I am probably coming across as a miserable old curmudgeon, as I mull over the aches and pains of my own life and its meaning. I picked up a Swiss TV interview between several academics from my old alma mater (Fribourg) about whether it would be a good thing to scrap the Church because of the extent of sexual abuse committed by clerics on children. The issue is highly emotional and makes most of us very angry. Should the law courts condemn the culprits to be tarred and feathered, handed over to the crowd and what is left to be slowly hanged, disembowelled and quartered? Would our society be enriched spiritually and culturally by such barbarity, like the hanging days in the eighteenth century when the condemned were taken on their macabre procession from Newgate to the Tyburn gallows?
As heinous child sex abuse is, especially when committed by a man of authority, the real issue is profaning the Church without any defence being possible. The argumentation is simple: if women were ordained instead of men, or at least the men being held in check, the priesthood would be freed from the toxic cloak of clericalism. The prevailing “solution”, given that the institution in France does not have the financial resources to give out as compensation to all the victims, would be for the entire Episcopate to resign. On one side, I do not belong to that institution, and could react by saying that I couldn’t care less. Let it all come tumbling down! Would it be replaced by the “good guys” in cassocks from the traditionalist world?
Unfortunately, the traditionalists have also had their own scandals and share the same problem of repressed sexuality and clericalism. One of my commenters would seem to see the extreme left-wing agenda behind the crisis – and propose the extreme right-wing national-populist solution. It is now on the horizon of the French Presidential Election for next spring. I ask myself whether Eric Zemmour would not give a needed “short sharp shock” to break the corruption and incompetence of mainstream politics. That was precisely what happened in Germany in 1933 with the downfall of the Weimar Republic and the election of Hitler as Chancellor. Is that what we want? I am not comparing Zemmour to Hitler, but I have my doubts about these “simple” solutions.
What seems obvious to me is that, unless we are prepared to sink into nihilism, we need to search much deeper within ourselves (as we cannot search into others). Like so many of our contemporaries, I lose faith in institutions whilst recognising that society without them would fall into a worse state of barbarity. I fail to have any faith in politics of the left or the right. Next spring, the country I live in will ask its citizens to do our duty – vote for a President. Probably the only thing most of us can do is to think historically and vote for the person who would cause the least harm!
One could rightly ask me whether I really believe in Christianity, or rather the message of Christ and the Church as Christ’s abiding sacramental presence throughout time. Both have survived in spite of human sin. There is no doubt that Christianity is unique among spiritual philosophies and religions in that it proposes the intrinsic dignity of the human person. This is a principle on which morality and law are based, on which those with nobility of spirit may shed light and leave an everlasting legacy of truth, beauty and goodness.
I have already written about criticism of Christian (or nominally Christian) institutions. Alan Watts comes to mind with his reflection from 1947:
The present low ebb of Church religion consists in the fact that rarely, even for Church people, does it give the soul any knowledge of union with the reality that underlies the universe. To put it in another way, modern Church religion is little concerned with giving any consciousness of union with God. It is not mystical religion, and for that reason it is not fully and essentially religion.
Nicholas Berdyaev was just as scathing. The most frightening consequence seems to go far beyond politics – transhumanism, the rise of technology and “artificial intelligence”. Once Christ’s spiritual humanism is out of the way, we can be brought to believe the absolutely absurd, like for example very wealthy people being offered the possibility of living forever through technology. I remember the science fiction scenes of human brains in machines instead of human bodies. Would you want to be a dalek or a cyborg? Could you imagine having your head removed from a paralysed body and attached to someone else’s body? There are rumours that such an operation has been performed in China.
One drum I have banged for a long time is the question of the Sarum liturgy. The first thing many think about is the external aspect, vestments, style of the church, the music and then whether it is licit in this or that institutional church. Even a more philosophical medievalism has its shortcomings, and in itself cannot form anything more noble or sublime than modernity and technocracy. This is why I am trying to figure out a way to fashion a Christian culture that draws inspiration from the past through a form of metaphysical Idealism and Romanticism.
Christian institutions try to save themselves by assimilating themselves to secular culture. One example is the “dogma” according to which the “climate emergency” can only be averted by eliminating carbon dioxide emissions. In reality, the environment is incredibly complex and pollution coming from industry and the technological civilisation is taking only a small part in relation to solar activity and other geological factors outside human influence. My logical mind is that there is only one solution for the hard-core environmentalists – genocide. There are too many people in this world, so they have to die. Unfortunately, genocide was part of the Nazi ideology and something that (rightly) causes indignation. As repugnant as such an idea is, it is the only coherent result of this “dogma” which is replacing Christianity. Eschatology or the expectation of the Apocalypse is a powerful archetype in our psychology having its root in our fear of death. We seek to project fear of death – the world carrying on without us – onto the whole of humanity. Götterdämmerung.
