Musawah (which means ‘equality' in Arabic) insists that change is possible by combining arguments from Islamic teachings, universal human rights principles, fundamental rights and constitutional guarantees, and grounding these arguments in the realities of women and men's lives in Muslim contexts today.
There is something desperately lonely about Barack Obama's universe. One gets the overwhelming sense of someone yearning for connection, for something that binds human beings together, for community and commonality, for what he repeatedly calls "the common good". This is hardly news.
The conflict in Gaza has dominated world headlines since the closing days of 2008. The war there is an exceptional event yet it also contains many elements of the familiar - in part because even at the “best” of times, media coverage of the middle east can be intense. In the new media age this coverage includes featuring and reflecting the intense engagement of people from around the world in the affairs of the region.
To honour the English writer John Milton on the 400th anniversary of his birth is to acknowledge his persistent otherness in the country he tried to transform, says Theo Hobson.
"One wants to do this thing of just walking along the edge of the precipice." (Francis Bacon)
An enterprising plan to display an atheist message on the side of sixty of London's red buses from January 2009 suggests that, if there is a God, she has a rather wicked sense of humour. The advertisement, which is sponsored by donors who include the British Humanist Association and Richard Dawkins, reads: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." The idea may have struck more of a chord before the world's financial convulsions, when the popular Zeitgeist included indulging the extravagances of a consumer economy sustained by unlimited credit, than at a time when people are very worried about basic monetary security. It is in such a time, after all, that the search for faith and transcendent meaning often flourishes; when the easy comforts of a society whose only pursuit is of "enjoyment" can begin to seem hollow.
Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic studies at Roehampton University, England.
Among her books are God's Mother, Eve's Advocate (Continuum, 2002), New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory (Routledge 2005), and The New Atheists: The War on Religion and the Twilight of Reason (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2007). Her website is here
Also by Tina Beattie in openDemocracy:
"Pope Benedict XVI and Islam: beyond words" (17 September 2006)
"Veiling the issues: a distractive debate" (24 October 2006)
"Religion in Britain in the Blair era" (10 January 2007)
"Religion's cutting edge: lessons from Africa" (14 February 2007)
"The end of postmodernism: the ‘new atheists' and democracy" (20 December 2007)
"Rowan Williams and sharia law" (12 February 2007)
In any event, there is nothing original or provocative about that banal agnostic slogan. It has been the credo of our western consumerist societies since the 1960s. A "probably" non-existent God has been banished from the public square and confined to increasingly empty churches in the company of a few deluded pious souls, leaving a large part of society to make merry (and money) with a sense of glorious liberation from the repressive effects of religion.
For the followers of a new and more ruthless deity have been building their temples in this society's midst. The fervour of their worship is familiar: a horde of over-excited, gesticulating men (like most religions, this one is dominated by men), shouting their prayers and petitions at the great glowing icons above them, placing their faith in the random and unpredictable whims of the gods, offering human sacrifices when necessary and creating a cult of secrecy so dense that the rest of us failed to see what they were up to until their creed had insinuated itself into so many institutions - governments and political processes, workplaces, schools and universities, shops, even homes and families.
What is the name of this all-powerful, all-controlling God? It may have once been called Mammon, but most today know it as The Market, and his followers (this God is most certainly male) are called CEOs and hedge-fund managers and oligarchs and traders. The Market dictates, responds, demands, even suffers (it is common to hear broadcasters use phrases such as the markets have "endured a brutal week"); and its minions and worshippers - politicians, bankers and taxpayers alike - do its bidding.
The power of this God would make "The Market probably doesn't exist" a more challenging slogan for London's buses to carry. But if anyone in the city wants to know what it would be like if God does not exist, they should take one of those buses to Tate Britain to view the exhibition of paintings by Francis Bacon. For this artist, there is no "probably" about it: God has been destroyed by the nihilistic horrors of 20th-century human behaviour, and the artist - recognising perhaps that people so often prefer the escapist route of consoling delusions - feels compelled to express the true face of a world without God.
A world inside out
Francis Bacon had an authoritarian Catholic father who expelled him from the family home on discovering the teenager wearing his mother's dresses. The remnants of this discarded Catholicism litter Bacon's art, like so much debris washed up by Matthew Arnold's "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of the sea of faith. Bacon's many sources of inspiration included Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim Altar, though he turns Grünewald's vision inside out, forcing our gaze beyond its message of redemption and healing, to confront us with the mangled meat that we are: savage and savaged beasts in a God-less world.
Grünewald intended the graphic torment of the crucified Christ to be a symbol of hope for the dying patients who knelt before it in the hospital chapel of St Anthony's monastery in Isenheim; but Bacon's crucified and monstrous bodies have the opposite intention, that of destroying any lingering trace of faith in a benevolent deity, a rational or redeemable humanity or a better hereafter.
This is the artist who once said: "I think that man now realises that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason."
Bacon's paintings from the 1940s to the mid-1960s reveal his genius at its terrifying and relentless best. Life is mirrored in the art - the genocidal landscape of 20th-century history is gorged upon and spat out onto canvases in which paint and image, form and matter, congeal in visceral gloops of despair. In Head II (1949), a bestial shape oozes out of paint as thick and coarse as elephant-hide - is it winning or losing the struggle to take form against the suffocating sludge of primal matter? Why does it matter, if God is dead? A series of early 1950s images inspired by Velásquez's Pope Innocent X howl from their entrapment in the dissolving and encroaching abyss. They look like popes should look, if there is no God.
Also in openDemocracy on matters of faith and unbelief:
Michael Walsh, "The Regensburg address: reason amid certainty" (19 September 2006)
Yves Gingras, "Science and mysticism: a tainted embrace" (17 August 2007)
Mark Vernon, "The bad faith of the secular age" (15 November 2007)
Keith Kahn-Harris, "How to talk about things we know nothing about" (21 February 2008)
John Casey, "Rediscovering traditionalism" (24 September 2008)
Then there are the paintings titled Man in Blue, also from the early 1950s. What astonishing serendipity that this exhibition appears in London at this time, with Bacon's tormented gaze seeing through the gloss and glaze of the City the faceless creatures trapped in its bureaucracies and institutions. His 1955 painting of a chimpanzee echoes the bestiality of his suited businessmen. We are animals, all of us: in the Darwinian fight some dissolve back into flesh and non-being even before they are formed, while others succeed at the business of becoming stronger beasts and get briefly ahead of the pack. But there is no God, so what's the point? Life is shit, and then we die.
This is what atheism looks like, to those who have eyes to see. This is what it feels like, to suffer without hope, to have the courage and the truthfulness to live in fidelity to a vision of Darwinian despair about the human condition. Like the master of Grünewald, Bacon sought to exploit the connection between the suffering human body and its artistic representation by dissolving the space of mediation between the two. He once said that he wanted his art to appeal directly to the nervous system, bypassing the process of interpretation and the search for meaning. In the Isenheim Altar, the fusion of body and art becomes a sign of incarnational hope, of flesh redeemed through the incarnate Word. In Bacon's repeated studies of crucifixion it becomes a sign of vicious and futile barbarity, of meaning devoured by the all-consuming flesh.
