us reckon with — tend to be those who are most responsive, or responsible, who, like Moses before the bush, consider themselves addressed by the fearful brilliance of what is.

Attention to each particular locus is thus the key to a creative life. I read that John Constable, recalling the first stirrings of an artistic vocation, wrote how “the trees seemed to ask me to try and do something like them” — his experience, in other words, required some kind of reply.

What we name as self-possession is really our possession of just this: our own unique answer — and, in realising this liberty, each of us makes the world anew.

That recognition, taken one way, can lead towards the exaltation of genius advocated by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his renowned essay “Self-Reliance”: “Insist on yourself: never imitate.” The best part of his case concerns human timidity before the present moment.

We are, he repines, “ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God today. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. Before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts . . .”

 

WHAT he gains in elevating personal agency Emerson loses, however, by painting himself into an individualist corner, where everyone is an island. “Is not a man better than a town?” he concludes, in humourless antithesis to John Donne.

The genius of Christ (which Emerson admits among those uniquely able to command a cause) points another way. What makes all that came before him mere “sketches of the heavenly things”, as the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it, is really the nature, the quality of his response — as though God himself were owning the questions of existence that spring from its compound of barbarism and beauty.

The Passion has captivated art, partly because, with every tightening fetter, Christ retains this capacity for responding as we might, but cannot. He is life’s advocate, even in the rasps of Golgotha.

Like Constable’s tree, the cross thus arrests our attention, that we may approximate something like it. The resurrection is another matter entirely — beyond our palette, reason, or reply. And not an answer, as such — more a dazzling, dumbfounding rejoinder: What will you make of this?

 

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Ferocious apocalyptic 

PARSNIPS, carrots, and beans are carved into the memorial stone for Gerrard Winstanley, which stands aloof from the circuiting traffic: a radical spade jammed into private soil.

AlamySection of the Wansdyke in Wiltshire

As notices at every entrance remind you, the 964 gated acres of St George’s Hill in Surrey are emphatically not common ground, even if, for a few weeks in 1649, they were proclaimed as such, when Winstanley and his small band of Diggers broke the earth as a prophetic sign of the coming, kingless kingdom.

Today, though, I was searching for the roots of an idea — the radical patriotism of the English Revolution. For anyone trying to reconceive in our own day the Church’s national role, the Interregnum following the death of Charles I is a uniquely fertile field — being the only time when the uninterrupted course of Church and State (with its divine underwriting of monarchy and problematic links with landed power) was abruptly halted.

In this hothouse of ideologies, Gerrard Winstanley flourished briefly, though fruitfully: setting a few dozen friends “to plant and manure the wasteland” on St George’s Hill and pamphleting this tiny rebellion “to all the powers of the world” as a reclamation of the earth from those who, for centuries, had held it in bondage as private property.

Writing in a manual, vernacular style that sparked like a shovel on flint, his intention was the peaceful overthrow of those encroaching acts of enclosure that were already transforming the national landscape and economy.

Strikingly, Winstanley’s polemic is soaked in scriptural analogy, his indignation at the tyranny of landlords entirely grounded in the Word of God, which bisected England and found it maggoty at the core:

“I tell thee, thou England, thy battles now are all spiritual, dragon against the Lamb, and the power of love against the power of covetousness.”

This ferocious apocalyptic was directed as much at the state Church (which had in Winstanley’s lifetime reached the apogee of its worldly power under William Laud) as at the landed gentry. For Winstanley, hedges and church walls were all of a piece, indicating the sinful desire to control what ought to be a common treasury. The pursuit of property brought about a fall in man, infecting religious practice wherever it tried to annex the truth.

In one of his most compelling tracts, addressed to “all the several societies of people called churches”, he attacks a tendency that is perhaps just as damaging today: “For all your particular churches are like the enclosures of land which hedges in some to be the heirs of life, and hedges out others. But . . . you shall find that Christ who is the universal power of love is not confined to parties or private chambers; but he is the power of life, light and truth now rising up to fill the earth with himself.”

