I spent one glorious summer as an Anglican. I rediscovered my faith while at university and the only place to explore it was the Church of England. I wasn’t interested in the non-Conformism of my parents and I had been raised to think that the Pope was the Antichrist, so the Anglicans it was. I settled on an Anglo-Catholic bastion called Little St. Mary’s and was Baptized there in the New Year of 2003. It was a magical place. It was very old and the grey stone steamed with incense. In winter, three tramps slept in the hallway. I went there one snowy night for Mass and found myself alone with the priest in the Lady Chapel. You could see his breath in the air as he muttered the liturgy. I can close my eyes now and still hear the choir signing the Antiphon on a Sunday morning. That is what Heaven will sound like.
I became an Anglican around the time that Rowan Williams
became Archbishop of Canterbury. At first, I was very excited about the new broom. Something about Rowan spoke to a peculiarly English spirituality – half druid, half monk. He was a soft spoken intellectual in an age that abhors thoughtful silence. Rowan’s language was uncompromisingly difficult and ripe with metaphor. Best of all, he was an Anglo-Catholic. I hoped – and I still do – that the English and Roman churches might be reconciled. Aside from institutional oddities (married priests, female clergy) the Anglicans seemed spiritually in “the right place” for reunion.
But it all went horribly wrong. Poor Rowan had an impossible task. Anglicanism is home to a liberal Protestant movement that orientates towards social reform. Unfortunately, it is also home to an alliance of Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals that is more conservative in hue. The conflict isn’t just realized in opposing theologies. The liberals tend to be Western and rich; the traditionalists are found more in developing world congregations and among the poor. While the liberal group is older and smaller, it is institutionally far more powerful. The Christian Left predominates in the universities and conclaves.
The liberal and traditionalist viewpoints were irreconcilable. Rowan responded to the crisis in the only way that an Englishman knows how: he compromised. The result was nine years of confusion. He might say that he wanted women bishops, but he opposed them in the pursuit of unity. One day he would lament the “dim witted” attacks on Christianity and another he would describe crosses as “religious decoration.” He seemed personally open to gay priests, but tried to ram through an arrangement within the Anglican Communion that would keep them from becoming bishops. Intellectually, he was a liberal. Organizationally, he always accommodated traditionalists. In practice, he frustrated both schools of thought and only deepened the divisions within the Communion further.
A lot of people have concluded that his failure was the fault of his personality. To be sure, he is an irremediably and unforgivably boring priest. Often I would hear one of his sermons on the radio and be outraged by its multitude of blasphemies. Only later, when I had the chance to go through a hard copy with a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, would I realize that he was actually talking perfect sense. The man made an art out of muddle.
Yet, there was nothing Rowan could have done to resolve the contradictions of the Anglican Church. Division within the Communion is nothing new: disagreement over theology was at the heart of the English Civil War. But what makes the current struggle impossible to resolve is that it isn’t just about doctrine – it’s about the very purpose of the Anglican Church itself. The liberals think that the Church should be the servant of society. The traditionalists think that society should be the pupil of the Church. Servant or teacher, which is it to be? You can’t be a servant if you spend all your time lecturing your master about his many sins. Nor can you be a teacher if you believe that your pupil already has all the right answers. The Church had to decide what it was and stick to it.
I recall one evening watching a debate on television between a liberal woman “vicar” and a conservative male “priest.” They were arguing over female bishops. The woman vicar said that the Church should adapt to reflect society’s makeup and mores, or else it will become irrelevant and thus a poor servant. The male priest replied that the Church was there to teach eternal truths and that the World of God wasn’t up for consultation and reform. I asked my mother, who was also watching, who she thought won the debate. She replied that she felt the woman vicar was nicer and that my mother would be more likely to go to her if she was seeking comfort. “But,” I asked, “who would you want to marry or bury you?” “The man,” she replied instantly. “He actually sounds and looks like a priest.” The woman vicar had compassion but the male priest had authority.