An act of defiance
Yet the paradox remains that the power of all great art - however nihilistic its message - depends upon the human capacity for transcendence. There are agnostic thinkers such as Peter Fuller and George Steiner who argue that only what Fuller called "a wager on transcendence" makes great art possible at all. In the obsession to represent, to create images which transcend the grip of the animal mind in order to explore a shared meaning and a common vision, Bacon must contradict the message he communicates. However much he resisted any attempt to find meaning in his art, its very existence depends upon the fact that humans are a meaning-making species - creative animals with a capacity for transcendence, imagination and linguistic and artistic expressiveness, all of which marks us out from the other life-forms with which we share the planet.
The howl of protest against the torment of the flesh is in itself an act of defiance against the void: a refusal to succumb to the nihilism that would render us mute and meaningless in the face of our human capacity for suffering and violence. We cannot short-circuit the quest for meaning which makes art possible, and within that possibility lingers the haunting question of what lies beyond the here and now, beyond the meat and the muck of our bodily selves.
There is a transition in Bacon's later works, so that by the 1980s the assault upon our senses becomes filtered through something less visceral and raw. The paint is less textured, the fusion of form and content yielding to a more stylised approach in which the dismembered and grotesque bodies have lost the pathos, the despair and vulnerability of the earlier work. There is a subtle shift from great art to something more akin to poster-painting. It is as if the artist's mourning and raging against the death of God has moved towards a reconciliation with the seductive message of modern consumerism: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."
But the earlier work's insistence that God is dead makes it as theological in its meaning as all those great works of Christian art which inspired Bacon; a negation, after all, acquires its meaning from that which it negates and that which it refuses. The early crucifixion themes, for example, shock with the absence of God and the consequent dissolution of the humanist enterprise. Bacon once said: "I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events, as the snail leaves its slime."
A cosmic wager
But that snail's trail is a divine trail as well as a human one - because for nearly 2,000 years the western understanding of the human was inseparable from the western understanding of God. The mutual imaging between the human and the divine lingers in the recognition that the snail's trail of an abandoned humanity is also that of an abandoned divinity. In a later work, Triptych (1976), a chalice and a host are shown amidst the figures; though here they are empty symbols, suggesting a rebellious gesture more worthy of the so-called new atheists than the tortured anti-theological profundity of the earlier work.
Bacon may have been a nihilist, but like Nietzsche, he recognised that the death of God also signalled the death of the familiar, common-sense concept of the human. This is an atheism which is altogether different from the banal and bourgeois atheism emanating from the (predominantly) white male intelligentsia of little England. This atheism is rooted in a bewildering confidence - for it lacks foundation either in the Darwinian materialism to which it is wedded, or in the human capacity for rationality and progress to which it appeals. Intelligent atheism, like intelligent religion, offers few consolations if the challenges it poses to human knowledge, values and reasoning are taken seriously.
For some of us, faith is a positioning of our lives upon a fulcrum of possibility, challenging us to live with the unanswerability of the questions it poses and the doubts it accommodates. Such an outlook may find the mourning rituals for a dead God meaningful in themselves, and more worthy of time and attention than the kind of banal satisfaction promoted on the London buses. Whatever we mean by that word "God", there is inspiration and mystery to be discovered in the legacy which Christianity has bequeathed to our understanding of the world - in its music, art and architecture, in its Masses and devotions, in the compassionate and selfless endeavours of those who work in hospitals and refugee-camps around the world, witnessing to the existential possibility of a human world rooted in reconciling hope rather than competitive nihilism.
But for those who cannot take that wager on belief, atheism is a persuasive and respectable alternative. Go then to the Francis Bacon exhibition, and see what it entails. For Bacon shows the real thing, the savage beast that we are, suggesting that Martin Heidegger may have been right after all: only a God can save us now.
A week in Istanbul can hardly fail to be an enriching experience for the intellectually curious visitor - even more when this great city, and Turkey generally, is at the heart of so many of the world's shaping concerns of faith and politics. This was certainly the case for me, when I stayed in Istanbul as a guest of the London-based Dialogue Society which supports the ideas and aims of the influential Islamic thinker Fethullah Gülen.
These days of intense and enjoyable discussion
- against the backdrop of escalating legal and political dispute in Turkey -
took place in a conference room, in mosques, and over meals in people's houses.
The participants were around forty in all; almost all the visitors were academics. The Turkish
hosts were the majority; the guests came northern Europe and the United States,
and included people from a variety of Christian denominations as well as
atheists. The atmosphere was informal.Max Farrar
is a sociologist at Leeds Metropolitan University. He is the author
of a book about Chapeltown in Leeds, The
Struggle for ‘Community' in a British Multi-Ethnic Inner-City Area ( Edwin
Mellen Press, 2002 )Also by Max Farrar in openDemocracy:
"Leeds footsoldiers and London bombs" (22 July 2005)
"In search of British Muslim identity: responses to Young, Angry and Muslim" (28 October 2005) - part of an online symposium
Our common interest lay in examining the ideas and practices that flow from Fethullah Gülen's thirty years of searching for truth through incremental renewals of the Islamic faith (see M Hakan Yavuz & John L Esposito, eds., Turkish Islam and the Secular State, Syracuse University Press, 2003).
The western media coverage of Gülen and his movement (such as it is) has concentrated on two questions: whether they really are as good as they seem, and whether this is the "moderate" bulwark against the Islamists that "the west" so desperately seeks. The first is an important issue because the Kemalite Turks who have ruled the country since the republic's foundation on 29 October 1923 are certain that the movement's real aim is sinister: to overturn Kemal Atatürk's secular constitution and impose a form of Islamic fundamentalism (see Erik J Zürcher, A History of Modern Turkey, IB Tauris, 2004).
Is there a hidden agenda? The Dialogue Society has been working with my university in northern England for almost two years now with the explicit, agreed aim of subjecting the Gülen movement to academic scrutiny. The latest gathering was designed both to further the intellectual debate initiated at an international conference in 2007 and to bring the media and business arms of the network into full view.
The wealth and the spirit
The movement appears to be very rich, leading to questions about the source of its money (with the implication that if the money is "bad", then the movement must be too). The answer seems to be: voluntary donations, largely from rich businessmen. The Gülen network's organisations - mainly schools, based in over 100 countries - are publicly registered and subject to legal scrutiny. Their members are also highly motivated, as reflected in the fact that Fethullah Gülen was (in July 2008) voted the world's most significant intellectual in the respected intellectually monthly journal Prospect.
