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Press: Cases for and against Christian civilisation

20 May 2022


THERE were two magazine pieces last week which made the case for Christian civilisation; both were essays on great poets.

In Harper’s Magazine, Alan Jacobs considered Auden’s poetry. The whole thing is worth reading, but the crux is the rehabilitation of his later American, Christian poetry: “In [the Fifties] Auden still writes erotic poems, but typically now in a comic mode, and he is inclined to think of desire less as an impulse of the body than as an impulse of a rebellious will. In ‘The Love Feast’ he depicts a party as a parody of a gathering of early Christians, one populated by people devoted to ‘the gospel / Of the radio-phonograph.’ He ends by channeling a famous line by St Augustine:

But that Miss Number in the corner
Playing hard to get. . .
I am sorry I’m not sorry. . .
Make me chaste, Lord, but not yet.

“But the body itself he now tends to see less as an engine of sexual desire than a thing with simpler needs, needs shared with other organisms. . . Because we are part of nature, natural imagery can therefore be illuminating: the ‘granite wastes’ speak to ‘Saints-to-be,’ the ‘clays and gravels’ offer their services to ‘Intendant Caesars,’ and as for a limestone landscape:

If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water.

“Even the stones speak to us and of us, because before we are sinners we are creatures.”

IN THE NEW STATESMAN, Rowan Williams reviewed a biography of John Donne, and a strange similarity appears: “Donne’s world is, in all sorts of important respects, medieval — meaning quite the opposite of what that word so often evokes in popular discourse now. It is a place in which connections are everywhere, in which the material stuff of the world is always ‘speaking’ and pointing and cross-referencing. In a world like this, you can take enormous risks in playing with concepts and images, because of a confidence that things will join up sooner or later; you can launch out from a trapeze, knowing that someone or something else’s trajectory will bring them to a place where they can catch you. . .

“Being aware of mortality does not divert your attention from the passing world but challenges you to think of the depth of what you experience, what you will lose, and — for Donne and his fellow Christians — what you will rediscover in some unrecognisably enriched mode.”

THERE was also a subtle, and generous, obituary in The Times of John Wilkins, a former editor of The Tablet (Obituary, 13 May), which did much to capture his extraordinary ability to get the best out of contributors, whom he paid peanuts and whose copy he butchered, while still retaining their admiration and affection.

THE news, however, made the case against Christian civilisation.

The row at Christ Church, Oxford, continued (Press, 13 May) — and is clearly going to continue — in ways that do no credit to anyone involved. The exchanges in the press are now the ecclesiastical equivalent of the excruciating “Wagatha Christie” trial, even if the trial will probably make less for the lawyers than Christ Church — a charity, remember — has spent on getting rid of Martyn Percy.

About going to the press, Marina Hyde, the Guardian wit, had some excellent advice: “my cast-iron advice to any friend who asks is always: don’t. The experience is utterly asymmetric. It will be an infinitely bigger deal to you than it will be to them, and more often than not turns out in unfortunate ways you didn’t predict.

“What I haven’t said is that this advice was really inspired by some once given to me by a very good lawyer and very good friend. And that advice was: never litigate. Never, never litigate, unless it is absolutely unavoidable.”

One copy of this should have been posted to the Bishop of Oxford’s press team, for sabre-rattling the blogger Cranmer with a libel suit for calling Dr Croft a safeguarding risk in a headline (the Cranmer blog has since removed the offending line). You can see why, but Ms Hyde applies.

Another copy of Ms Hyde’s article should be sent to whoever it was on the Percy team who put out a nasty and mean-spirited counter to that Alannah Jeune interview in The Daily Telegraph. Ms Jeune, a verger at Christ Church, accused Professor Percy of sexual harassment by stroking her hair, which he denies.

Dame Sarah Asplin found that Ms Jeune’s case was credible, but impossible to prove, as was the Dean’s denial (News, 4 June 2021). No one would have gathered this from the statement that his campaign put out after her interview, which employed very similar innuendo against her to one that had been deployed by the college against the Dean.

I’ll end with Auden, too: “I and the public know What all schoolchildren learn, Those to whom evil is done Do evil in return.”

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