Churches tried to tailor their wares to the prevailing regime – cuius regio eius religio, which once described the people of an area following the religion of their secular ruler. Thus we once had bishops collaborating with Nazism, then Ostpolitik and now the various ideologies rising out of spiritually bankrupt humanity. In spite of trying to ingratiate with every worldly ideology, the Church has never made a reality of its œcumenicity. To the contrary, the lines of division are becoming more acute.
Berdyaev could only see that we had a Christian renaissance to look forward to, or that it was all over. At the same time, he considered the promise that the “gates of hell would not prevail”. If there are only three Christians left in the world, the Church is intact. The great paradox is that Christianity built culture, but culture is needed for Christianity to survive and uphold human dignity.
Reading Post-Christianity: How Christianity Failed and Continues to Fail, we come across many other prophesies from Berdyaev. Only Christianity can save the world from Christianity. What Christianity is this? True humanism can only come from spiritual effort and vision.
I mentioned the present crisis in the French Church and the idea that we have to have a feminine clerocracy, or perhaps no clerocracy at all. Some elements in a German synod recently advocated the abolition of the sacramental priesthood. Others were more moderate in calling for a deprofessionalisation of the clerical state – something like my own priestly life in a Church that does not have the financial resources to employ its clergy. We are “tent makers”. We live like “ordinary guys”, without the excesses of some groups of men where large quantities of alcohol are involved! What is the difference between my life as a deacon at Gricigliano, living in a beautiful Tuscan villa like in the eighteenth century – without the wigs and with electricity and flushing toilets – and my present life when I only wear a cassock for Synod in England (which was possible before the Covid pandemic)? Perhaps, now, I am freer to take my responsibilities in life as a more mature person.
Is reviving Sarum still of any interest? Yes, but on condition of not putting the cart before the horse. Clearly, you can’t walk into a parish and start celebrating Mass like eighty years ago or eight centuries. I wrote very recently of awakening from a dream in which the idea of a French country parish of fifty years ago was uppermost. Those parishes died when their priests were promoted to glory. The institution is too fragile a basis to found the future of Christianity. The future as it is presently announced is technocracy and bureaucracy, euphemistically named synodality.
In the article I mentioned, this concluding paragraph pronounces a fearful sentence:
So, no, I am not optimistic. I take no pleasure in watching this decay and take no pleasure in watching these various caricatures of Christianity choke on the vomit of their own absurdity. The technocrats are winning. I guess that’s how it’s going to be. Christians like convenience; and technocracy promises all kinds of convenience. I still listen to other voices, however, just as Berdyaev did before me. Like William Butler Yeats, Berdyaev was attentive to the tragic nature of revelation as it destroys the falsity of our various temptations and our bourgeois complacencies; for, “Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” It is so strange to watch all this unfold, to see Christianity absorbed into the technocratic realm of Ahriman. Only a god can save us.
Is this a death sentence “On the appointed morning, you will be taken to the place of execution…”? I asked the question about the Sarum liturgy, which is surely a part of the condemned man being taken to the gallows. For me, it is not a question of appearances or imitating medieval priests. We need to identify an alternative to what now seems to be inevitable in our trans-humanist dystopia. For the time being, the desired utopia can only exist in our minds.
Like the early Romantics, we need to have an ideal based on the whole human experience, spirituality and human empathy rather than on the “enlightenment” obsession with science, money and the impersonal application of law. We need faith and love more than “having and knowing”. For me, Sarum represents the idea of a golden era and a longing for a cosmopolitan, global, spiritual community. Novalis’ Christenheit oder Europa made a deep impression on me, coming as a I do from an Anglican background and having had experience of French integralism.
This German text (and the various translations into other languages) from the 1790’s is capable of several interpretations depending on the mind and spirit of the reader. Someone like Charles Maurras or any number of modern French demagogues strutting around the streets of Paris appeal by their opposition to an ideology that seems to be even more toxic. Let’s go back to feudalism and collectivism! Like Scripture, texts are interpreted in so many different ways, the very limit of human language and meanings of words. Pauline Keingeld sees the symbolic and allegorical use of language in Novalis, meaning a change in human culture from competition, money and domination to solidarity through faith and love. This solidarity would not be imposed by force by men calling themselves socialists but in reality fascist bullies, but through empathy based on self-knowledge and acceptance, on nobility of spirit. The limits of human language in a literal reading show such inadequacy as is proven by the diversity of interpretations of the Scriptures!