If there were any secret and "bad" funding it is near-certain that the Kemalites would have unearthed it by now. After all, the state agencies' intelligence-gathering is a central feature in the alleged "Ergenekon" plot against the Gülen-influenced government which is now in its trial stage (see Bill Park, "Ergenekon: Turkey's ‘deep state' in the light", 7 August 2008). But, if the Gülen movement really is what it claims to be - a tolerant, pro-democracy, socially conservative, European Union-oriented movement which promotes modern, secular education and favours advanced business methods - the Kemalites must be very worried about it. It has, after all, displaced them from their position at the centre of Turkish cultural life by democratic means. But if they are what they claim to be, they are no threat to secularists who respect moderate forms of religious practice.
Among openDemocracy's many articles on
Fadi Hakura, "Europe and Turkey: sour romance or rugby match?" (13 November 2006)
Katinka Barysch, "Turkey and the European Union: don't despair" (27 November 2006)
George Schöpflin, "Turkey's crisis and the European Union" (23 July 2007)
Gunes Murat Tezcur, "Turkey's political opening" (24 July 2007)
Gunes Murat Tezcur, "Turkey's Kurdish challenge" (8 November 2007)
openDemocracy, "Turkey and a new vision for Europe" (12 December 2007) - a statement by leading European intellectuals
Hasan Turunc, "Turkey and Iraqi Kurds: the politics of military action" (25 February 2008)
Mustafa Akyol, "Turkey's ‘Islamic reform': roots and reality" (4 March 2008)
openDemocracy, "Turkey's risk, Europe's role" (2 April 2008) - a second statement from a group of European intellectuals
Katinka Barysch, "Turkey: the constitutional frontline" (14 April 2008)
Cem Özdemir, "Turkey's clash of values: memo to Europe" (29 April 2008)
Bill Park, "Ergenekon: Turkey's ‘deep state' in the light" (7 August 2008)At the event, we listened to the stories of men from humble backgrounds who had after years of work and investment recently become rich; they now supported the movement's drive for an ethical capitalism. They seemed to personify the argument of the Nobel prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk (in his memoir Istanbul: Memories of a City) that the elite's cosiness with the Turkish Kemalite military is based on the shared fear that people rooted in or close to the great unwashed mass of urban and rural (and Muslim) working people are on the verge of gaining power.
The Gülen people seemed at peace with themselves. There was no sign of what Pamuk describes as the "spiritual void" in the elite among whom he grew up - whose privileged children n public talk of mathematics and football, but "grapple with the most basic questions of existence...in trembling confusion and painful solitude".
A tradition in focus
In my view, the movement is what it says it is. The encounter with it raises in my mind three issues, more interesting than the questions posed in much of the western media.
The first is the way the movement responds in practice to those who criticise Islam's patriarchal bias. The women we met from the Gülen movement were as impressively intelligent, as fully engaged in public life and as confident and outgoing as their equivalents in the west (see "Sex and Power in Turkey: Feminism, Islam and the Maturing of Turkish Democracy", European Stability Initiative, 2007). Women compose about three-quarters of the workforce at the Zaman media group, whose publications - such as the impressive Today's Zaman - are close to the movement.
The Qur'anic verses which insist on women's equal human status with men really do seem to operate in the movement. The women (choose to) obey the injunction to dress modestly; at the same time, the verse "(there) is no compulsion in religion" seems to operate as strongly on this question as it does in the movement's relations with people of other faiths. But, as the Muslim feminist Kecia Ali points out, the Qur'an does not propose full social equality, however ‘complementary' men's and women's roles are seen to be (see Sexual Ethics And Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur'an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence, Oneworld, 2006).
The second issue is the way the movement places itself in the context of Islam as a whole, not least given its strong commitment to changing Islamic practice, The movement resists the idea that it is reformist. "Renewal" is as far as Fethullah Gülen himself will go, because he insists that he is absolutely rooted in the Qur'an and the hadith.
These roots in tradition are the only thing they have in common with the salafi current of rigorous ("fundamentalist") Islamism that has widespread influence in Saudi Arabia. It is precisely in sharing and being part of this tradition, and having a recognised scholar of Islam at its head, that gives the movement such potential to rally influence Muslims worldwide (see Ehsan Masood, "A modern Ottoman", Prospect, July 2008).
To the outsider, it looks like major developments are taking place. The movement deliberately builds schools, rather than mosques; its educational model may be elitist, but it offers bursaries for the poor, and girls and boys are equally welcome. In justification, they reiterate that the Prophet Mohammed insisted that all people must develop and use their powers of reasoning (see Patricia Crone, "What do we really know about Mohammed?", 31 August 2006).
In public discourse, the Gülen movement accuses the Kemalites of "fundamentalist secularism" - since the Kemalites use secularism as a stick to beat down the supporters of Gulen. But the movement strongly supports a western-style secular state, on two grounds: this is the model that truly separates the state from religion (rather than subordinating religion to the state, as in modern Turkey under the Kemalists); and it guarantees freedom to worship in any way that people choose (thus making "no compulsion..." a reality).
In deciding which political system should be favoured, the movement's method is an artful fusion. The Qur'anic past is again invoked to establish the movement's theological credentials (it invokes the prophet's introduction of inclusive decision-making in Medina as its model), but this sits alongside a passionate advocacy of democracy (a radical break here with the salafi denunciation of "man-made laws").
Fethullah Gülen is in the centre of Islamic belief that the Qur'an is the revealed word of God, and thus cannot be modified. But the prophet's own practice, he goes on, initiated the processes of interpretation that have been continuously developed for the past 1,400 years. These processes are influenced by the conditions of their time, and their geographical location. The implication could be drawn that this - Turkish and modern - movement is developing an Anatolian Muslimhood which might influence other formations of Muslimness.
The constraints of character
The third issue the encounter led me to reflect on is the rather quaint notion of "character" (especially in light of recent discussion on this topic in the British context about the search for public policies that can enforce "pro-social behaviour"). It is instructive in this respect to note the character of the people I met in the Gülen movement (students, journalists, business-people, academics and volunteers) did appear to embody the movement's values of sincerity, openness, respect, empathy and concern for the other. Their warmth and care shows every sign that this is indeed a movement producing thinking, compassionate human beings.
These kind people are, though, just as committed to neo-liberal capitalism as the western leaders - politicians, financiers, central-bank governors - who are currently engaged in frantic efforts to consolidate it in face of systemic crisis. Fethullah Gülen may have created a fascinating variant on Max Weber's message about the Protestant ethic's symbiosis with the spirit of capitalism, yet he emphasises none of Weber's darker messages about modernity (see "Islamic Calvinists: Change and Conservatism in Central Anatolia", European Stability Initiative, 2005). In the end, therefore, what I think we were witnessing in Istanbul was the emergence of yet another effort by spiritual people to humanise a monster. It is probably the best organised and most coherent effort yet; but, as with all the world's religions, this movement seems unable fully to confront the massive injustices and inequalities that capitalism engenders.
