Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years

Interview with Author Diarmaid MacCulloch

Honest Answers from an 'Anglo-Catholic Agnostic'

April 2, 2010
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I had the privilege of interviewing Oxford Professor and author Diarmaid MacCulloch via e-mail last week. You can read my review of his new book, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, at this link: The Good and the Dangerous.

While there are certainly points where I disagree with MacCulloch, I believe what he has to say to today’s Church is important. His answers below are given verbatim as  received, without edit (except for a few paragraph breaks) or comment.

In the Introduction, you refer to yourself as a “candid friend” of Christianity, and remark that your days growing up in the rectory are a pleasure to remember. You apparently are disillusioned with the Christian Church as a whole. Would you mind giving us a little background on how you went from embracing dogma to having doubts?

I wouldn’t actually say that I was disillusioned with the Church.  I’ve always had an affection for its institutions, and the Church of England is after all my tribe; you don’t reject your tribe lightly.  Indeed in recent months I have found myself fiercely defending the Anglican tradition against ill-judged assaults on it, when its bishops have on the whole kept silent.  What I would rather say is that I have come to view with grave suspicion ultimate claims to authority, particularly those made on behalf of the Bible (the Bible itself hardly makes any claims to authority).  This started many years ago when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge University in the early 1970s.  There around the age of twenty, I happily came to terms with being gay, a fact which I had realised from an early age.

From then on I made no secret of the fact and had a much more enjoyable life as a result.  This hard-won realisation had consequences: it began to instil in me a scepticism about sacred books and ancient wisdom.  What I found in the Bible on the subject of homosexuality was not just inadequate, but worse than useless.  That suggested that other pronouncements made with supreme confidence by religious organisations were liable to be as grotesquely wrong as the Christian Church’s pronouncements on homosexuality.

Then in the mid-1980s, I sought ordination in the Church of England.  However, I was determined to do this as an openly gay man.  I could not see any point in answering a vocation which constantly talks about truth but then demands a concealment on one of the most important aspects of human personality.  So it was with this programme that I entered fairly aggressively on the process of getting ordained.  I got through a stormy selection conference with the support of the Bishop of Bristol (England), and I spent a year at Ripon College Cuddesdon, a liberal Catholic theological college of the C of E: a very happy and useful year, which gave me an excellent training in theology and biblical studies.  I was ordained deacon and worked in a Bristol parish alongside my then job teaching in a Methodist seminary.

But this was now 1987: the era when Anglican Evangelicals began stirring themselves to do something about homosexuality in the Church.  They had been caught by surprise by the sudden emergence of gay liberation in the 1970s, and it took some time for the conservative forces to get their act together.  Now they started pressurising the Church hierarchy for action, for a crack-down on these new and unwelcome forces within the Church of England.  To cut a long story short, in 1988 my bishop took fright and said that he would have to postpone ordaining me to the priesthood.  It might be possible later, he suggested, if I kept quiet.  I said that that was out of the question, and so I walked out of both active ministry and active involvement in the Church.  Much national sensation followed.

This was a very considerable personal trauma.  It felt as if my mother had turned round and kicked me in the face: the reversal of all expectations.  It was also at this time that Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses became the subject of worldwide Islamic agitation.  This was a very considerable turning-point for me.  As I watched the unedifying spectacle of the devotees of a sacred book behaving bestially towards the writer of a book, I realised that my sympathies were entirely with Rushdie.  I felt a deep moral revulsion against the actions of his opponents, and against their accusations of blasphemy.  If this was the effect which a sacred book had on ordinary decent people, there seemed little to choose between sacred books and the effects of Nazism which had made so many ordinary decent Europeans behave so bestially.

I began to have a much more radical scepticism about the possibility of anything definitive or perhaps even useful being said about the sacred through the pages of specially privileged books.  My previous Anglo-Catholicism became Anglo-Catholic agnosticism, which is itself a tradition with a long and honourable pedigree.  And that’s where I stand now.  I am a regular churchgoer and frequently play the organ for services and sing in my church choir.

What are your thoughts on miracles? Do you think any of the miracles recorded in the Bible, or passed on through tradition, actually happened?

I don’t believe that they happened as miracles.  Many of the miracle stories are likely to be based on events which did happen, and there is nothing surprising in charismatic religious leaders being able to provoke healing in the mentally and even physically ill.  Many of them are likely to be symbolic stories, presenting some greater truth.  As the history of the Church continues, other stories have been made up on the basis of the stories before, because people always want special witnesses to their special experience of the divine, and they will see ordinary events as miraculous in the process.  Francis Bacon observed that ‘God never wrought miracle to confound atheism, because his ordinary works do confound it.’  There’s a lot to be said for that.  Religious belief has made people behave in ways which are astonishing.  And a fugue by J.S. Bach is a miracle.

You talk about how religious belief can produce both criminal acts and great good. When I look at the history of the Church, even its recent history, I am also perplexed at things that have been done in the name of Christ. I think we all can think of things that the Church has done wrong. Can you give some examples of what you think she has done right?

Right whenever she has given the powerless and unloved a sense of being loved and worthwhile, and restored to the hopeless and those without choice, hope and the chance to choose.  In particular, the great achievement of some maverick eighteenth-century evangelicals was in ignoring the Bible’s clear acceptance in both Old and New Testament that the institution of slavery is a natural part of the structures of society, and saying for the first time in Christian history that slavery is wrong in all circumstances, period.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the Church  today?

To find an acceptance that diversity in understanding of doctrine, in religious practice and in lifestyle is a virtue, not a vice, an opportunity and not a necessity.  That this may represent a true unity among Christians.

If you had the power to influence the direction of the Church, what advice would you give her?

Listen to people, and don’t try to tell people what to do all the time.  Do not make your default emotion righteous anger.  Remember the insight of St Thomas Aquinas, that God is not the answer, he is the question.

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Mark received an Associates degree in Pastoral Ministries in 1989 and was licensed to the Gospel Ministry in 1997. Mark and his wife, who have been married over 30 years, live in northern Indiana. They have four grown children, two granddaughters, and one grandson. Besides his job for a manufacturing company, Mark also sells books—mainly related to C S Lewis and JRR Tolkien—on eBay (iHaveAnInkling).

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