Diarmaid MacCulloch vs. the Catholic Curia

Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex. After Hans Holbein the Younger

The author of the award-winning biography of the English Reformer Thomas Cranmer, the magisterial The Reformation, and Christianity: The First 3,000 Years, Diarmaid MacCulloch has given an interview to the British Spectator. A few excerpts:

MacCulloch is a believer. For him, as for most Christians, divinity and silence are entwined. God is silent and invisible, even to those who want to hear and see Him. But He is there. ‘The essence of the authority of God is its thereness,’ he says. ‘It’s a bit like our relationship with our parents. There is nothing you can do about it. You can’t declare someone else to be your dad. That seems to me to be a statement about religion. I have a relationship with the Bible because it’s just there. I may not like what it says, I may not approve of it or obey it, but it’s there and I’ve got to cope with it.’ In Silence [his new book] he’s trying a synthesis of history and theology — he is attempting to edit out the man-made noise of the past and tune in to what he calls ‘the Divine Wild Track’.

MacCulloch’s relationship with God is complicated. The only child of a country parson, he grew up lonely and alienated in a big rectory in Suffolk. He loved his parents, but was angry about Christian homophobia. Now 61, he seems to have been reconciled to the Church of England. He’s a deacon and speaks fondly of Rowan Williams and Justin Welby, but he wants to push the leadership of the Anglican Communion towards embracing gay marriage. He is an avid hater of clericalism. Yet every Sunday he celebrates the high-Anglican liturgy at St Barnabas’s in Oxford. ‘I go for orthopraxy — the form — not orthodoxy,’ he explains.

A modern Anglican through and through…

MacCulloch also has something of an adversarial relationship with the Catholic Church and those he sees as revisionists:

MacCulloch isn’t terribly subversive about his own ideas. His values are of his time. He thinks religious dogma on sex should be confined to the history books. He is contemptuous of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Roman Catholicism made a big mistake with its move towards papal infallibility in the 19th century, he says. ‘It turned away from its natural state of diffused authority. The Roman Church seems to have forgotten in the last 150 years that it has all these other traditions and now they’re there waiting for the church in its hour of crisis. The last two papacies have been disastrous — nemesis has got them now.

‘Conservative Catholic friends of mine are increasingly disappointed and angry,’ he adds, referring to recent Vatican scandals. ‘These people are suddenly confronted with realities, and they are unwilling to defend the hierarchy in the way that they used to. It’s lovely seeing that sort of attitude emerge. It’s nothing but healthy for the Roman Catholic church. It is a sort of Anglicanism -emerging.’

MacCulloch insists that he is ‘not anti-Catholic, but anti-curial.’

Aren’t we all? Oh, and there’s this:

Does being gay make you a better historian? ‘Immensely, immensely,’ says Diarmaid MacCulloch. ‘From a young age, four or five onwards, I began to realise that the world was not as it pretends to be, there are lots of other things there. You learn how to listen to what is being half-said or implied, and that’s a transferable skill.’

MacCulloch’s new book, the aforementioned Silence: A Christian History, sounds, well, bad:

‘Silence is allied to wordlessness and wordlessness is allied to music,’ he explains in the book. He refers to ‘the dog that did not bark in the nighttime’ in Conan Doyle’s ‘Silver Blaze’. (The animal’s quietness suggests to Sherlock Holmes that it knew the killer.) For MacCulloch, the good historian must do his own detective work and read into the gaps, listen for voices that weren’t recorded. ‘History has been written largely by men and the noise in history is mostly male,’ he says. ‘Subtract that, and you can hear all the other voices which haven’t been heard — most obviously, and crudely, women.’

I say sounds because MacCulloch is a gifted scholar who may surprise, and no doubt will inform. But should it disappoint, there’s always:

His next book — ‘the literal bookend of my career’ — is a huge  volume on Thomas Cromwell, the man who presided over the dissolution of the monasteries. Like the novelist Hilary Mantel, who says that ‘nowadays the Catholic Church is not an institution for respectable people’, MacCulloch sees Cromwell as a sympathetic figure.

Now THAT sounds like fun.


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