William Davage considers the adage that “the past is another country: they do things differently there.”

In retrospect, amidst the pandemic and its tragic consequences for so many,  two instances may have been defining. One, which may have seemed at the time relatively minor, for the church and one, of greater initial impact, for society. The opening of inessential shops was given a higher priority than the opening of churches. The spate of iconoclasm, the tearing down of one statue and threats to others, may have changed political discourse and civilised debate, and narrowed the parameters of acceptable controversy.

Moral outrage is an effective, potent force, especially one fostered amidst the frustrations of lockdown and the arrival of hot weather. Odd how few protesters feel strongly enough about a cause to plough through snow and sleet, hail and rain. Moral outrage invariably trumps nuance and prefers primary colours to shades and tints. It does not allow for the complicated nature of history, nor the complex nature of human personality. Many heroic figures have feet of clay. Many villains have the occasional redeeming feature. Human beings are flawed and are always people of their time. Very few have the gift of foresight, of prophesy. Yet few, at present, seem content “to see through a glass darkly” and wait patiently for a light to dawn.

All ages will produce its heroes and villains. Values and the commonplace assumptions of one age do not accord with another. Lives change, people change, moral assumptions are as much the temper of an age and they also change. This should, however, not be characterised as progress. That nebulous, I suspect non-existent, concept is too often used as an excuse for something more sinister. Did the communist autocracy and the purges of Stalin mark progress from the autocracy and pogroms of the Tsar? Both found Siberia a convenient penal colony. Did the National Socialism of Hitler mark progress from the social-democratic shambles of the Weimar Republic? We need to tread carefully through these moral minefields. Progress is a moral judgement, usually disported by the triumphant. Change may be good or bad. Some changes may be beneficent for some, but disadvantageous to others by way of unintended consequences. Enrichment for some may be impoverishment for others. All human societies are in a state of flux. That is the human condition.

The conjunction of the state’s decision to place inessential shops before churches and the iconoclasts assault on history and culture, as well as statues, led me to revisit Matthew Arnold’s book Culture and Anarchy published in 1867: it has some claim to be his magnum opus. Arnold, son of Thomas Arnold, the reforming Headmaster of Rugby School, also wrote the poem Dover Beach which caught the shifting sands of religious belief and the fragmenting contours of political life. Order and sanity had been eroded by “ignorant armies.” Religion, the “See of Faith,” would once have provided an antidote to and protection against the rising tide of anarchic forces. Now, he maintained, all that could heard was “Its long melancholy, withdrawing roar” as it retreated, receded with the tide, leaving humankind on “a darkling plain.” A plain

“Swept with confused alarms and struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

Here was a society and culture, an age where there was no longer deference to God, nor to the established religion of the state; in effect the national church. It was a society cut adrift from its religious moorings, adrift in the moral fluctuations of the times. The stabilising and binding force was giving way to dehumanising ideologies, resulting in the gross inhumanity of communist and Nazi despotic power. And their offspring in other guises.

Confronting and defeating such ideologies cannot be done by adopting their own methods, puritan intolerance, a rigidly enforced cultural, political and intellectual norm from which no deviation nor dissent is permitted, no caveat tolerated. Pluralism is not enough, no-platforming is the answer. Reasoned argument and its persuasive power is not enough. Media banishment, dismissal from office, pariah status, ostracism are the only acceptable responses.

These trends have been brewing for some time but the lockdown and inhibitions of the pandemic have allowed them to foster in a vacuum where all the civilising aspects of society were unavailable. For Arnold, civilisation was something different from society. Societies and their values could be good, bad or indifferent. Civilisation was beyond that. A life of the mind and a cultivation of the soul were at the summit of the hierarchy of values by which lives ought to be lived. Their public face could be found in, but not confined to, museums, art galleries, concert halls, libraries, access to an education that was beyond schooling or academic study. Civilisation was not physical comfort, material self-satisfaction, nor merely functional. His criterion was “the disinterested scrutiny of life in pursuit of the truth.” This is something more than the smug middle-class twitching of lace curtains from an antimacassar world of prim conformity, rectitude and genteel disposition. 

Arnold wrote that “the mass of mankind will never have any ardent zeal for seeing things as they are, very inadequate ideas always satisfy them. The simplification of public discourse, right or wrong, good or evil, hero or villain, its absolutist binary incapacity for the complexity and ambiguity of human beings is the dangerous spirit of this frenzied, disorientated age.

Arnold believed that spiritual means, rather than temporal force, physical, psychological, emotional coercion, was required to inspire a cultural revolution, a reorientation towards beatitude. Culture was not merely the means by which human beings came to see and learn the things of God. It was the means by which they would prevail at which point, ”the moral, social and beneficent character of culture becomes manifest.” For all the doubts that he expressed in Dover Beach, the receding See of Faith, he saw in the Christian religion, and in its national context and expression in the Church of England, as central to his vision. “Religions are the greatest and most important of the efforts by which the human race has manifested its impulse to perfect itself.” Religion gave voice to the deepest human experiences, “It does not only enjoin and sanction the aim which is the greatest aim of culture, the aim of setting ourselves to ascertain what perfection is and to make it prevail.”

Arnold’s is an assault upon a secular culture, “all the liberty and industry in the world will not ensnare those two things: a high reason and a fine culture.” There can be no culture without faith. Just as the Kingdom of God is within the “human perfection is an interval condition in the growth and predominance of our humanity proper, as distinguished from our animality.” His aim was to rescue culture from the savages.

His critique, in an essay before Culture and Anarchy, has a contemporary resonance. “Modern times,” he wrote, “find themselves with an immense system of institutions, established facts, accredited dogmas, customs, rules which have come to them from times not  modern. In this system their life has to be carried forward, yet they have a sense that this system is not of their own creation, that it by no means corresponds exactly with the wants of their actual life that for them, it is customary, not natural.” The answer to that alienation, that disorientation does not lie in ignorance or turning our backs on history, nor treating the present with a mind set on nihilistic purgation. It lies in the forging of a culture that is Christ-like in its sacrifice and service; its respect for each other, even those with whom we disagree, in the image of Christ, a realisation that we are what we are because of what we were and, sometimes, despite what we were. Without that culture, society is in danger of falling into anarchy.

“And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King:

His fortress is a faithful heart, his pride is suffering.

And soul by soul and silently, her shining bounds increase

And her ways, are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.”

Father William Davage writes from Hampstead