This existential conflict – between whether to be a servant or a teacher – was physically embodied by Rowan Williams. Ultimately, he failed to satisfy on both counts. He refused to “teach” the public because he didn’t want to drive anyone away. But he also failed to “serve” us because the confusion he created made the Church even more irrelevant. Nothing speaks more to Rowan’s ineffectuality than his parting words: “I think there is a great deal of interest still in the Christian faith.” After nine years of leadership, is that all he has to offer? People are sort of curious
about faith? One would hope that they would feel a stronger emotion than “interest” for a religion that thousands have died for, which is the official faith of England, and which is, by Rowan’s own reckoning, The Truth.
I did not stay an Anglican long. I wasn’t raised in it, so I felt little affinity for the endless round of lunches and tombolas. Nor was I impressed with where it was headed. It seemed to offer no resistance to the de-spiritualization of Britain; in many regards it felt like a conspirator.
Of course, there are flourishes of nostalgia. A snatch of Parry, a few lines from the Book of Common Prayer, Remembrance Sunday etc etc. But these are, I fear, relics. Britain is now a post-Christian society. Little St Mary’s isn’t a church – it’s a museum.
Many weeks ago, I promised to review a book by a friend and I failed. It isn’t my fault. My pile of reading is a mountain high, stacked with a mix of the diaries of William Byrd and the latest Margaret Atwood. In addition, I receive literature from readers all the time – and I make an effort to delve into it. Some of it’s very good. Roughly 90 percent is mad. Just today, someone Tweeted to ask if I thought Barack Obama might have authored an “anti-Christ gospels.” I replied, “Probably not. He prefers to use ghostwriters.”
But I’m pleased that I found time to read Paul Lay’s History Today – And Tomorrow
. It’s a fine book that reminds us that history is the “king of disciplines,” for it synchronizes all others and turns disparate studies into a coherent narrative of the human drama. It is good to be reminded of how great we historians are.
Paul makes two points that I think are particularly potent. The first is that history is not a comfortable discipline. A lot of what one sees in popular history is tawdry nostalgia. From the endless History Channel documentaries about being a Spitfire pilot to the insufferable BB2 shows about life in a Georgian household (“Look ma – they made their own cheese!”), history has become something that affirms rather than challenges. Commissioners are terrified of anything that a modern audience will not instantly recognize, so they only produce that which “speaks” to them. That’s why domesticity is such a popular theme, or the history of the last forty years. When did BBC4 last venture into political territory that wasn’t to do with Harold Wilson or Margaret Thatcher?
Dramatists must be given credit for throwing their nets wider (The Tudors
, The Borgias
) but even these shows invariably give ancient characters modern sensibilities. Take the dreaded Downton Abbey
. At the center of Downton
is the lie that the Edwardian household was like a modern extended family: open, warm, democratic. It was not. In fact, African-American slavery was arguably a more intimate type of service than the manorial system. Don’t get me wrong – it was sustained by violence. But most historians of slavery now argue that it was surprisingly geographically unsegregated (it was common, for instance, for slave and free children to play and be nursed together). By contrast, in Edward England social relations were simply impermissible and if any servant spoke to an employer in the way that they do in Downton
, they’d have been sacked … or worse. Downton Abbey
has nothing to do with the past and everything to do with today. Whenever the English are in trouble, they retreat into nostalgia and reflect upon their present circumstances by looking backwards. They see at history through the dark glass of their own context and conclude, "We are, and we always have been, bloody marvellous."
Instead, history should be honest and ugly. It ought to present the facts “warts and all” and strictly on the terms of the people who lived it. If there is a benefit to doing this, it is to understand that other people in other times are capable of viewing the world differently – and not just because they are ignorant or savage. There is a tendency – I’d call it cruel – to presume that because everyone born before 1940 didn’t think that the Earth circles the Sun or that constant uninhibited sex is a God given right, they were all ignorant peasant scum; worthy only of being a lesson in how stupid talking monkeys can be. That isn’t to say that we should suspend our moral faculties when regarding the past: the folks living there were sometimes scathing in their judgement of it (consider the foundational ethics of Socrates, Thomas Moore, Mary Wollstonecraft, or Sojourner Truth).
