– murder and the making of a saint
In his fine work, ‘Through the eye of a needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome and the making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD,’ Peter Brown suggests that one of the signs of the emergence of the modern bishop was when bishops began to employ lawyers. The lawyers were there not, as we might think, to protect the Church from secular rulers, but to relieve parishes of their assets. The bishops reckoned bishops were the best people to dispose of the parishes’ wealth.
The same struggle over the Church’s wealth and power lies behind the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket. Whereas in her first half millennium the Church was not a significant landowner – and hence not the major player in respect of social care she was to become in the period 1000-1500 – by Becket’s time she had become so. And kings then did to bishops what bishops did to parishes.
Of course, it was considerably more complicated than that. Larry Siedentop in his ‘Inventing the Individual’ shows how the Church’s teaching that the individual Christian saved by Jesus Christ was in God’s eyes an equal to anybody had implications for the relationship between rulers and ruled. That teaching was expressed in law to the Church’s favour as she asserted more and more her rights against lay powers. And it was one of the reasons for Becket’s death.
None of that intellectual complexity, spiritual fervour and clash of political wills is apparent in the British Museum’s new exhibition. Rather, and possibly rightly, it is assumed that visitors will know little and care little about mediæval Christianity. The resulting show is almost anthropological in the old-fashioned way it describes the peculiar practices of our ancestors.
But there is much about mediæval religion which even the diehard might find a stretch. This is illustrated in four sets of recently cleaned windows from Canterbury Cathedral. They show miracles attributed to St Thomas, the most outstanding of which is the healing of a man whose genitalia had been chopped off following due legal process and which then grew back after the saint’s intervention.
But if the stories which the windows tell are of their time, it’s well worth the visit to see these sumptuous works close-up. The colours are wonderfully deep. The faces and expressions of the characters in the stories are artfully picked out, and the overall designs are strong. Frustratingly, though the windows around Becket’s shrine are a ‘must,’ the show gives no serious indication why Becket became such a popular saint whose miracles were celebrated in such fine stained glass. Or how news of his murder crossed Europe so quickly and why it struck a chord in lands such as (modern day) Sweden.
The Swedish link is represented by a magnificent font from Lyngsjō. It has scenes of the baptism of Christ, the Coronation of Our Lady, St Thomas placing his hand in Christ’s side, and the murder of Becket. It would be interesting to know how such a combination of scenes was chosen, and how common that choice was. And why Becket was so popular in Scandinavia (or was that simply where the show’s artefacts have come from or did they lack a supply of suitable relics in that part of Christendom).
Of course, Becket’s death was a popular sensation. Benedict, monk and eyewitness to the murder, wrote that the assassination led to a great outpouring of grief which brought pilgrims to Canterbury, a trade in watered-down flasks of the martyr’s blood, and many miracles. Stephen Langton, Becket’s successor at Canterbury, organised a sumptuous, and apparently very boozy, translation of the saint’s body. And King Henry II came to Canterbury to do public penance.
All of which provokes that thorny question of Protestant Reformation studies, why was it that when Henry VIII was king, people who at one moment poured money into the cult of the saint should suddenly ransack his shrine and furiously attack his memory. The visual of a defaced prayer book makes an impressive point, but what that point is needs more working through. The exhibition illustrates, but it doesn’t illuminate.
The show ends with a relic, part of Becket’s skull. Much of the iconography of his murder features fragments of his skull falling to the ground along with a broken sword point. The horror and violence of Becket’s death had an immediate effect on contemporaries. It is the strength of the show that it manages to convey some of this. It was also interesting to discover that in real life Becket was physically more like Peter O’Toole (who played King Henry in the film) than Richard Burton (who played Becket).
