17 February, 2014Issue 24.3InterviewsReligion

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An Interview with Diarmaid MacCulloch

Fergus McGhee


Diarmaid MacCulloch is one of the world’s leading religious historians. Since 1997 he has been Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford, where he is a Fellow of St Cross College. After studying Tudor history at Cambridge under Sir Geoffrey Elton, MacCulloch spent a decade teaching church history in Bristol before training for ministry in the Church of England. However, he eventually declined ordination in response to a motion overwhelmingly passed by the Church’s General Synod condemning homosexuality in 1987. His biography of Thomas Cranmer, architect of the Church of England, won a string of awards including the Duff Cooper Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1996, and was succeeded by a panoramic history of the Reformation, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, in 2003. In 2009, he took on a still larger canvas in A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, which was adapted for an extremely popular BBC series in 2010. In 2012, he was knighted for services to scholarship. His most recent book, Silence: A Christian History, was published last year.

Let’s start with the obvious question. Why does religious history matter?

We’ve suddenly remembered that most of the world is passionately concerned with religion. When I was an undergraduate—the late 60s, early 70s—the assumption in universities was that religion was going out, that there was no real point in it, studying it was antiquarianism. I think the turning point was 1977/78, when we saw Iran have its revolution hijacked by the Ayatollahs, when we got a counter-Reformation pope, and when a born-again Christian was elected President in Jimmy Carter. Suddenly, religion was back and it’s not got any easier. The problem is avoiding the simple version of the past, which is the property of fanatics. The religious historian’s job is to complicate the past, in a useful way, and stop those simplified stories being told in order to avoid simplified versions of the future—the awful, chilling simplicities of, at its worst, Al-Qaeda, but any sort of fundamentalism. So that’s a justification. It’s the general historian’s duty to combat insanity in the human race and it does seem to me that that’s professional history’s main objective. Apart from the fact of course it’s huge fun.

Does the historian have particular moral responsibilities then?

Yes, I think so. I’m very old fashioned in that way. It does seem to me to be a moral task, because otherwise it becomes pretty stories or antiquarianism; it becomes like stamp-collecting. And the task is to do what other disciplines can’t. Medicine is clearly vital to our physical well-being, physicists do things which I can’t do, but very few other disciplines are about combating corporate insanity. And that’s what historians do. So it is a moral task and it’s a peculiarly destructive and critical task as well because it’s always combating the simplicities, the crudities, the bullying of future generations by a version of the past. I’ve always emphasised that—probably more than most historians. It’s perhaps a hazard of being a parson’s son: you want to go on preaching.

I think it was Cardinal Manning who said that ‘one must overcome history by dogma.’ So do you think dogma can be overcome by history?

Yes—particularly if you tell the story of the early Church, in a historian’s way. It comes as a revelation to the committed. My first job was in a theological college, a Methodist college in Bristol, and I plunged first year students into the history of the early Church straight away, which was a cruel thing to do because it’s really alien. The names are odd, the culture is completely different, and yet I thought it was important to get a sense of how provisional and accidental the history of the early Church was. That’s a profound solvent to dogma. And if you think about the late nineteenth century when the views of those like Cardinal Manning became paramount – became absolutely salient in the Roman Church – the first target was the teaching of Church history. People like the Catholic historian Alfred Loisy, who was excommunicated. There was a great historian called Louis Duchesne, who avoided the problem by never touching the apostolic era, and yet always treading a very careful line against the then Vatican’s campaigns against what it called ‘Modernism’, which was a sort of chimera conjured up by the paranoiac. The good thing about Manning’s aperçu is that it’s absolutely right—these things are profoundly opposed: a scientific view of history and dogma. They’re two different ways of approaching reality, and I know which I would choose.

The silencing of Loisy and Duchesne makes me think of your latest book, Silence: a Christian History. That imperative—‘Silence!’—is the roar of dogma, and yet you suggest that silence can also be an antidote to dogma. Could you say a little about that?

There are so many different layers in the word and that’s what interested me in doing the book. The format of the Gifford Lectures invites six different topics, and I managed (praise be to the Lord!) to find a ‘silence’ for each one. And there are negative ones and positive ones as you suggest. It seems to me that silence is actually the salvation of religion, because behind most propositional religions there is the greater silence. I’m an optimist about religion. It seems to me that its future can only be rosy, partly because it’s going through such travails at the moment. And out of that can come a silence which transcends the various forms of religion that we see, not by destroying any of them, but by giving each of them a glance of something bigger. So it’s a book that I’ve been wanting to get off my chest for a long while, and I don’t think I could have been justified in writing it had I not already arrived at a narrative framework in A History of Christianity. That was a sort of personal exploration of what my opinion of the Christian faith was, and, on balance, it did me good. I felt cheered at the end of it, in a way that I didn’t necessarily feel I would.

