The Dark is Light Enough

Have you ever wondered why the liberals hate us so much? Why Chuck Bennison feels an overwhelming imperative to oust David Moyer? Why Jane Dixon had to persecute Sam Edwards and little Accokeek? Why the Act of Synod is such a red rag to a cow?

There is, at first sight, no obvious reason. On their own perverse application of the ‘Gamaliel Principle’ (see Acts 5.34–39) they should treat us with debonair nonchalance. We are, after all, doomed to certain extinction. Said Dick Holloway (recently retired heresiarch of the Scottish Episcopal Church) in a letter to me of many years ago: ‘You will find yourself attempting to sweep back the tide of God.’ It was a rare manifestation of unreconstructed theism.

But they do want to do us down, nevertheless. Hell hath no fury, etc, etc. The struggle has already begun, you will observe, to ensure that legislation to ordain women to the episcopate will include no provision which opponents would regard as adequate. That is what the otherwise ludicrous attempts at this stage in the proceedings to rescind the Act of Synod are really about. (Hence, I suppose, the attempted distinction – of which much was made in the recent debate in the Southwark Diocesan Synod and which the OED does not support – between ‘rescind’ as meaning ‘to remove as though it had never been’, and ‘repeal’ meaning simply ‘to cancel or abrogate’.)

The good news is that I have recently been granted, from a most unexpected quarter, an insight into the psychopathology of this irrational compulsion.

The source is a recent book with a less than snappy title: Male Witches in Early Modern Europe. Damien Thompson in a recent Telegraph review wittily dubbed it ‘Gender at Stake’ (Lara Apps and Andrew Gow, Manchester University Press, 2003, ISBN 0 71905709 4 ).

Anyone with the slightest acquaintance with the academic literature on European witchcraft post Trevor-Roper will be aware that the field has been dominated by the right-on sisters. The theory, to put it briefly and crudely, is that the surge of witch trials and witch-related anxieties at the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Early Modern period was related to underlying fears about the changing status of women. Animosity toward witches (who were almost universally assumed to have been female) is generally portrayed as a last stand of clerically-dominated medieval misogyny.

Apps and Gow have exploded this myth. Not only have they published statistics demonstrating a high proportion of male witch trials (a majority in some areas such as Finland, Normandy and Iceland), but they have catalogued references to masculine witchery in contemporary handbooks. After years of oppression by doctrinaire androphobes, the male witch has at last come into his rightful inheritance. The ‘Hidden Tradition’ has emerged into the glare of publicity.

But the achievement of Apps and Gow is not merely to have relegated feminist interpretations of witch- burning to the dustbin of history – along with Junia the Apostle, Theodora Epsicopa and the women concelebrants of the catacombs of Priscilla (see ND passim). They have plausible demonstrated how and why the imposture was possible and survived for so long.

The answer is simple. Modern writers on witchcraft were simply incapable of making the imaginative leap which alone renders all that frenzied activity intelligible. And because they could not bring themselves to face what was undoubtedly the case (that people burned witches because they believed in witchcraft) they needed other more congenial explanations of motive. Though the intimate relationship between magic and early modern science (from John Dee, through the hermetic enthusiasms of Rudolph II, to the arcane biblical calculations of Isaac Newton) is well-documented, at some deep and unapproachable level the sisters were unable to grasp that people killed witches because they believed that witchcraft worked.

Then, like a thunderclap, it dawned! What is true of witchcraft is also true of Christianity! The most ardent proponents of women’s ordination simply cannot believe that orthodox Christians are opposed to the innovation for no other reason than that they believe that God does not want it. So attached is the liberal Christian mind to the idea that religion exists merely to bolster the a priori assumptions of the contemporary consensus, that the notion that it might oblige someone to act contrary to that consensus and those assumptions is nonsensical. Another motive is required. And what more congenial motive (to the contemporary consensus, that is) than misogyny?

As the scales fell from my eyes I began to see clearly so many things which had previously seemed perverse or obscure. Those who – to put it crudely, but honestly – have ceased to believe that Christianity is ‘true’, and that it ‘works’ are bound to misinterpret and traduce the motives of those of us who do. How could Richard Holloway castigate me for failure to conform myself to the providential purposes of a God in which he (Richard) had ceased to believe? The answer was simple: because he had ceased to believe in him. The purposes were not God’s but Dick’s. ’God’ is just language which Dick uses when talking about his own opinions and those of his friends.

‘The past’, said LP Hartley famously, ‘is another country. They do things differently there.’ But liberal Christians find that notion hard to accept – either for the past or for the present. They strive to remake the past in their own image. They people the Mediterranean world of the first five centuries with figments of their own imagination, whilst at the same time seeking to outlaw from the present all who do not share their prejudices.

Like the good and faithful historians that they are Apps and Gow have illuminated both past and present. And they have done so by showing, with telling accuracy, how modern liberals regard Christian belief and ancient necromancy in the same way. Secular ‘Enlightenment’, as so often, ensures darkness all round.

Geoffrey Kirk is the Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham in the Diocese of Southwark.