With an introductory biographical essay
Eric Simmons CR
Mirfield Publications 2021 £7.50
120pp, ISBN 978-0-902834-53-8
Eric Simmons was a man to look up to. Both literally, owing to his physical stature, and spiritually – as a preacher, spiritual director and former superior of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield in West Yorkshire. Two thirds of his ninety years were spent in CR, which published this memorial volume after his death earlier this year. A biographical essay by Nicolas Stebbing CR prefaces thirty of his sermons arranged in liturgical order. These are characteristically well written, demonstrate knowledge of scripture, Christian tradition, literature and the way the world is with an eye to touching mind, heart and the will into practical application.
Eric, ranked as one of the best preachers in CR, had a gift of entertaining and learned discourse which opened up his companions to God. Fr Simon Oakes writes: ‘Spiritual direction with Fr Eric seemed always, to me, akin to a tutorial at Oxford or Cambridge, ranging effortlessly from art to literature to philosophy and the sciences. It seemed there was nothing he didn’t know, yet it was wisdom rather than mere knowledge. And at the end of each session, there was always a great theological revelation which had been in fact there all along, opened up and revealed during conversation by that wisdom of his.’
He had a humble upbringing in Thornaby, Teesside amidst the chronic unemployment of the 1920s. His family could hardly afford to eat meat. His father was traumatised in the First World War trenches and Fr Eric suffered from seeing his older brother die young. These sorrows inform sermons that sow seeds of contemplation into our human reality. ‘Faith is not a soft option, an easy cop-out from the hurts and agonies of life. Far from it! To say ‘Yes’ to God, and to go on saying ‘Yes’ to him, is to find ourselves engaging deeply with all that hurts and bleeds in life.’
To Eric, the religious life was witness to the radical claims of Christ, living in community under a rule of poverty, chastity and obedience, a model of how ‘our engagement with the world’s darkness must be corporate and not individualistic’. As Nicolas CR writes, Eric exemplified the quotation from Pusey in CR’s Rule: ‘The perfection of souls depends not so much on performing extraordinary religious actions as on performing extraordinarily well the ordinary exercises of every day’. Seeking one’s own perfection might look egotistic, but for Eric it came down more prosaically to the best performance of daily duties.
Good books of sermons are a preacher’s treasure trove, and this is a fine book for teaching illustrations. In the Transfiguration sermon, the emphasis is on how God’s search for us is prior to ours for him. It starts with a graphic illustration about a man who goes out to hunt lions. ‘He sets out into the bush in search of his quarry, but all day, having deliberately taken a circular route, as evening draws on, he arrives back at the place from where he had set off in the morning. There are his footprints – unmistakably his – but there is now also something else which wasn’t there before: among his footprints there is the spoor of a lion. He, the hunter, has become the hunted. The prey he had set out to catch is now seeking him, trailing him, tracking him.’
The sermon insinuates that the sleepy apostles were not tracking the vision of Christ’s Transfiguration, it was that vision that tracked them down. So often we sense God’s absence and yet he is always more at hand than we realise. In a sermon for Michaelmas, Eric Simmons recalls the presence of the angels as reminder that ‘all the world’s glittering achievements, and all its destructive powers, all the jangled nerves, and all the strain are ultimately held within ‘a wonderful order’, enfolded within the pattern of angelic obedience and love… another dimension lies all about us, invisible to our eyes, but real.’
A powerful Christ image evoked in this book is the ‘seamless robe’ of the passion used to express the compelling cohesion of the Lord’s life and teaching. It also captures something of how Eric’s inspiration was rooted in his own humble consistency in word and deed, worship and service – of which this book is a fine legacy.