Pilgrims at the St Seraphim Spring in Diveevo (phot.Sandra Reddin)
- The new traditionalism
- The culture wars
- Not just talking to God in Latin
- Participation theology
- Traditionalists oppose Papal power
- Iconoclasm and novelty
- The Agatha Christie exception
- The authority to change
- Mass and Invariance
- Tradition re-discovered in every age
On 14th June this year about 1500 people filled Westminster Cathedral. Every seat was taken; people stood in the aisles and spilled out on to the piazza outside. The occasion was a mass, but not an ordinary mass. It was indeed a mass in what is now officially called the ``extraordinary form'' of the Roman rite, i.e. the mass as it had existed before the changes that followed the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). It was celebrated by Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, and was the first mass in the traditional form to be celebrated in the Cathedral by a cardinal in thirty nine years.
openDemocracy's collection of material relating to Religion and Difference is here.
John Casey is lecturer in English at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Gonville and Caius College. He writes and reviews frequently in newspapers and journals. Among his books are Pagan Virtue: An Essay in Ethics (Clarendon Press, 1990)
Before the mass, Cardinal Castrillon had addressed the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales, a group which had striven for forty years to preserve the ancient liturgy. He told them to `take heart' because the new Pope sympathised with them, and he spoke of the `sacrifices' of those members of the Society `who have not lived to be here today.'
To outsiders, all this emotion, this talk of sacrifices made by dead Catholics for the liturgy might well be unintelligible. What are the great issues at stake? Why should people throng Westminster Cathedral and spill out onto the street, including many too young to remember the old ways, just to experience a service in Latin conducted by a prelate with his back to the people?
In July the Pope was in Australia for World Youth Day. About four hundred thousand of the young, who had travelled from all parts of the globe, acclaimed him at a vast open-air mass in Sydney. But the mass had some new-old features Latin (Gregorian) chant, an altar adorned in the old style with crucifix and seven candles, and an attempt at solemn reverence that is not usually seen at these mass liturgical events. Something is in the air.
The truth is that the Roman Catholic Church has been in crisis ever since the Second Vatican Council, a crisis not only of falling numbers attending mass, a reduction of vocations, the virtual extinction of some religious orders, but a crisis of identity of the Church itself. The confident, tightly centralised ``triumphalist'' Catholicism that followed the sixteenth century Council of Trent and regained many of the lands that had been lost to Protestantism, the Church that claimed to be `the one ark of salvation for all,' has been replaced by the ``pilgrim Church'', tentatively stretching out to other faiths, often apologetic about the past, sometimes ready to play down its most distinctive doctrines.
There is a deeper issue. Hilaire Belloc had said `Europe is the Faith, and the Faith is Europe.' Although Catholicism is a world-wide religion, and an Abrahamic faith, its European inheritance has been central, its philosophical theology deriving from Greece, its language and structures of authority from Rome. It was not for nothing that Hobbes described the papacy as `the ghost of the dead Roman Empire sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.' Enthusiasts for Vatican II thought they had changed all that. Rituals, language, even theology were to reflect the diverse cultures of the faithful, and even the subjective convictions of the individual.
The attempt since the Counter-reformation of the sixteenth century to resist some of the most important developments in modern culture, with an index of books forbidden to Catholics to read that included most of the greatest philosophers and imaginative writers of the modern world, was to be seen as a sort of auto-immune disorder -- an inability to cope with foreign bodies. In the light of this, an attachment to tradition seemed like a rejection of intelligence, and a scarcely defensible surrender to clerical dictatorship. The Church had raised the drawbridge against the modern world, and Vatican II would confidently lower it again. Central to that was the rejection of the traditional Latin mass. It was there that the battle lines were most obviously drawn.
Nearly twenty five years ago, a Pole was dining in my college in Cambridge. He told us that he had been an altar boy in Poland, and had often served the masses of the Archbishop of Cracow. A year or two after that prelate, Karol Woytila, had been installed in the See of Rome, he decided to visit him, for John Paul II never became too grand for his old Polish friends. The Pope (so he told the story) strode up to him, punched him lightly in the chest, and began: Introibo ad ad altare dei ... to which our guest responded: Ad deum qui laetificat iuventutum meum. (``I will go unto the altar of God'' ``To God who giveth joy to my youth.'') This was the opening exchange between priest and server of the old ``Tridentine'' Latin mass, abolished in the early1970s, and the two continued it right down to the Confiteor. Then the Pope shrugged his shoulders and said: `Well, that''s no use to us anymore.' His old altar boy replied: `No, Holy Father, and that''s why I no longer go to church.' To which the Pope (he said) instantly rejoined: `Don''t blame me. Blame that maniac John XXIII!'
Last September, a motu proprio (legislation of his own volition) of Pope Benedict XVI, liberating the old mass, and obliging parishes to provide it for those of the faithful who want it, came into effect. It was clearly an attempt to console those who were still attached to the old rite, including the followers of Archbishop Lefebvre, who rejected the new mass and many of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (summoned by `that maniac, John XXIII.') ``Liberal'' Catholics grimly suspect that the Pope himself has long been disillusioned with the Council, and is bent on restoration of the old order. One Italian bishop said that he actually wept when he read the motu proprio, because he saw one of the greatest achievements of the modernists, a new style of liturgy, dissolving before his eyes. He was right to be alarmed. Benedict''s undoubted love of the old liturgy is also a love of the European culture which produced it.
On the other side, traditionalist Catholics, who were so joyously in evidence at Westminster cathedral, rejoiced mightily. Benedict XVI is on the way to becoming a hero as dear to them as Cyrus the Great was to the ancient Jews, because he freed them from the Babylonian captivity. When the motu proprio was issued, their websites triumphed in the imminent defeat of the philistines and were filled with accounts of celebratory champagne parties and suggestions that everyone should send flowers to the Pope in sign of gratitude.
But what is the fuss all about? Is this just a matter of some people preferring to talk to God in Latin? Or is it the re-igniting of a subterraneous culture war that has troubled the peace of the faithful over the past forty years?
First of all: it is not just a question of Latin. The ``Tridentine'' mass and the Latin mass are not one and the same thing. True, the Tridentine mass must be said in Latin in the Roman church. But decades ago you could attend Tridentine masses in High Anglican churches in Cornwall celebrated entirely in English. The new order of mass, promulgated by Pope Paul VI after the Second Vatican Council, was originally meant to be usually in Latin, but is nearly always said in the vernacular. But whatever the language, it is different from the old mass, in feel, liturgical gesture and some would even say in theology. The liturgy has always embodied both prayer and doctrine: it is both lex orandi and lex credendi. The ultras would argue that the changes in the mass were part of a stealthy attempt to alter doctrine. The great Council of Trent (1546-63) marked the final separation between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism with ferocious clarity. Catholic doctrines such as the real presence of Christ in the eucharist, reaffirmed by Trent, are liturgically enforced in the Tridentine mass with no possible ambiguity.
The ultras have a point. A pious Catholic who had fallen asleep in 1960 and woken up forty years later would be puzzled indeed at a modern mass (unless he had been allowed to slumber all those years in Brompton Oratory or a few other traditionalist redoubts.) He would find the modern Church culturally and psychologically so altered that he might be tempted to see it as a new religion masquerading under the old name. He might, like my Polish acquaintance, decide not to bother any more.