It reminded me of something, again back in those Methodist days, when there were some fairly unsophisticated people in the classroom, and they often had a way of expressing things extremely straightforwardly. And one of them, at the end of one of my sessions on the early Church, despairingly said, ‘Well, where is the good news in all this?’ And I could see what he was saying (whatever ghastly phase of the early Church we’d been talking about). But I said to him, the good news is that the Church is still there! And that must indicate something out of this welter of corruption, bribery, persecution, and God knows what. And that’s the thought which has stayed with me throughout my various spiky relationships with religion.

And what do you think is so compelling about Christianity? How has it managed to reinvent itself so many times?

Well, it’s infinitely malleable, like all great world religions. They’re all very good at changing their spots: when you think that Buddhism is Indian, even though it’s disappeared from India and now it’s a religion of south-east Asia and China and so on. Christianity’s got a similar story because it’s virtually extinct in its homeland and is now flourishing far from that homeland in very different guises. What is it? Well, there must be something which is true in it. Nothing survives unless there is a truth and a value in it, and behind all the transformations, the weirdnesses, the hypocrisies, et cetera, there is something defined. And Christianity, I think uniquely, defines that as a person, although it’s got its own idea of what a person is (which Buddhists and Confucians and so on don’t have). So that, I think, is why it has survived: it’s got this relationship with a person, whoever that person might be.

Your History of Christianity is breezily subtitled ‘the first three thousand years’. What are the pleasures, and difficulties, of taking the long view?

Well, the difficulty is there’s so much. It’s daunting. And in a sense, that’s its salvation because, rather like Luther’s sense of utter despair at his sin, the liberating moment is when you say ‘I can’t do anything about that: what I can do is simply lie back on a sea of faith and get on with it’. You say, ‘I can’t read everything, I’ll do my best, I’ll have some shapes in my mind and see whether the narrative fits’. The one way in which I think the task became possible was that I’ve edited the Journal of Ecclesiastical History for nearly two decades. The great thing about this journal, which I’m very proud of, is that we review books on a huge scale—about 300-odd a year. So it’s like having a research team of 300 experts, who provide you with instant summaries of books, highlighting various interesting things about them, picking out anecdotes, showing what the shape is. And that’s what I actually did—there’s my set in the blue covers there. I read through the lot, and then, always, checked out everything by going back to the book, which of course is one of the great luxuries of Oxford, where you can more or less guarantee that every book you want is here. So the rhythm is that you spend the morning writing from your notes and then go with your new text to the Bodleian Library in the afternoon after a nice college lunch, and the whole day has been an advancement. So, there were joys in the end. The fact that it was possible was a joy. I think I always start out with the principle that the book isn’t going to be possible to write, and then, funnily enough, it turns out that it is.

Turning, then, to the future of Christianity. You said it has a very bright future—even in the West?

I think there are two joys: a) Christianity is expanding as a worldwide faith; and b) the peculiar and interesting situation of the Church in the West, by which I suppose we’re not talking about a place but a state of mind (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the U.S., and Latin America, actually). Anyway, the West is substantially a place where people are not going to church much, and don’t look to the Church for authoritative answers any more—partly because the answers are still stupid. But there is still something which some of these people find captivating, for reasons which may not be the conventional ones from the past. And I think one of the exciting things about Western Christianity is that it is faced with the situation of what to do next.

I suppose it started thinking these things in the late seventeenth century with the Enlightenment, and its relationship with the Enlightenment doesn’t seem to me to be necessarily an antagonistic one. The Enlightenment is a Christian response, and a Jewish response, to a crisis in authority, from Spinoza onwards. And what’s interesting is that we’re just at the early stages of it. It seems to me that this is one of the great watersheds, as Constantine was a watershed, and Gregory VII, and the Reformation. So every five hundred years or so the Church has these nodal moments. As for the rest of the world, well, the West may provide a pattern for those parts of the Church which are expanding, when they face the same problems, after the century or so of ecstatic expansion. What do you do with these people? Do you sink back into a leaden authoritarianism? Or do you look to churches which have lost their power, their overarching authority, and yet are struggling on, and not just struggling, but thinking seriously? To look at the Lutheran Church in Sweden, for instance, you could say it’s a failure, hardly anyone goes—but is that necessarily a bad thing? It’s still there as a witness and it’s carrying a spirit which clearly has some value to the people of Sweden, so we’ve just got to look for different models I think.