A People’s Tragedy:
Studies in Reformation
Bloomsbury 2020 £20 272pp
If you visit Ely Cathedral today, your attention will likely be drawn to the famous octagonal tower, the fan vault ceilings or the memorials to medieval bishops and nobles. But a closer look reveals that, in fact, half the cathedral is missing. Its heart, the shrine of St Etheldreda, has been torn out and the spot is now marked by a plain marble slab. In the Lady Chapel, a fourteenth-century series of carved images from the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary has been defaced, the heads of each of the carvings smashed off. Like virtually all the cathedrals in England, the intricate paintings which once covered the walls were whitewashed over, and the gifts of pilgrims numbering many thousands each year were removed to the royal treasury. This desecration did at least have the small advantage of making it easier for television producers to use Ely as a stand-in for Westminster Abbey when filming various period dramas. But the loss, repeated up and down the country, of five centuries of priceless treasures (to say nothing of the irreplaceable spiritual value of the shrines themselves) must count as one of the greatest tragedies of English history.
There is still a prevailing and often unconscious view that, however many destructive and brutal acts may have taken place during the Reformation, it was nonetheless a painful necessity in order for England to detach itself from the murky, superstitious instability of the medieval age and progress through the reign of Good Queen Bess towards the broad, sunlit uplands of enlightenment, democracy and civilisation. This view, originally typified by so-called “Whig” historians such as Lord Macaulay and James Anthony Froude, has been confirmed in fiction and film, most recently and significantly in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy. In the last twenty years, historians have begun to counter this view with new studies of late medieval piety which help demonstrate that key aspects of late medieval religion such as pilgrimages and monasticism were vital and flourishing. However, in an age which often appears devoted to re-examining the past and correcting longstanding injustices, the strand of anti-Catholic prejudice initiated during the Reformation and woven throughout the English psyche for the past five hundred years appears to have gone largely unnoticed by the mainstream media.
In A People’s History: Studies in Reformation, Professor Eamon Duffy continues his task of demonstrating that the Reformation, far from being a grass-roots movement to free the English people from the tyranny of clerical corruption, was in fact a process imposed by the Crown largely for its own ends, and that the destruction and suppression of the monasteries and shrines constituted a significant national trauma. The first part of A People’s Tragedy consists of six studies examining the dissolution of the monasteries, and the consolidation and enforcement of royal supremacy during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Professor Duffy provides a fascinating insight into the experience of pilgrimage to cathedral shrines in the late Middle Ages and, in Duffy’s words, the “psychic and emotional impact” of their destruction on the English people. Duffy goes on to explore the revival of the Anglican and Roman Catholic shrines at Walsingham, and the development of the relationship between the two shrines.
The remainder of the book examines the ways in which the Reformation has been studied and written about over the previous two centuries, both in fact and fiction. Duffy examines the work of the Victorian historian Anthony James Froude, whose use of the newly transcribed Tudor state papers and other primary sources for his twelve-volume The History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada has long been held up as an example of objective, source-based historical enquiry. Duffy reveals that Froude, far from being the disinterested scholar that he liked to portray himself as, was in fact determined to defend the English Reformation as a positive good necessary for England’s moral development as a nation. Turning to historical fiction, Duffy’s primary target is, inevitably, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy and its depiction of Thomas Cromwell as a humane and progressive intellectual reformer surrounded by a loving and devoted household, in contrast to its portrayal of Thomas More as a proud and sneering sadist. While one might point out that Wolf Hall is fiction not fact, and that the books would not really work if the character of Cromwell was not a likeable one, Duffy argues that the astounding success of the series has nonetheless had a profound impact on the way in which even professional historians view the period.
With A People’s History, Professor Duffy has provided yet another substantial challenge to many of the received wisdoms which have shaped our view of sixteenth-century religion.
‘Made in the Image of God, Being Human in the Christian tradition’
Eds Michael Fuller & David Jasper
Sacristy Press, 2021 £29.99 288pp
Decades ago, I remember hearing a definition of theology as ‘Being careful about language in the presence of God.’ Alas the source of the comment has long slipped from my memory, but I could wish the editors of this book had come across it in their turn. For Being Human is a splendidly conceived topic and title for a book which alas is not borne out by the contents.