The first time I was taken to mass as a child, my mother told me to watch the altar attentively, because an angel might fly across it. My hope in seeing the angel faded quite soon, well before my faith did, but the feeling that the celebration of mass marked a mystery in which Godhead was truly present on the altar, body, blood, soul and divinity, under the appearances of bread and wine was astonishingly powerful. The form of the old mass enforced it. There was an overwhelming emphasis on the mass as an actual sacrifice, a mysterious re-enactment of Christ''s sacrifice on Mount Calvary. The priest began at the foot of the altar, with prayers that he might be worthy to ascend the steps: Introibo ad altare dei. In mounting the altar steps the priest was being brought ``unto thy holy mount, and into thy tabernacles.'' These are the words of psalms from the Hebrew Bible, and they go with an extraordinary insistence on using the language of ancient Jewish sacrifice -- `a holy victim, a pure and unblemished sacrifice.' (A Jewish friend of mine, attending a Tridentine mass for the first time, said that this language, and the elaborate cleansing of the sacred vessels, took his mind back to Temple Judaism.) The ritual proceeded with the inevitability of a piece of intricate and beautiful mechanism, as the priest mounted the steps, read the epistle and gospel and came to the canon of the mass. The climax, the obvious focal point of the exercise, was the consecration. The Latin words of this were uttered in a very audible stage whisper, and were followed by genuflection, elevation, genuflection, accompanied by the ringing of bells.
Every gesture by the priest, the signs of the cross, the genuflections, the many kissings of the altar, were strictly controlled by the rubrics. There was no place for ``creativity'' or the expression of personality. The authority of liturgy has always been its immemorial antiquity, and this strange, intensely focussed ritual certainly took you back to the remote past. This was sometimes a cause of scandal. The Good Friday liturgy (which was not actually a mass, Good Friday being the only day in the year when mass was not said) notoriously had a prayer for the `unbelieving Jews' (perfidis Judaeis) that God would remove their ``blindness'' and lead them to Christ. Even worse, this was the one prayer during which the congregation did not have to kneel. (John XXIII removed the offensive words in 1962.) There were also curiosities of an innocent sort. A missal published in 1935 contains a Good Friday prayer that God will `look favourably on the Roman empire' and `render all barbarous nations' subject to the Emperor.
The curious thing about the old mass was that it did not much matter if it was performed badly. It often was. Some priests spoke the Latin intelligently and well. Others gabbled it. We altar boys fought to serve the Low Mass of a certain Franciscan priest because he got through it, by means of remarkable elisions, in twelve minutes flat.
The priest was a craftsman, bringing Christ to the altar, and distributing Him to the faithful in communion. In many ways, it was the priest''s mass, to which the congregation were onlookers, or listeners in. Much of it was in silence, with the priest raising his voice at certain moments to indicate what point the mass had reached. In northern Europe and the United States most of the congregation followed in their missals, which were in Latin and English. But in earlier times people would instead read ``prayers during mass,'' rather than follow the actual words. Illiterates would simply tell their beads. Perhaps they looked for angels to fly across, or at the stained-glass windows. Yet there is overwhelming evidence that they, too, were moved, for they participated in a ritual that signified visually and in terms of movement as well as in words.
Vatican II decreed that the people should `actively participate' in the mass. To the older idea that active participation could take place largely in silence and stillness was opposed the feeling that the congregation should always be doing things, saying prayers aloud, reading passages of scripture, presenting the bread and wine for the mass. The priest became less one who offered an awe-inspiring sacrifice, and more like one who presides over a community meal. Altars were turned round, so that the priest faced the people, rather than praying on their behalf to the East, as had been done from ancient times. (Critics of the new order often suggest -- rightly -- that this leads to a cult of the priestly personality.) The first part of the liturgy is now given over to scripture readings, somewhat in Protestant style, so that when the priest goes to the altar to say the actual canon of the mass, this can seem like an afterthought, rather than the focal point of the whole proceedings. The priest''s genuflections and other ritual signs of assent to the real presence, which in the old mass enacted an idea of worship and transcendence, seemed to have been cut to a minimum. For many, the remarkable beauty of the Latin text itself, set by so many great composers over the centuries, and a profound influence on the authors of the Book of Common Prayer, had helped create a sense of the sacred which had now all but vanished.
How did this happen? There had been a liturgical movement, strong in northern Europe, going back to the nineteenth century. It emphasised the intelligent participation of the laity, the use of missals, and a partial return to what were believed to be pre-mediaeval liturgical practices. This led to the half-conscious assumption that there was some golden age before the ``accretions'' that led to the elaborate liturgy of modern times. This was rather like the Protestant idea of the ``primitive'' Church before Roman ``corruptions.''
There was another line of thought. This was that the Council of Trent had been a tragedy just in that it had sealed the division between Catholic and Protestant in the sixteenth century. Trent had re-affirmed the hierarchical structure of the Church, the role of the priest, and the mass as the continual re-enactment of Christ''s death on the cross. The Anglican Thirty nine Articles say that the `one oblation of Christ is finished on the cross .Wherefore the sacrifice of Masses were dangerous fables and blasphemous deceits.' The underlying purpose of the new rite was reconciliation with Protestantism. Its chief inventor, Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, actually said: `We must strip from our Catholic prayers everything which can be the shadow of a stumbling block for our separated brethren, that is, for the Protestants.'
To undo the Council of Trent would be no mean endeavour, although to anyone with a sense of the religious history of Europe during the last four hundred and fifty years it must seem a madly ambitious one. But what really ignited the Catholic culture wars was the way it was done: by an unprecedented exercise of papal power. Hardly anything of what happened was prescribed by the Second Vatican Council, not the turning around of the altars, not the almost universal use of the vernacular, not the scaling down of the sense of transcendence and sacrifice, not the discouraging of the faithful from kneeling when receiving holy communion, not the receiving of communion in the hand rather than on the tongue. Traditionalists point out that the Council had decreed that the Latin language was to be preserved. (And the `maniac' John XXIII had been totally opposed to the vernacular in the mass.) It had all been done by Pope Paul VI, Archbishop Bugnini and a close circle of liturgical experts. It was never even passed by a synod of bishops.
The paradoxical conclusion might have been forseen: it was the most pious Catholics, most devoted to the papacy and its prerogatives who were most outraged, but who felt most bound by loyalty and obedience. Their anguish when they were presented in 1971 with the abolition of the old rite can be imagined. (The most popular English Catholic newspaper, The Universe, informed its readers on 26th November that year that `as from this Sunday it is forbidden to offer Mass in the Tridentine rite anywhere in the world.')
Only in France was there open rebellion. Led by Archbishop Marcel Lefevbvre, a thousand or so traditionalists occupied the Church of St. Nicholas in Paris, resisted all attempts to evict them, reintroduced all the old ceremonies, and have been there ever since. The Lefebvrists decreed that with Vatican II Rome had departed from Tradition, and had as good as apostatised.