A few weeks after visiting St George’s Hill — where Winstanley’s vegetables adorn his monument like a mock coat of arms — I attended a seminar on land reform at Winchester University’s Centre for English Identity and Politics. Some one per cent of the population, we learned, owns half the territory, of which only ten per cent is open-access.

It has long been an uneasy trope of national life that, as Defoe wrote, “no one has any right to live in England but those to whom England belongs.” But when householders own just five per cent of the country and the Church Commissioners retain a 105,000-acre property portfolio, the world may need turning upside down once more — if only for the lesson that possession of the land can lead, unless we’re careful, to the forfeit of our soul.

 

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Serviceable borders 

THE earth has been in a cold kiln overnight. Along the path to the West Woods, the mud clots hard and gives a rough crumble topping to the fields, furred this morning with a light snowfall. A few minute flakes still bob about like midges, or dust motes.

Andrew RumseyMonument to Gerrard Winstanley at St George’s Hill

These thousand acres are an exiled section of the Savernake Forest, which once extended its shade right across this corner of the county. Unlike the twisted oaks of the Savernake, however, the West Woods have leaner lines, harvested when the Forestry Commission took control in the 1930s. Mostly planted to beech and conifer, the view here in winter is striking, striated — a bar chart of sheer vertical growth. I trudge among the adolescent trees, feeling a twinge in my joints.

In July last year, the West Woods were raised from anonymity by being declared as the original location for the sarsen megaliths of Stonehenge. The extraction of these easily workable rocks continued here until 1939 and the advent of cheap concrete, thus ending a 5000-year-old industry.

There are repairs to Windsor Castle and kerbstones in Swindon that employ West Woods sarsens, and they still rubble its surface. One or two are stood upright — a transfiguration that sets them apart, to pique archaeological interest.

The Wansdyke cuts through here also, like the seams of an old wound. Exploring the eastern boundary known as Foxbury Copse, I found myself standing inside it a couple of days ago. Between the lips of a leafy ditch I was, I realised, on the verge of two kingdoms whose ancient division we still don’t understand. Romano-British or Anglo Saxon, the Wansdyke is a phantom boundary, which one can walk straight through, without resistance.

 

TO REMAIN serviceable, borders need continual maintenance: every untended rivalry will soften over time unless we continue to dig. Because nature has a way of rounding the ridges, performing its natural bridgework of decomposition, we must allow the land to do its job. Being fissiparous and self-obsessed, we forget that it is the essential unifying thing — not only in a universal sense, but in the real particularities of local belonging.

What eventually brings peace between warring tribes is either their weariness with conflict, or — more durably — a narrative that recognises common ground. No lasting culture can grow without that footing.

“To be rooted”, wrote Simone Weil (after her country had been felled by the Nazis in 1940), “is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul.”

And the growing of roots, she went on to explore, demands that people find a good way of loving the land: of reckoning with patriotism, in other words — not as a monolithic thing, manipulated by the state (“a cold concern, which cannot inspire love”), but the organic local affection that grows as easily as a self-seeded sapling.

Fascism mechanised this loyalty, pressing it into terrible national service. Yet for all its blood-and-soil posturing, the myth that we are bound first by ethnicity is a peculiarly rootless creed. Peculiarly modern, too; for the arrogance of modernity was to override local attachment and assume that space-time could be conquered in abstract.

The British in their imperial phase were especially prone to this conceit, whereby the remote scoring of lines on supposedly uncharted territory was still wreaking its chaotic voodoo across the globe generations after.

Every technological advance is, in some way, a manipulation of space — the written word included. As Weil observed in The Need for Roots: “One cannot cut out from the continuity of space and time an event as it were like an atom; but the inadequacy of human language obliges one to talk as though one could.”

Our current identity-based divisions are so sharply fragmented in part because we cannot (yet, perhaps) cope with social media’s extreme dislocation. Any mosaic we form from the shards of digital culture must ease them — and us — back into place.

 

Dr Andrew Rumsey is the Bishop of Ramsbury. These are edited extracts from English Grounds: A pastoral journal, published today by SCM Press (Church Times Bookshop special price £15.99); 978-0-334-06114-4.

Listen to an interview with Dr Rumsey on the Church Times Podcast.

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