Certainly, many aspects of being human are covered here, but the contents are neither definitive nor sufficiently comprehensive. Indeed, at times the assembly of material would seem rather random. This often can happen when a series of offerings, by what I suspect are largely friends and colleagues, are brought together in one volume. Unfortunately, the twin hazards of insufficient direction of the contributions when commissioned followed by over cautious editing have both left their mark.
There are however still some riches to be found here: an excellent chapter on being human in the biblical tradition by Nicholas Taylor; another on compassion by Harriet Harris; and a superb afterword by David Ferguson. Other chapters, whilst not without merits, can and do suffer from obscure narrative arcs or random asides or, occasionally, simple incoherence.
The hole at the heart of this collection is that it never really addresses the central questions of theological anthropology, and there is no identification of how the human self is to be understood – what being human might mean. There is a chapter on transgender (one of the weaker contributions to my mind) but nothing on gender, surely a critical dimension and where so much ecclesiastical and institutional confusion currently reside.
The result is that the reader can feel rather tossed about, insufficiently grounded and buffeted by yet another perspective or individual take on things. Maybe our human Self is merely a construct, part theological, part social, part individual, part communal rather than of the more fixed existential reality we might previously have assumed. Or maybe theology informed by Quantum theory could have something to offer us here – the human Self seen as something more contingent, evolving over time as we co-create ourselves either in accordance with God’s will or, at times, in resistance and rebellion to it?
It could be that the evolution of our understanding is in such flux at present that coherence and consistency is unachievable, but then it would be useful were that to be articulated. The title suggests that we might be helped to understand what being Human in the Christian tradition could mean, but ultimately, we are left with much the same questions as with which we started to read.
So a collection with both breadth and depth – but not always can the two be found together. I suspect this will be a book, like many others (some of which indeed I have contributed to or edited in my turn) that will disappear eventually with little trace. But hopefully some of the more valuable insights and thoughtful contributions contained within here will make their mark in one way or another – for this is an area and a topic which will rightly be with us for a very long time.
Book of the month
Grace Is Not Faceless
Reflections on Mary
Edited by Stephen Burns
Darton, Longman and Todd, 2021 £16.99 176pp 978 0 232 53420 7
Ann Loades taught me when I was a student in Durham. So this review comes with gratitude for an interest in theology that as a gifted – and patient – teacher she nurtured in me.
Presenting my undergraduate work (or excuses) to Ann Loades involved climbing to her absurdly small office at the top of the theology department. It overflowed it with energy, encouragement, admonition, shrieks of exasperation, photocopied hand-outs and assorted postcards. Papers emerged from between and on top of books crammed into shelves crowded round a busy desk.
She had, and retains, the capacity to be excited by something original, to locate the beginnings of an idea in a wider network of theological thought, and to challenge lack of ambition, especially if it is a foil for laziness. But most of all, she was immensely understanding and practical.
In addition to her academic publications, international reputation as a guest lecturer, media work on Channel 4, and distinguished ability as a ballet teacher, Ann was appointed as Professor of Divinity at Durham and awarded a CBE for services to theology. That tells us something about what we discover in Grace is Not Faceless. Her work within the academy engages with a much wider context. In this case it is with how the Church at its best interprets every aspect of creation as expressing God’s self-revelation.
This collection of essays and sermons is an extension of Ann’s teaching style. The attraction of a series of essays is that you can dip into it with ease. The disadvantage is that it does not necessarily build the case for holding a particular theological viewpoint. In this book, however, the focus on Mary is consistent.
In his introduction, the book’s editor, Stephen Burns, points out that with Searching for Lost Coins (1987) Ann was the first British-based academic to publish a monograph of feminist theology. The final chapter of that early work began to explore what feminists make of Mary the mother of Jesus. The essays in Grace is Not Faceless cover the decades from that point up to the present. Although the tone changes, the clarity of thought and the breadth of knowledge does not. There are four aspects of Ann’s work that emerge consistently in her exploration of Mary who is full of grace.