The bitterness (even despair) of traditional Catholics ran deep. The enthusiasts for Vatican II hailed it as inaugurating an epoch of religious liberty. Yet the abolition of the old mass actually depended upon a Vatican diktat. The Anglican Church has introduced new forms of service, often distressingly banal. But it is impossible to imagine the Anglicans wishing, let alone being able, suddenly to forbid the Book of Common Prayer in all churches of the Anglican Communion. I remember in the 1970s attending out of curiosity a Tridentine mass ``illegally''celebrated by Archbishop Lefebvre in the Great Western Hotel at Paddington. The atmosphere was extraordinary, like that of some improbably enormous catacomb where a clandestine ceremony was going on. Catholics had come from all over England, and many were in tears as they participated in a rite that had suddenly been forbidden them. It was tempting to see this as religious persecution.
The changes were accompanied by an astonishing outbreak of what one can only call iconoclasm, for that is what it literally was. In the University Catholic chaplaincy in Cambridge, the furniture of the chapel, including a charming little baldachino, was largely destroyed at the instigation of the Chaplain. The parish priest of the main Catholic church in Cambridge proposed replacing all the pews with raked cinema-style seats, removing the stained glass, and dismantling their own noble baldachino. (He was frustrated by his congregation, which had been infiltrated by dons.) In my own old parish church, the Franciscans smashed to pieces the whole Byzantine-style sanctuary. Such scenes were replicated all over the country.
There was also liturgical vandalism, especially in America, including priests with red-nose masks celebrating ``clown-masses,'' Halloween masses, dancing-girls and various New Age fooleries. In England, Catholic practice plummeted, and churches were shut.
English Catholics had a special reason for attachment to the old mass. In penal times, several hundred English priests had been executed for saying it. At the place of execution they would often kiss the scaffold, as the priest kisses the altar in the Tridentine mass (much more rarely in the new rite.). The English, more docile than the French, did not rebel. Instead they organised a letter signed by cultural luminaries, many of them non-Catholic, politely asking the Pope for an ``indult'' - permission to celebrate the old mass on special occasions, with the permission of bishops. But their letter did not conceal their feelings of horror: ``If some senseless decree were to order the partial or total destruction of basilicas or cathedrals, then obviously it would be the educated, whatever their personal beliefs, who would rise up in horror '' The old mass ``in its magnificent Latin text, has inspired a host of priceless achievements by poets, philosophers, musicians, architects, painters and sculptors in all countries and epochs. Thus it belongs to universal culture as well as to churchmen and formal Christians.''
How could the Pope fail to respond to such a letter, signed as it was by (amongst many others) Vladimir Ashkenazy, Agatha Christie, Kenneth Clark, Robert Graves, Graham Greene, F.R.Leavis, Cecil Day-Lewis, Nancy Mitford, Iris Murdoch, Yehudi Menuin, Malcolm Muggeridge, Joan Sutherland and the Anglican Bishops of Exeter and Rippon? The story goes that Paul VI was quietly reading through the list of signatories and then suddenly said: ``Ah, Agatha Christie!'' and signed his approval. Ever since, this permission has been known in traditionalist circles as the Agatha Christie Indult.
But although this indult had been granted, many bishops were unwilling actually to give permission. The traditionalists, including the Latin Mass Society, were often treated as trouble-makers and rebels.
I once interviewed the Patriarch of Antioch, in Damascus. I asked His Beatitude whether he, like the Bishop of Rome, believed he had power radically to alter the liturgy. `Oh yes, we have authority in liturgical matters. And in fifteen hundred years we did once alter a prayer.' Clearly the idea of virtually inventing a new rite had never entered the Patriarch''s head. (The so-called ``Tridentine'' rite was not invented by the Council of Trent, but was a codification of the Roman rite which dated back many centuries.) The question all along was whether pope and bishops really do have such authority. One distinguished Catholic thinker judged that there was no such sweeping power, that liturgy had its own authority based on immemorial tradition, and that the pope''s authority in liturgy `is at the service of Sacred Tradition.' The same thinker even dared to describe the new mass as `no re-animation but devastation... fabricated liturgy... banal-on-the-spot product.' The man who wrote those words is now Pope Benedict XVI. The Cardinals elected Ratzinger knowing that these were his convictions. It cannot have been done in a fit of absence of mind.
The Catholic Church has often enforced unity with ferocity. Yet in the present culture war (officially denied, of course) real unity seems far away. As the Pope''s intentions become clear (Cardinal Castrillon said that the Pope wants to make the old rite available `in all the parishes' of England and Wales) the English bishops have fallen into a curious silence. The parish priest of a famous Jesuit church, politely asked whether he would make some traditional masses available, responded with unconcealed rage. (This church advertises a children's liturgy, Japanese masses, services for Brazilians and Filipinos, but apparently drew the line at the ancient Roman liturgy). The dispute about liturgy is part of a wider battle. Those who want to align the Church with modernity, which inevitably means drawing on current liberal values, became influential following Vatican II. But if they hoped that the Church would change its stance on liberation theology, divorce, homosexuality, the ordination of women, they found their nemesis in John Paul II . Woytila''s reassertion of tradition in all these areas was less flamboyant than Pio Nono''s famous denial that `the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to come to terms with progress, liberalism and the modern world,' but it came to much the same thing.
Pope Ratzinger is even more profoundly traditional than his predecessor, and he believes that disputes about liturgy are disputes about the very nature of the Church. He prizes a mass that develops according to its own laws throughout the ages. He is also attracted by the Eastern Orthodox conception of a liturgy `whose light illumines our changing times with its unchanging beauty and greatness.' Those who altered the mass after Vatican II thought it possible to create a form of worship that was illumined, indeed determined by the changing times. These are two wholly incompatible visions. As Benedict puts it in a letter to the bishops that accompanied his motu proprio: `What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.'
Something unexpected seems now to be happening in the Catholic Church. Far from attachment to the old forms dying away, a generation of younger priests and lay Catholics is coming into view that is enthusiastically attached to the Tridentine mass, and to Catholic orthodoxy. In France, one in five of all priests currently being ordained is devoted to the old mass. And this is a committed, determined minority growing up in a virtual wasteland for the French Church. Only five per cent of French Catholics attend mass regularly. In one diocese, the Cathedral attracts seventy worshippers on Sunday, while the chapel of semi-schismatic Society of St Pius X (of Archbishop Lefebvre) attracts seven hundred to a traditional mass. Indeed, it is suggested that an actual majority of church goers on a Sunday in France attend Lefebvrist services.
