BY GEOFFREY KIRK
`The past is a foreign country,’ wrote L.P. Hartley, famously, in the introduction to The Go-Between, ‘they do things differently there’ But the impertinence and vulgarity of our own age seems intent on denying the past its very foreignness.
“Learn the ancient skills of the blowpipe,’ read the glossy brochure in the foyer of my hotel, `from our own resident Iban warrior’. It was a depressing prospect: for it is hard to feel wholly comfortable in a world which turns people from head-hunters to tourist attractions in a matter of three generations. The thought of the owner of a 350cc Yamaha kitted-out in the loincloth of his ancestors coping with the latest coach party from the Kuching Hilton sent a shiver down my spine. Beside it other atrocities, the slaughter of the American Indian, the aculturation of the aborigines of Australia, the virtual genocide of the Incas at the hands of Hernando Pizzaro seemed for a moment trivial. They at least were spared the indignity of being transformed into a species of light entertainment. Will we all, I wondered, find ourselves one day immured in a theme park of someone else’s imagining?
The proposition has a high degree of probability. Ours is the age of the theme park. Reproduction Victorian bollards and artificial York stone paving litter our streets, giving the concrete `precincts’ of the sixties a spuriously Dickensian flavour. The Yorkshire of my childhood – a land of `brass’ and `muck’ where everyone knew the price of everything in terms of sweat and tears – lies defenceless before the industrial archaeologists and the specialists in regional tourism, who will have reduced it before long to the cosy sepia tints of a Hovis advertisement. Even the monarchy has entered its post-modernist phase. Like an office block masquerading as a Chippendale bookcase its decor no longer bears any relationship to its function. It is a sequence of fairy-tale weddings, but no one lives happily ever after.
If the arrogance and down right tackiness of the theme park appalls you – if you are horrified by a culture which turns the Jorvic of the Vikings, the primeval forest of the dinosaurs and the court of Louis XIV into animatronic diversions en route for a big Mac, french fries and a jumbo cola, consider.
Consider that Western liberal culture has been consigning its rivals and its predecessors to a theme park of its own imagining for generations. Political Correctness has no alternative to inventing its own past. So the Rousseauists created the Noble Savage and the feminists invented the matriarchal society; so the homosexualists fantasize about same sex marriages in the early Middle Ages (see James Boswell, The Marriage of Likeness Harper Collins, 1994); and the proponents of women’s ordination people second century catacombs with female concelebrants and give Pope Pascal I a bishop for a mother (see T.F. Torrance The Ministry of Women The Handsel Press, 1992).
Christian traditionalists consider further: for it is still a question how much of our common past is to be consigned to the Liberal Cabinet of Ethnological Curiosities (Curator: John Shelby Spong).
True, the Great Tradition, from Ignatius of Antioch to Karl Barth (queer-bashers and misogynists all) is under sustained attack. But all is not lost. If ours is the world of the theme park, it is also a world in which endangered species can make a come-back, and wronged minorities sue for justice. Like Aborigines staking their claim to all the mineral rights of Central Australia we should aim high.
I suggest that we make the Church of England our target. It is a prime Heritage Property operating on the franchise principle. At present, for the payment of a substantial fee, a local branch can trade under the company logo with little or no central quality control. Priests who do not believe in the afterlife collect handsome fees from crematoria, and bishops with only the sketchiest knowledge of sacramental theology dress for Songs of Praise like Gregory VII at Canossa. Any retail outlet with so weak a corporate identity is ripe for takeover.
The way forward (I would have recommended it to the Iban if I had thought I could survive the coach trip) is to out-theme-park the lot of them. Make them the ethnological curiosities. A Sea of Faith Vicar celebrating the Holy Communion in the garb of Archbishop Laud and in the words of Archbishop Cranmer (see Anthony Freeman God in Us, SCM 1993) is, after all, an intellectual curiosity wholly without credibility or antecedents.
In a world which values all natural and social mutants because it values life itself, they are obviously to be preserved. But no one can reasonably expect them to be sufficiently successful in reproduction to replace the indigenous species.
Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of S. Stephen’s, Lewisham. in the diocese of Southwark.