But we must sink ourselves into the sanctity and the depravity of history, if only to understand what man, under certain circumstances, is truly capable of. Paul Lay expresses this better than I can in the Huffington Post
: “History, at its best, calls everything into question. It offers no comfort, no shelter and no respite, it is a discipline of endless revision and argument. It forces its students to confront the different, the strange, the exotic and the perverse and reveals in full the possibilities of human existence. It is unafraid of casting its cold eye on conflict, both physical and intellectual.”
Second, the study of the past teaches humility. The great sin of modernity is arrogance, and it is sustained by two false propositions – 1) We can make things better and 2) No one has tried this before.
It is correct that we now have the technological resources to screw things up on a truly industrial scale, but we are far from the first people to attempt to improve man’s lot. History shows that these efforts quickly end in tyranny. Invariably, it begins with an effort to eradicate the past – precisely because it usually offers sound argument against change. The French Revolution had its Year One; the Soviets had their Historical Determinism. Sweet requests for social justice in the New Age then become violent demands for the keys to the kingdom, unlimited by the precious checks and balances that traditional culture had hitherto exerted. Progress made by mobilizing the people has always turned out to be a authoritarian disaster. We can, as individuals, redeem ourselves. But social reform of the type that modern states have invested in is just violently rearranging the furniture.
Nor does everything stay the same. Today in the West we are still living as if history is at an end. Liberal democracy and free markets are here to stay.
If we are honest, we look upon the Chinese or Brazilian models of capitalism with contempt (Niall Ferguson looks upon the former with terror). The Islamic world is a land of 14th century barbarians and Africa – epitomized by Joseph Kony’s child army – is irredeemable. The West regards its backyard with as much loathing and incomprehension as it does the Tudors and the Borgias. Our inability to understand other people is made worse by a lack of sympathy for our own history.
And yet, we show the exact same arrogance of the Victorian British who presumed that the sun would never set on their own empire. As Paul Lay reminds us, “[History] has no end, as the benighted Francis Fukuyama discovered when the permanent present ushered in by the fall of the Berlin Wall came crashing down on September 11th, 2001. History opposes hubris and warns of nemesis. It doesn't value events by their outcome; the Whig interpretation of history expired long ago.”
Paul would probably stop there, but I’ll throw in a little postmodernism. The great irony of the West’s attachment to its liberal system is that this system is so fragile that it is arguably already gone, swept away by war, recession, the erosion of the Good Society, and the tyranny of the senses. We are now living and perpetuating a myth, sustained by a deliberate ignorance of the alternatives. “Everything that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”As Dennis Kucinich would say
, “Wake up America!” I’ll never forgive Ohio for voting that man out of office.
As a historian of the US, the riots in London made me think instantly of the urban disorder in America in the 1960s. There are big differences: size, scale, and lack of political motive this time around. This is not the right moment to plug a book, but I noticed when researching my forthcoming biography of Pat Buchanan that there were three different reactions to the disorder of the 1960s. Two – Leftwing pandering and Rightwing populism – were on display in this nice vignette from the 1968 Chicago riots. The local police had horribly over-reacted to the presence of 10,000 antiwar protestors during the local Democratic Convention, using nightsticks and tear gas to dispel the largely peaceful crowds. The demonstrators gathered in Grant Park, across from the hotel where the conservative pundit Pat Buchanan was lodging. He stayed up all night with the Leftwing writer Norman Mailer, drinking cocktails and watching the fight down below. The city had imposed an 11pm curfew on the demonstrators and when they failed to move, the police charged them with teargas and truncheons. Mailer leant over the balcony and screamed at the cops, “Pigs! Fascists!”
Buchanan leant over and shouted, “Hey, you’ve missed one!”