Pope Benedict himself is a philosophical traditionalist of a sort that is barely understood in the modern world. In a lecture to the University in Regensberg he enraged some Muslims because he quoted a Byzantine Emperor who suggested that Mohammed countenanced violent religious conversion. But what he was talking about was the relation between religion and reason. Ratzinger suggested that the God of certain Muslim theologians -- like that of some late mediaeval philosophers, as well as Luther and Calvin - so transcends our categories, even of rationality, that all that is left for us is his sovereign will. If God so commanded, we would have to practice idolatry, or violence. The Pope argued that the Christian understanding of God has to be rooted in rationality: God is reason, the logos, so any attempt to convert by violence is contrary to the nature of God. This may seem an arcane dispute in theology, but what it comes to is that Christianity is inevitably tied up with Greek philosophy, is, indeed, a marrying of Judaic religion with Greek thought. Add the Roman heritage, and we can say (in Ratzinger''s remarkable words at Regensberg) that `Christianity created Europe.'
In other words, Christianity is a culture as well as a set of beliefs. Equally, Europe should remember its Christian roots. (Cardinal Ratzinger once said that if Turkey were ever allowed to join the EU this would represent ``the triumph of economics over culture.'') Catholic liturgies have to keep their Roman and European heritage, and cannot simply be adapted to local conditions, tongues and cultures. The mass in China should not be celebrated with rice and rice wine; and in America it should not express folksy inclusiveness. For Ratzinger, this special blend of Judaism, Greek philosophy and Romanitas is essential to the Church, an idea that Luther scorned. So it is almost literally unthinkable that a genuine liturgy could be fabricated, rather than grow out of immemorial tradition.
Admirers of Ratzinger insist that his traditionalism is no blinkered love of the past, no theological auto-immune disorder. As T.S.Eliot put it, tradition cannot be blindly inherited, but has to be re-discovered in every age, an enterprise that requires great labour. No one who reads Ratzinger can deny that he brings a very lively intelligence into his attempt to rediscover tradition. It is his critics of the ageing Vatican II generation who begin to look intellectually lazy.
In Benedict XVI, Catholic modernists meet a formidable antagonist indeed. His gentle manner and readiness to persuade rather than bludgeon conceals (from those that have not eyes to see) a philosophy of tradition that challenges not only liturgical philistines, but all those Catholics for whom history began with the Second Vatican Council. He is the immediate cause of all those joyful traditionalist Catholics congregating in Westminster cathedral and overflowing onto the pavement. The authority of a pope of Rome is not to be underestimated. When the Pope''s motu proprio became known to Catholic traditionalists, not a few of them wept for joy. At the moment his election was announced in St Peter''s square in 2005, several priests of modernist sympathies were also seen to weep -- but with chagrin. Provided his health holds, then (to misquote Henry James) those tears are not the last they are destined to shed.
Consumerism has boomed on debt. The huge profits of banks spring from massive borrowing too. In what are often referred to as "normal times", this is only sensible and right, according to capitalist logic. However, these are now abnormal times. They throw the culture of debt into high relief, perhaps affording us the opportunity to think about how debt shapes and makes us. "Be not a beggar by banqueting on borrowing", wrote the writer of Ecclesiasticus in the Hebrew bible. Has debt made us beggars, or at least undermined our power of self-possession?
Mark Vernon is the author of Wellbeing (Acumen, September 2008) - part of the Art of Living series he edits.
Also by Mark Vernon in openDemocracy:
"The politics of friendship" (29 December 2006)
"The life of the child: being friends, being good" (8 March 2007)
"Social networks: after privacy, beyond friendship" (24 October 2007)
"The bad faith of the secular age" (15 November 2007)At first glance, the opposite might seem to be the case. I recently overheard a conversation between a mother and her young daughter, of perhaps 4 years old. We were on the train, and the daughter was running through the toys she had with her. "My Narnia DVD", she said. "Oh, sorry darling. I think we forgot that", replied Mum. "Don't worry", retorted the child. "We can get it on the internet."
The little girl is growing up in an age where her desires can be fulfilled on demand, on credit. She may not yet know to purchase a second copy requires Mum to flex her plastic card. But maybe today - after the financial collapse in Wall Street - mother is teaching daughter a first lesson in personal finance: unlike the internet, credit is real, and right now is demanding to be paid back.
That the bubble of borrowing might be sagging under its own weight suggests itself in a different way, via a statistic. In the last six months, a staggering 55,000 mobile-phones were left in the back of London taxis. That's three per cab. What the report did not mention was how many owners bothered to recover their phones. After all, if you lose one there is - as long as you have a record of the numbers stored elsewhere - only a marginal inconvenience. For the whole logic of modern technology is that the gizmo itself doesn't matter: the valuable stuff, the data, is stored in virtual space. The device itself should cost nothing to replace, financed in part by credit. Might this philosophy of technology be another thing that changes as we rethink our relationship to debt? "Borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry", wrote Shakespeare.
The same stanza contains the injunction: "Neither a borrower, nor a lender be." The reason is that debt undermines relationships. This was something that the philosopher Jacques Derrida pondered when he wrote about gifts. In the modern world, he argued, it is not the giver who gives and the received who receives, but the converse: the giver receives and the receiver gives. This perverse logic arises because we think of gifts as putting the benefactors in our debt. If someone invites you for dinner, you owe them an invitation in return. Gift-giving in business is a means of purchasing special treatment.
That said, there are places in the world where gifts can still be given, in less commercially conscious environments. One is where I take my holidays, in south, rural France. Go when the farmer's hens are laying, and every morning there will a box of eggs at the gate. We say thank you, slightly embarrassed, wondering what we might give back. The farmer thinks precisely nothing of it.
Back in this world, Derrida concluded: "A gift is something you cannot be thankful for." What a depleted place it is.
Matt Barrett, when chief executive of Barclays Bank in 2003, made what became a notorious remark. "I don't borrow on credit cards because it is too expensive", he confessed. He was interpreted as implying that his own Barclaycard was a rip-off, and was derided in the press. Now, perhaps, we can hear his line in another sense. Are we learning that debt is not just financially but humanly too expensive?
There is a famous passage in the Gospels, where a lawyer questions Jesus with regard to the command to love God with one's whole heart and to love ones neighbour `as oneself.' The lawyer asks, 'And who is my neighbour?' (Luke 10:2). Is he someone who lives close by or a co-religionist or is he a stranger, a follower of a different faith as Jesus suggests by answering with the parable of the good Samaritan?
The latest once-a-decade gathering of Anglican bishops known as the Lambeth conference was held at the University of Kent in Canterbury, eastern England, on 16 July - 3 August 2008. Two main questions arise from its deliberations:
* how, if at all, has it affected the course of global Anglicanism?
* how is Anglicanism's endless crisis affecting the role of religion in Britain?