Do you fear that the sort of questioning, ‘liberal’ (for want of a better word) core of the Church of England is threatened by a pincer movement from the more die-hard Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals?

I did. A decade ago, I did. I thought this looked pretty desperate. Liberals had lost their mojo and the wings looked triumphant, but that’s partly because liberals were too decent to challenge them.

‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity’?

Yes! Exactly, exactly. I think the worm turned over the women episcopate business last November, when it was clear that the two opposing wings were very much a minority. The shout of anger which went up from the pews was very impressive and took the wind out of the sails of the extremes. So, oddly enough, under Justin Welby, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, I think things have vastly improved. And, well, you should know them by their fruits in the end. One of Our Lord’s most wise sayings. So the situation is not as bad as it looked. It was a cumulative process. For nearly twenty years the extremists shouted louder and louder, and people courteously thought that they must listen and also give way. The fact is there was never any comeback: it was a case of ‘give them an inch and they’ll take a yard’. And that’s no way to run a church.

You mentioned Justin Welby. Are you impressed by Pope Francis?

Interesting, isn’t it? He’s not put a foot wrong and he’s clearly a delightful and lovable man. And the change of atmosphere he’s created is remarkable. I knew it would happen, but not overnight like that. It’s interesting, the things that he’s not done. The nice aspect of what he’s not done is not to rant on about sex, but his pronouncements on women seem to me to be disappointingly unimaginative. Again, very nice and warm-hearted, but with terrible stereotypes of what it is to be female, and the sharper female theologians in the Roman church have noticed this and have begun to say, well, hang on, can’t we update the Pope on that? But the transformation from the embattled atmosphere, particularly under Benedict, and the bits of the spectrum which John Paul II simply seemed unable to see, is remarkable. Overnight, things have changed. Very dangerous for him…

Revenge of the Curia [the central administration of the Roman Catholic Church]?

Yes, there are vested interests, but it’s also the release of expectations—it’s like the history of France in the nineteenth century. Liberalism comes in, and all is swept away. So it’s a very difficult tiger to ride, I think. Good luck to him. While we’re lurking on church leadership, I do think Justin Welby’s had a remarkable start. He’s got big problems because of his sympathy with Africa and his unwillingness therefore to tackle the unattractive aspects of African Christianity. But looking round other church leaders, I think there is a real problem with the Moscow Patriarchate [the Russian Orthodox Church]…

Too wrapped up with Putin?

It’s fulfilled all the worst predictions about Russian Orthodoxy: that, given back power, it would just revel in it, like a dog rolling about in the dirt. And it’s interesting to read among the pronouncements of the Ecumenical Patriarch [the Patriarch of Constantinople, regarded as the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church] (who is a most remarkable statesman—who will possibly follow him?) a very barbed but very careful statement about authority addressed to the Moscow Patriarchate. So it’s not a problem with Orthodoxy, but with the leadership of the Russian Church. And the contrast with Francis is really very striking indeed. So it’s part of the fascination of this moment, the different models of authority which are being presented to Christianity.

Aside from your books and your duties here in Oxford, you’ve presented three BBC series (A History of Christianity, How God Made the English, and Henry VIII’s fixer: the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell) and remain a much valued voice in the contemporary Church of England…

Well, not valued by the bishops! Much resented by some…

Valued all the more for that! How important is that public engagement to you?

Well, hugely, and it brings us back to the question about morality. The moral task of historians is to find a way of telling a wider public what we’re up to, with a moral purpose in mind. Apart from the fact that I enjoy radio and television, it seems to me what we historians must do. Not everyone wants to do it, but those who can, ought to. And we have a task against those academic disciplines which are very good at getting money, such as medicine, to keep our end up in the public eye. It’s very easy for historians, because history is so fascinating. But it needs to be got out there all the time in case bad versions of the past are put out there, and television is always subject to Gresham’s law: bad series will outbid good ones. So it’s important to do it if you can. It’s also very good fun, and fascinating because it works at such a different level from what we do here. It’s a task of simplification, whereas what we do in a tutorial here is to complicate and nuance. But to find a way of being simple and yet being true to a real structure is a constant fascination. It’s a sort of craftsman’s fascination for me—can you do it? Can you get this across? And being on location is always fascinating because you’ve got to stand in front of a camera and say things in two, three sentences. I re-write everything on site, after some very quick arguments with the producer. And that’s very satisfying because of the different skills that you’re both bringing—I’ve got historical knowledge and they’ve got the sense of what will get over—and that’s a combined act of craftsmanship, which I think is really tremendous. Very hard work, but well worth doing.

Fergus McGhee is reading for a second BA in English at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review