How is such an inner utopia brought about? It starts with oneself, being true to our own thoughts, experience and knowledge about oneself. Another essential thing is to identify our own intimate intuitions in cultures and subcultures around us. Many would say that Romanticism died in the nineteenth century. Its last real manifestation was in the 1960’s and early 70’s, the hippies. Surely these were immoral people who were dirty and addicted to drugs! Perhaps many were, like Coleridge on laudanum (opium), Byron, Shelley and Keats so long ago. However, the hippies protested that Money is not the supreme goal of existence. They identified the Monster of technocracy long before it became as evolved as the computer I am using to write and publish this text. Again, I distinguish the appearance from the inner philosophy as I do with symbols like liturgical rites in churches. The 1960’s hippie is the Romantic in a different era from the 1820’s or 1790’s. William Blake speaks through the early environmentalists before ecology became the shrieking hysterical ideology it has become. He was a prophet back in the early days of the Industrial Revolution when human beings only represented money and power for their masters.
I find considerable inspiration in Bernard Moitessier, the man who sailed twice around the world without a single stop. His angry tone accused the Monster of exploiting the poor and ruining the planet through heavy industry. Is there any difference between this inspiration and the present institutionalisation of ecology? I believe that, like in the Christian idea, the difference is man himself, humanity. An idea dies when it is institutionalised and dehumanised.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.
It is not a coincidence that the appearance attributed to Christ (long hair and beard) resemble the hippie of the 1960’s – and paradoxically, the nobleman of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Long hair on a man is a symbol of freedom and nobility of spirit, at least an aspiration thereto. These are symbols, but what is important is what is inside, the inconsolable yearning for God’s Kingdom within ourselves and others who are close to us, united by friendship and love. This is where Christianity will never suffer final defeat by the gates of hell.
The Monster may succeed in turning the institutional Church to its own ends. It is for each of us to know and be ourselves. Maybe the bishops and priests may throw themselves on their swords as a gesture of repentance to grasp back the credibility of their status. They have nowhere else to go. We have to make distinctions between what is being offered for the sake of appearance and what is true and interior. If they want, they can make the Roman Catholic institution into a clone of the Worldwide Anglican Communion with its bureaucracy and dehumanised “pastoral” methods, themselves an analogy of raping children. Such an institution cannot be saved.
Do we make new institutions of our own? I joined one, the Anglican Catholic Church. We still have room for eccentricity as my Archbishop cheekily wrote to me. We have dealt adequately with priests who were unable to keep their cocks in their pants!!! We still have room for solidarity and love. Perhaps that will no longer be true in time when we become too institutionalised and try to automate everything. Usually these processes take longer than the time given to us to live, so I am not worried about other people’s problems! One bit of genius in the Church of England, even at a time I am old enough to remember, is the eccentric vicar or cathedral canon. Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury between 1961 and 1974, was observed to have traits that we might be tempted to attribute to Aspergers autism. I have known John Rothera, an alto songman in the York Minster choir, who bought the last Halifax tram and made recordings of the choir with his old Ferrograph tape recorder and a ball-and-biscuit microphone permanently hanging between the choir stalls. I had the impression that his anecdotes gave me a memory going back decades before my birth! Conventional people find it hard to relate to the “wild” mind of the eccentric.
As Oscar Wilde said from his bitter experience of a Victorian prison:
A man whose desire is to be something separate from himself, to be a Member of Parliament, or a successful grocer, or a prominent solicitor, or a judge, or something equally tedious, invariably succeeds in being what he wants to be. That is his punishment. Those who want a mask have to wear it.
May our faith not be a mask but our inner reality. We can use different images for this inner Kingdom. Some like Novalis used gothic cathedrals and chivalry. I can honestly say that I truly became an Anglican on swimming the Tiber (or the part of the Rhône that goes through Switzerland) to Rome. I yearned for something that the Tridentine, ultramontane and Vatican II Church no longer offered – and perhaps never did. I was blown over by Novalis’ text, because I was not the only one. We are often deceived by symbols and ideas, because we have not learned to understand them fully. I chased many things in my mind – the ideal Sarum church, even the priesthood. I have had to transform the “mask” into something much more interior without rejecting or destroying it.
Perhaps the “final blow” might come, but not to ourselves if lessons have been learned.