Theo Hobson is a theologian and writer. Among his books are Against
Establishment: An Anglican Polemic
(Darton, Longman & Todd, 2004) and Anarchy,
Church and Utopia: Rowan Williams on the Church (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2005). Theo
Hobson's next book is Milton's
Vision: The Birth of Christian Liberty (Continuum, October 2008)
Also by Theo Hobson in openDemocracy:
"Rowan Williams: sharia furore, Anglican future" (13 February 2008)
Despite the fact that almost a quarter of bishops boycotted the conference (leaving 670 to attend), it was a sort of success. The boycott was on the grounds that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is too soft on the gay-friendly American and Canadian churches. For such bishops, an absolutely clear line on sexuality is needed. They protest that Anglican orthodoxy is on their side, and they are technically right. So why isn't the leadership enforcing this official line more toughly? Why is Rowan Williams trying to get Anglicanism back on the fence?
Williams's position is that the dissenting provinces should not be thrown out of the club, but kept at arm's length. In other words, he wants a two-speed communion. It is a good thing that the core members are seeking ever-closer union, and it is also a good thing that other members want to dissent from the core orthodoxy, yet retain membership. For these fringe members might have insights that ought in time to migrate to the centre. The archbishop himself is known to sympathise with the liberal fringe on the issue of homosexuality.
By repeatedly restating this line at the conference, Williams has managed to identify his vision with mainstream Anglicanism. He has declared that his delicate balancing-act is not peculiar to him, but is representative of Anglicanism in general. It has an official line on sexuality, yet refrains from enforcing it too rigidly; it wants to keep a reformist door ajar.
This makes Anglicanism an incredibly difficult thing to characterise. It is officially traditionalist on sexuality, yet it does not pretend to be at ease about this official traditionalism - in fact, it wants to be seen to be uncomfortable about it. This was the main declaration of the Lambeth conference: "This abiding uncertainty is so painful!" There is a strong contrast with Roman Catholicism, which denies that there is any issue to discuss here.
There is certainly something admirable about this honesty, embodied by Williams. But it will hardly get the average British agnostic back into the pew, or improve Christianity's cultural image. Which brings us to the second question, about the changing of image of religion in Britain.
The new fissures
Also in openDemocracy on religious identity in
Callum Brown, "'Best not to take it too far': how the British cut religion down to size" (8 March 2006)
Tina Beattie, "Religion in Britain in the Blair era" (10 January 2007)
Tina Beattie, "Rowan Williams and sharia law" (12 February 2008)
Fred Halliday, "Islam, law and finance: the elusive divine" (12 February 2008)
Sami Zubaida, "Sharia: practice of faith, politics of modernity" (22 February 2008)
Simon Barrow, "When Jerusalem turns to Little England" (23 June 2008) The split over homosexuality has changed the relationship between the Church of England and the surrounding culture. It has forced the British to notice this established church in their midst, to wonder what they think of it. Throughout the 20th century, the Church of England was like a person's own nose - too close to look at. It reflected the culture at large, in its mixing of conservatism and liberalism, in its implicit monarchism on one hand, and its social radicalism on the other. Until quite recently, the gay issue didn't change this. The church was largely conservative (like the nation at large) and also tolerant of innovation (like the nation at large).
But in 2003 this changed. Anglican traditionalism was galvanised by the election of a gay American bishop, and the Archbishop of Canterbury was forced to shelve his liberalism on the issue. Anglicanism became decisively anti-liberal on the issue, at least in its official policy.
Unlike any other issue, homosexuality forces liberalism to a crisis, a decision: you're either for or against tolerance. The British state had of course gradually decided to be for tolerance - though culture is slower than the law. And now the Church of England found itself unable to follow.
While the church roughly reflected the wider culture, there was no problem. And for decades it seemed to be moving, in fits and starts, to a liberal position. But for the last five years there has been a clear divergence. Anglicanism has opted to move in an anti-liberal direction, to dissent from the cultural consensus.
An established church is not really allowed to dissent from the cultural consensus. It can drag its feet a bit, as it has over the ordination of women, but it can't start off in the other direction.
So the gay issue has driven a wedge between the established church and its culture. And at the same time another wedge has been pretty busy: the rise of Islam, and the resulting suspicion of all religion. An increasing number of commentators have asserted the need for a secular state. Maybe the Liberal Democrats will wake up to the existence of an electoral opportunity here, and realise it's finally time to (in Jonathan Freedland's phrase) "bring home the revolution" from across the Atlantic.
A revived vision
So the real significance of Anglicanism's crisis, at least from a domestic perspective, is that it is contributing to the final collapse of established religion. The bishops have lost their old aura of authority, their claim to represent the traditional-yet-liberal English soul. For now they can be convincingly portrayed as agents of discrimination, apologists for homophobia.
A larger question emerges: can Christian institutions modernise? This question never quite needed to be asked during the 20th century: for it was obvious that the Church of England was busily pursuing modernisation, that it was fully involved in the liberal advances of the wider culture. But now this famously liberal church has discovered a reverse-gear. Where does that leave the attempt to reconcile Christianity and liberalism? Will the crisis spark a new, post-institutional form of Christian culture that rejects the ecclesiastical addiction to illiberalism? If so, 2008 offers a fortuitous centenary - for it is 400 years since the birth of John Milton, who tried to prise the English away from clericalism, and offered a vision of Christianity within a secular state.
This vision was instrumental in the American idea, but the English themselves have always been reluctant to grasp it. Maybe England is finally ready for its own big idea, 350 years late.
As the Muslim Council of Britain marks its first decade, it seems an appropriate moment for reflection. As the country's largest Muslim umbrella body, it still remains the "first among equals" in relation to an increasingly large alphabet-soup of representative institutions. The British Muslim Forum, the Sufi Council of Britain and British Muslims for Secular Democracy have all emerged in the three years since 7/7, alongside a profusion of Muslim commentators and other bodies that seek to reflect the government's "rebalancing" in 2006 of its relationship with Muslim communities to emphasise counter-terrorist imperatives.
It is notoriously difficult to know anything for sure about the founder of a world religion. Just as one shrine after the other obliterates the contours of the localities in which he was active, so one doctrine after another reshapes him as a figure for veneration and imitation for a vast number of people in times and places that he never knew.
In the case of Mohammed, Muslim literary sources for his life only begin around 750-800 CE (common era), some four to five generations after his death, and few Islamicists (specialists in the history and study of Islam) these days assume them to be straightforward historical accounts. For all that, we probably know more about Mohammed than we do about Jesus (let alone Moses or the Buddha), and we certainly have the potential to know a great deal more.
The various debates on Islam, Islamism and sharia law in openDemocracy have reflected different currents of thought on these great issues in the context of modern political and intellectual developments: including the use of religion for ideological ends, and the controversy over the speech of the Church of England's spiritual head which explored the place of religion-based legal codes in modern Britain.
Turkey made international headlines in the past weekover its military's land operation in northern Iraq and its never-ending tug-of-war over the headscarf. But a less familiar issue provoked more surprised comment outside the country: the scholarly and low-key work carried out by a group of theologians in Ankara, supported by the Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı (the Turkish republic's official religious body, the presidency of religious affairs), to revise the "hadith" - the words and deeds of the Prophet Mohammed.
This week's editor
Heather McRobie is a regular contributor to 50.50
Heather McRobie is a regular contributor to 50.50