Those were the two responses to the crises of 1968 that most people are familiar with, and both are getting a big play in London 2011. In the 1960s, several conservative populists called for a take-no-prisoners answer to urban chaos: no recognition of supposed grievances, 100% support for the police, and zero tolerance for offenders. Presidential candidate George Wallace promised to hand the streets over to the cops for 24 hours, all civil liberties suspended and no questions asked. Having just witnessed my own capital city be looted by thugs and vandals, I feel considerable sympathy for this position. One’s first instinct in the midst of criminality is to go all Rambo. A good friend asked the question on Facebook, “Where is Charles Bronson when you need him?”
Leftwing commentators in the 1960s expressed far greater sympathy for the rioters than what one might find today. The Kerner Commission of 1968 blamed the disturbances entirely on racism and poverty, with little consideration for personal responsibility. It concluded that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal”, and proposed massive federal spending projects as a solution. That view, incidentally, is still popular within my own field of historical research. The consensus within the academy is that the disorder of the 1960s was a legitimate response to white racism and an unjust war, while the stunning popularity of conservative politicians like Wallace, Buchanan, or Ronald Reagan reflected an underlying mainstream fascism.
What is forgotten about 1968 is that there was a “third way” response to the violence, and it had a big constituency. It was the approach taken by Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey: toughness informed by compassion. Humphrey was a liberal before the term became submerged within radical Leftwing discourses in the 1970s – before it became synonymous with socialist economics and identity politics bullcrap. Nor did it have anything to do with obscure British philosophers: Smith and Mill probably sounded like undertakers to Hubert. Rather, it was a politics shaped by the misery of the Great Depression and the violent grandeur of the Second World War. Humphrey’s liberalism was tough and sinewy. He loved his fellow man, but he understood that part of love is censorship and reform. Man is born in sin: people used to get that.
When he accepted his party’s nomination in Chicago 1968, the same week that Mailer and Buchanan watched the cops and demonstrators duke it out in the street, Humphrey opened with the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi: “Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light.” Then he said, “Rioting, sniping, mugging, traffic in narcotics and disregard for law are the advance guard of anarchy and they must and they will be stopped. But may I say most respectfully, particularly to some who have spoken before, the answer lies in reasoned, effective action by state, local and federal authority. The answer does not lie in an attack on our courts, our laws or our Attorney General. We do not want a police state, but we need a state of law and order. And neither mob violence nor police brutality have any place in America.”
It was a complex formula, perhaps too nuanced for the angry spirit of the age. But it balanced what many citizens were looking for: a definition of law and order that keeps in check both the criminal individual and the over-mighty state. Humphrey went on to say, “Nor can there be any compromise with the right of every American who is able and who is willing to work to have a job, who is willing to be a good neighbor, to be able to live in a decent home in the neighborhood of his own choice … And it is to these rights – the right of law and order, the right of life, the right of liberty, the right of a job, the right of a home in a decent neighborhood, and the right to an education – it is to these rights that I pledge my life and whatever capacity and ability I have.”
What Humphrey meant was that law and order and social reform are not contradictions as the Marxist Left would have us believe: they are two sides of the same social contract. Peace guarantees the opportunity for progress and progress irons out the iniquities that spur disorder. It’s a forerunner of that blunter paradigm, “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. For those who, frankly, want to see some criminals get a good thrashing but who also don’t want to give up on the dream of urban renewal, this is a powerful promise. It was popular enough in 1968 to take Humphrey to within one percentage point of winning the presidency.
As we have come to expect, Britain’s political leadership has been singularly lacking throughout these riots. A few have offered jingoisms, while a former mayor has unwisely suggested that the hoodlums need love. There is a space – a wide vacuum in fact – for a reasonable statesperson to ask, “Can’t we all get along?” Most voters are conservative in that they want peace in the streets yet liberal in that they don’t want to use water cannons to get it. One solution is transformative leadership. Robert Kennedy offered something of that when he spoke in Indianapolis on the night of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination. He said, "What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black." He asked the crowd to go home and pray, and they did. Indianapolis was one of the few major US cities that didn’t experience riots that night. I pray that a similar recourse to reason is still possible in this crisis. In the absense of decent leadership to provide it, I shall be getting grandpa's shotgun down from the attic. To quote Pat Buchanan when asked his response to new federal gun controls: "Lock and load".