Embryo Parson has written an interesting article in his blog: Catholicism, Liturgy and Manliness. He wrote in kind terms about me and my writings at a theological level. He does give something to reflect on in terms of Muscular Christianity. It is easy to come up with caricatures of the idea through bogus military orders in the Confederate states in America and modern cowboys with their small artillery in wait for some future conflict. The other temptation is the Nietzschian archetype as adopted by the National Socialists in Germany to exemplify their “master race”. Likening anything to Nazism is called Godwin’s Law, the reductio ad hitlerum. My usual error is to presume too much from my readers.
One of the best studies of Nazism is William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich – A History of Nazi Germany. There are other works that go into the methods Hitler, Göbbels and others used to manipulate the masses, notably through Nordic mythology and pagan religion. Many of the archetypes go back to classical Rome and Greece (think of Hercules) and anti-semitism along with anti- just about everything else was the founding myth. I am old enough to remember some awful things said about Jewish people at school in the 1970’s and how they were perverse and self-enriching. Persecution of the Jews goes back a very long way, and that feeling heavily pervaded Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century. Hitler invented nothing. He grabbed onto all the most useful archetypes in order to promote his ideology and his own power. Hitler himself was no Aryan super-man, but a sick and mentally ill drug addict. If anything, I don’t compare things to Nazism, but to the less fortunate characteristics of human nature over many centuries. My “error” is not guilt by association or comparison with Nazi ideology, but things in our own times being built on the same underlying philosophy.
I have to admit that I have misunderstood the term Muscular Christianity (Anglicanism), thinking of it as an analogy of the ideology of force and being the strongest. Muscular Christianity has a narrower and less analogical meaning than I thought. Embryo Parson confirms this in terms very similar to the Wikipedia article. It is everything I am not: competitive and devoted to team sports! As I mentioned in an earlier article, I love being outdoors and active – especially sailing, cycling and bivouacking. I was not a Scout as a boy, but I have great admiration for Baden-Powell’s idea – learning to manage for oneself with very basic means. Scouting also builds a sense of community life and solidarity, much less of one team against the other (unless they actually put on a game of football). I went to an English public school and found much of what is described as “Muscular Christianity”.
The public school in England is not its namesake in America. It is a private establishment, usually having been founded many centuries ago, and elitist by definition. The best-known caricature in the cinema is Linsay Anderson’s If… This version is in English but with Portuguese subtitles.
The film is a caricature and there is a vicious thrashing of three boys in the gym by prefects, the reason for my title. There are plenty of pompous platitudes from the chaplain, headmaster, housemaster and “whips” (prefects or monitors). The film’s producer clearly had experience of public school, and the various themes are based on the life I knew, boarding and sleeping in a dormitory, harsh commands, discipline, academic classes – and above all sport and chapel. We actually had a showing of this film at school! Anderson exaggerated these themes, given under titles during the film. My own school (St Peter’s in York) had reformed many of these aspects in the 1960’s. In my day, the old whacking stool in the gym still existed, but it was no longer used – a relic like the axe and block at the Tower of London.
I only ever heard about a punishment by caning on two occasions, and it wasn’t on me. I got the slipper many times as a small boy at prep school, but not at St Peter’s. They used to say that the British Empire was founded on a liberal use of the cane, always made of top-quality rattan! The cane leaves red welts on the buttocks that often bleed a little, taking some days to becomes less painful and a week or two to heal. You had to take it like a man! I honestly think that the abolition of corporal punishment was a good thing, as it would “break a good man’s heart and make a bad man even worse” as the British Navy said at the end of the eighteenth century about flogging with the cat o’ nine tails. Modern educators have more enlightened notions about character formation and the maturing process than those who believed in repression, pain and fear.
We had sports every day after classes in the afternoon, except Tuesday when we had CCF (Combined Cadet Force), Wednesday when we had the afternoon off and permission to go into town (properly dressed) and Sundays. The default sports were Rugby and Cricket, but we had more choice after a year, so I went more for swimming, rowing and shooting. That satisfied what was required.
Public school religion is very particular, and in an Anglican public school is altogether the kind of religion I described a couple of days ago: God the Policeman! “Manly” religion hasn’t much time for prayer or mystical experience! At school, anyone too interested in religion or spirituality would be severely mocked. Most boys boasted of being atheists and just going through the motions. Our chaplain was Rev. Noel Kemp-Welch, a protégé of Dean Milner White and a graduate of Kings College, Cambridge. The boys called him Bonehead on account of his baldness or Buddha. He was a kind and compassionate man, and a boy with difficulties could go and talk with him. His Confirmation classes were totally devoid of Christian doctrine, and more concerned with ghost stories and philanthropy. The chaplain in Anderson’s If is a pompous man, proud of his experience as a military chaplain and gung-ho, but fundamentally cowardly and weak at the point of a gun. Oh yes, in the 1970’s, school religion seemed to me exhausted and having outlived its time. Only the organ and the choir meant anything to me, together with a desire to know something about God and a spiritual view of life. You would find that more in parish churches outside school than in Chapel. I joined the choir at Holy Trinity, Micklegate – but the Rector was an affable Freemason and an exemplary liberal in the meaning of Christianity without religion! It would take me many years to try to get things sorted out…
Christianity is conveyed by any number of vectors. In the ancient world, it took root by transforming paganism in the western world. It worked just as well in India and China with properly trained missionaries. In the modern world, it is no less in need of some kind of vehicle. That of Muscular Christianity is sport, competition and the cult of the masculine body. Personally, I was more convinced through music and art, and only then was I the least bit curious about the Bible, prayer and knowing more about God. This kind of diversity needs to be respected, and I found it existing sufficiently at my alma mater to have made some impression on me.
We don’t have everything right nowadays with the education of children (unless you have pots of money to spend for elitist schools). What is usually called liberalism is a morass of platitudes founded on various forms of deconstructionist ideology such as the Frankfurt School version of Marxism. What I call Liberalism is what was expressed in the wake of the French Revolution in the first half of the nineteenth century, something very different. Certainly we have to assume our lives as human beings, aware of our mortality.
Is it not possible to be a man without being self-conscious about it?
I think that much of this so-called “muscular Christianity” was also very anti-liturgical. This was almost a fetish amongst the Irish as well as the Irish-American Catholics. Liturgy was to be done as unattractively as possible, to avoid the accusation of the clergy being in any way effeminate. Any love of liturgy, chant, beauty in the services was considered to be unmanly. What is strange is that this low-Mass mentality was usually accompanied by the most sickeningly sentimental popular hymns imaginable. In Anglicanism its manifestation was in low-church liturgy.
Here is a prefect example of a pre-Vatican II Irish-American Mass (one can also understand the hatred that American Catholics had not only for beauty in the old rite, but their embrace of the masculine banality of the present novus ordo):