The year it all began to go wrong (or right)
For some it is the year when it all began to go wrong and for others the year when it all came right. ‘It’ is the Christian cause, movement, project, gospel, manifesto, tradition, church, call it what you will. For some it is the year when the Christian church sold its soul for the devil of worldly position, and for others the year when it first enabled faith in Christ to become the way of salvation for the whole world. The year usually cited is 312 ad, when the Emperor Constantine converted from paganism to Christianity, but according to my source a truer date would be the year 381 ad.
That source is ‘The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ and my authority, its writer, Edward Gibbon. By the standards of modern history writing, I am told, Gibbon’s work is flawed, using uncertain texts at random and displaying a wilful disregard for scholarly impartiality, but for his day - the later 18th century - the history was a revelation, was loved by the public and sold out many times over. To my mind his writing style remains fluent and colourful, unlike much of the anaemic prose writing of today. I’d rather have a work of a genuine writer with a few misjudgements than the flawless dirge of the academy.
Anyway: the year it all went wrong (or right). First, the official year, 312 - when, for still uncertain motives, varying from personal conviction to political necessity (most think the latter), the Emperor became a Christian - was followed by 70 or so years under other emperors with less religious enthusiasm than he, including the short reign of Julian who, according to Gibbon, embraced paganism all over again, until Theodosius in Constantinople finally completed the task begun by Constantine, and reduced to ruins many ancient temples spread over Asia Minor, or converted them into Christian churches. I’ll take 381, then, as the year when it all began to go wrong (or right).
Gibbon was a rationalist and empiricist, with little time for Christians, whom he mostly described as either ‘superstitious’ or ‘fanatic’ or both. The behaviour from time to time of certain bishops didn’t help either, putting enemies to the sword and ransacking the cultures of ancient civilisations. These 4th and 5th century Christians had the bit between their teeth and Gibbon did not approve!
‘Rome submitted to the yoke of the Gospel,’ he writes pithily, and then, more fully, comes this:
‘As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal, that the introduction . . . of Christianity, had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; the last remains of the military spirit were buried in the cloister . . . and the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes . . . who could only plead the merits of abstinence and ambition.’ [!]
For Gibbon the year 381 marked the time when the might and vigour of the general and soldier was finally transformed into the superstitious piety of the priest and monk. In an odd way his disenchantment with the course of history mirrors a disquiet I have often heard, and still hear, within some circles of the church, though in this case for different reasons: namely, that the adoption of the Christian faith within the empire of Rome marked the death of the true gospel tradition and the birth of a lesser faith, one dependent on princes and power; and this continues to touch a nerve with we Anglicans as well, raised as we are in the nursery of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, whose bishops still parade in ermine at the state opening of parliament.
The political and cultural establishment of religion is certainly a two-edged sword, capable of cutting the hand of the one who yields it as much as the one who feels its edge. For where would the post-Reformation religious history of Britain be without the contribution of dissenters and dissidents, challenging the assumptions of state controlled religious faith, the appointment of Bishops, the patronage of parishes, the possession of land and property, and the control of the established church by parliament and crown. The recent turmoil within parliament harks back 17th century days of confrontation between crown and commoner, entitled and landless, and many of these were driven by a different reading of scripture and tradition than that which governed the ruling echelons of church and state.
Within scripture, too, similar tensions can be found: around, for example, the desire for a monarch in the days of Samuel (‘give us a king like the other nations!’), in the rants of a prophet like Amos at the luxury and idleness perverting the demands of the covenant; and again in the New, where an older, northern Galilean voice is heard in the preaching of John Baptist and Jesus himself, harking back and evoking Isaiah, Jeremiah and the minor prophets like Micah. Remember how Peter was recognised outside Caiphas’ house by his accent, or again the saying that ‘nothing good could come out of Galilee.’
So, the year 381 was a watershed year and began that movement some lament and some rejoice in that led to huge wealth, power and influence within the broader Christian church and at the same time sent underground a more radical spirit, which retained closer ties with the poverty of the gospel.
The strength of the Anglican system, to my mind, remains within its less seen, and much under-rated, parish life, in its local, ‘Galilean’ manifestation, where the gospel is immersed in the lives of other people and particularly in the lives of those who, as Jeremiah once put it, ‘were not my people, but have become my people.’ It is best known in the cracks in the paving of normality, where people are often hurting; to these we are called, in St Giles as well as anywhere else.
Though challenged today and certainly less influential, yet a measure of cultural acceptance remains still for our tradition, an acceptance that has enabled a Christian presence to continue in the thousands of neighbourhoods of this land. We value the open doors that such acceptance brings, but must remain on our guard lest we keep hidden the tough demands of scripture and tradition for fear of disturbing the status quo, be it locally or nationally, wherever it is encountered.
So, the year 381: a curse or a blessing; an embrace or an imprisonment? It can be hard for the Edward Gibbons of our own day to place us ‘fanatics’ and ‘superstitious’ types. I like to think that I have occasionally trodden on the fringes of establishment in my own local ministry and sometimes, just sometimes, have tugged at its cloak of power and influence. It all comes down to how the gospels speak to us and how we read them, for they contain both the voice of the wilderness and of the Temple. Which one will most command our attention? Which one is closest to the Galilean who, one Passover, overturned the tables of the money changers? You, the reader, must choose for yourself, but I know where I stand.