Monday, 19 March 2012

Half a job is better than none

No, not another diatribe about unpaid work placements. Something much stranger ... I caught an interesting programme on early English church history at the weekend (these are possibly the most enervating words in the language).

Alright, by interesting I don't mean the topic, which is deathly dull in the main, or the treatment, which was the in the usual style of TV history, i.e. occasional gobbets of opinion, boiled down to the point of blandness, set in a raspberry jus of pretty pictures. What was interesting, as Sherlock Holmes noted, was that the dog didn't bark.

Despite his name, Diarmaid MacCulloch is an Anglican from, funnily enough, East Anglia. He is a conventional historian (recently knighted), specialising in the English Reformation. The programme, How God Made The English: A Chosen People?, proposed that the English sense of superiority can be traced to a belief that they are the chosen people of God. There are two things that struck me as odd.

First, MacCulloch mentioned only two instances of people considering themselves to be chosen, the Jews of the Old Testament and the English, but this ignores the fact that there have been many others who made this claim, and many who have used biblical parallels in support of it: the Christian Spanish during the Reconquista of Andalusia; the Boers in South Africa; and the white settlers of North America (with their notion of manifest destiny). There are others, but these three are enough to show that this idea of a divine mission is neither unusual nor limited to ancient times.

These examples have some common features that are general across the entire class. A chosen people is normally chosen in respect of a specific area of land. In other words, the land is chosen for the people and vice versa. We're all familiar with the biblical idea of the promised land, and its modern embodiment in the state of Israel, but what is the chosen land of the English?

This brings me to the second striking feature of the programme, and the one where the dog is most mute. The title makes it clear that this is a study of the English, but how is it possible to talk of their history without considering the other inhabitants of these islands? MacCullogh made no mention of the Irish or the Welsh, and his one reference to the Scots came in the context of the union of 1707, when this sense of superiority was promoted from the realm of England to that of Great Britain.

His overview of early church history starts with Bede and looks back to the mission of St. Augustine in 597. There is no mention of the pre-existing christian tradition in England, dating from Roman times, or the spread of Christianity to Ireland and Scotland during the 5th century, a good 150 years before the arrival of Augustine in Canterbury. There is no mention of the divide between the Roman and Celtic clergy in Northern England, which in turn reflected dynastic struggles in a Northumbria surrounded by Celts and Picts, and which was resolved (in Canterbury's favour) at the Synod of Whitby in 664.

From Bede, writing in the early 8th century, we jump forward to King Alfred and the formation of the earliest viable state that can be called England in the late 9th century. From there we jump to Henry VIII and the establishment of the Church of England, which led to a fashion for biblical symbolism denoting God's favour for their endeavour. The circle is closed by the Henrician fancy for the legend of Joseph of Arimathea, planting his flowering staff at Glastonbury, which sought to prove a direct descent of English Christianity from Jesus. Cue the strains of Jerusalem. There is no mention of the far more popular myth-making around King Arthur under Henry (a scion of the Welsh Tudors, after all).

What MacCulloch seems reluctant to admit is that England wasn't a depopulated territory when the Saxons turned up, and that Christianity didn't arrive with Augustine. The ideological theme of the chosen people assumes that the promised land is rich - the land of milk and honey. But such a land is sure to be already populated as a consequence. The residents are now, by definition, squatters, who must be removed at the behest of God.

The Anglo-Saxons were more effective than the Boers, but less effective than the Spanish Reconquista and the establishment of the USA. Geographic apartheid was the best they could achieve with the Welsh and Cornish, pushing them back into to their marginal homelands, while Scotland remained independent. Basically, the English failed to conquer Britain. It's not much of a foundation myth, is it? "We did half a job".

No comments:

Post a Comment