The first is the explicit decision to pay attention to women. This focuses mainly on other women. Ann also resists any tribal feminist labelling, hoovering up in her work the attention paid by men and by writers and artists who do not describe themselves as feminist. Above all, it is for her qualities as a woman that Ann turns our attention to Mary and her importance in the Christian faith.
The conviction that “the female and feminine can of and by itself image God” (p.68) prompts an interest in any work that illuminates this vision of goodness in creation as it is distinctively seen in and by women. So in Ann’s eclectic range of interests, we refreshingly find in one essay a reference to “world mothering air” in Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the imaginative work of the Methodist Old Testament scholar, Margaret Barker, together with Evelyn Underhill and Dorothy Sayers in another.
The second quality to Ann’s work is her capacity to interrogate the full breadth of the Christian tradition. This stands in contrast to the paucity of understanding and curiosity that is evident in many areas of ecclesiastical life today. She writes with authority about feminism as a new discipline but one that does have 200 years of its own tradition.
Similarly, Ann plunders the Anglican tradition in its liturgy, hymnody, sermons, and art for evidence of the lyrical hold that this woman, the Virgin Mary, has on a Church that had once sought to topple her from its devotion life.
As a catholic Anglican, I have always valued Ann’s critical engagement with the Roman Catholic Church. It is no accident that the title of this book comes from the Dominican, Cornelius Ernst. And the chapter entitled “Mary and the Trinity: The Anglican Position” was a paper given in 2001 at the XX Mariological Marian International Conference, in Rome. In the early 1990’s Ann was already being invited to speak to the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary because of the ecumenical breadth of her theological literacy. Two chapters in Grace is Not Faceless have their origin in the Ecumenical Society’s conferences, and it is heavily referenced throughout the book.
Third, Ann values poetry as a medium for the exploration of the mystery of God’s works. It seems to me that this is an extension of her love of dance. We might think of poetry as turning plain words into music by use of rhythm and rhyme, association and dissonance. In a similar way, Ann saw the capacity of the body to turn its movement into an exposition of emotion and meaning without words.
Throughout Christian history Mary has elicited from artists the leap of imagination that is needed to understand her identity as the God-bearer, the Theotokos. Perhaps the scope of this is caught in a prose quotation that Ann uses to describe the potent mystery of Mary’s response to God in its physical, spiritual and mental dimensions: “it was made with the whole of her being. It was an assent to the totality of herself.” (p.29)
Fourth, Ann attends to damage done by thoughtlessness, as well as the scandal of its institutional and intended force. Apart from explicit violence against women, Ann sharply articulates their more subtle denigration. If Mary alone is blameless and fair among women, as an Orthodox text puts it, what are all other women, as distinct from men, being blamed for? The identification of Mary with women and all outcasts is given a sophisticated exegesis, exemplified by a quotation of devils who say, “Heaven’s the place for all the riff-raff / We’ve got the wheat and God the chaff.” (p 32)
And a more startling challenge follows in Ann’s assessment of what is damaging to men and the call for a fresh, long overdue, examination of Joseph and a new sense of masculinity. This book is robust, stimulating and comforting. It makes a serious case for recovery of the importance of Mary in the Christian narrative, and it appeals to the best of our human instincts. It holds out a challenge for those who have overlooked the biblical and Marian significance of Pentecost but sadly it does not go further. Perhaps it belongs to others to pick up this challenge in the Church of England and to give serious consideration to an ecclesiology that is simple and humble in its Marian dimension, and boldly resistant to managerial growth. Imagine how that might please the Mothers’ Union and the Society of Mary!
When Searching for Lost Coins was published in 1987 Ann sent me a copy, with a note: “Martin – to cheer you on!” Since then I’ve explored some of the interesting avenues she suggested but, perhaps like student days, not made much substantial progress. However, Grace is Not Faceless is an encouragement to see just how richly diverse and catholic the future has to be.