Swinging shepherd blues

I thought I ought to read Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur before I die. Not only is it one of those “monuments to English prose,” but to be honest I wanted some temporary escapism from the present evil age. The edition I got from Amazon, for a mere 15 quid or so, gives reading pleasure of the old sort in itself – leather bound, gold-edged, illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley, nice illuminated large-cap chapter starts, with old Gothic script headings, and with a modern scholarly introduction. Handling that old-school volume is as much superior to a Kindle edition as a live church service is to a webcast. It was printed in China, of course.

Now what struck me between the deeds of derring-do, as compared to one’s uncritical reaction to Tales of King Arthur as a kid, was the self-absorbed nature of the ruling class. Kings happily wander off from their duties regularly on quests or to put down rebellious brothers or just the neighbouring kings. They accidentl killing illegitimate daughters of whom they were unaware, and sleep with other kings’ wives, when they come on diplomatic visits, simply on a whim (and usually begetting more illegitimate children to kill accidentally in jousts at a later date).

The chivalric code is bizarre to modern minds too: knights spend their time wandering the country until they meet another knight who won’t permit them to pass unless they joust, simply because they like a good battle. Inevitably one of them gets killed, but rather than accept that as what happens if you play rough games without sufficient cause, the victor invariably incurs a blood-debt from the nearest knightly relative, or his vindictive sister. Since many of these battles are fought in armour that conceals whether your opponent is your brother, your sister, or your king, the complications are endless, even if identities have not been confused by magic or trickery. It’s real Game of Thrones stuff, though I admit I’ve never watched an episode of that rubbish.

Yet in between, unlike the society in Game of Thrones, Mallory is keen to point out that the knights piously say Mass before breakfast, and rely on the local hermitage as a field hospital. And despite the pre-Augustinian historical setting, the Archbishop of Canterbury is a significant minor character. There’s a certain spiritual and moral schizophrenia at play.

Now, of course one must understand that Morte d’Arthur was written as much for mediaeval escapism as I am using it for post-modern escapism. Furthermore, if it reflects any realities at all they are not those of Romano-British life, but those of the fifteenth century. It was written during the dynastic struggles of the War of the Roses, and the first edition was printed by William Caxton himself in 1485, the very year that “mediaeval” became “early modern” in England overnight. Lastly, Mallory wrote the thing whilst in prison for theft, rape and attempted murder, so he may not have been morally typical of his time.

Yet the book became a popular classic at the time without an outcry at its portrayal of the nobility, and history itself shows that the broad-brush picture of morality and religion amongst the aristocratic elites is reasonable. Fighting wars to settle family feuds (somewhat ignoring the thousands of peasant infantrymen who died without the benefit of armour and chivalric acts of mercy) is seen back as far as the Saxon history of Bede, as well as in the ancient Welsh sources from which, ultimately, the Arthurian legends came.

When one thinks about it, that raises interesting questions about “Christian Britain.” I became a Christian for the usual complex personal reasons, and by the undeserved grace of God (and that’s another story). But theology and psychology apart, one important factor is obviously that Christian truth was readily available to me in Britain, which in turn was owing to its faithful transmission down the centuries from the first arrival of the gospel in Britain. And here’s the thing – that arrival, and that transmission, were for the most part thanks to the ruling class whose behaviour, in many ways, seems so have been so arbitrary.

Christianity’s arrival in Roman Britain came mainly via wealthy landowning patricians. Despite the replacement of Roman culture by pagan Anglo-Saxons, this was a deposit that may have persisted if indeed there was a real Arturius who was a Christian king. It certainly fuelled the Celtic missionary Christianity of Lindisfarne and my old place of pilgrimage in Essex, the church of Ythanceaster at Bradwell on Sea founded by St Cedd in 653. This movement spread by the conversion of kings like Oswald of Northumbria, and the priests and abbots were often their younger brothers and other nobles, for that small ruling class was the only repository of literacy.

The same pattern followed when Augustine brought Catholic Christianity to Canterbury. It was because the king was baptized that the people were christianised, and it was still the nobility that supplied priests, churches, monasteries and funds for evangelism of the people, under the necessary patronage of the king. It’s not surprising, then, if one finds elitism, simony, infighting and immorality endemically in the mediaeval church.

Even reform usually originated amongst the privileged. St Benedict was the son of a Roman nobleman. St Francis of Assisi was the son of a rich merchant and a noblewoman, for all his renouncing of that wealthy heritage. Savonarola was from a very wealthy family. Ignatius Loyola was a minor noble. But these, in order to reform, needed to be able to access works of true religion and, of course, the Bible.

Therefore one might have expected that, since the moral content of Christianity cuts so radically across the interests of wealthy, vindictive and lustful elites, over the centuries kings and aristocratic churchmen would have saved themselves penance and popular criticism by doctoring or banning the texts and revising the Church’s teaching to allow their behaviour to go unchallenged. But they didn’t. Instead, their monasteries and cathedrals preserved the writings of godly men, and left the text of the Bible unaltered as their scribes copied it. The distancing of good teaching from the mediaeval masses, and especially the Bible in a form “understanded of the people,” was for entirely different reasons.

And so when Luther, Calvin and the other Protestant Reformers arrived, whilst the Sola Scriptura principle made for radical changes in doctrine and practice (even for Catholics, come the Counter-Reformation), essentially they taught what the Church should have known all along from the original writings it still possessed. And so as well as looking back in gratitude to my own teachers and to Evangelical traditions, I can also compliment even nominally Christian kings and compromised bishops back to Roman times for passing on the apostolic faith, even though that faith pointed an anachronistic accusatory finger at their own fashionable lifestyles. False shepherds some of them may have been, but somehow they kept the flock and the pasture intact.

It’s less clear that the modern generation of church leaders can be accorded the same praise. As I write my own denomination, the Baptist Union of Great Britain, is undertaking a period of second-guessing consultation on whether to permit gay marriage and ordination. How that will turn out remains to be seen, but the common pattern in other denominations has been to change doctrine at the first hurdle, or to rinse and repeat under the pressure of activists until they do. That is despite all of them having done the theological legwork a decade ago that made them oppose gay marriage when it was legalised, the only exceptions in Britain being the Unitarians and the Quakers.

In Britain, Baptists are the most “evangelical” of the historical denominations, and there is strong internal resistance to the change. The national Anglican church’s bishops, however, have gone “full woke” not only on homosexuality, but on transgenderism, not infrequently disciplining clergy who speak out against the claim that the omnipotent God puts gendered souls in the wrong body sometimes. The whole intersectionality thing has been swallowed whole, so that racism and white supremacism are now cardinal sins, whereas adultery (the object of one of the Ten Commandments) scarcely appears on the venial list. In any case, adultery would seldom be preached against in churches where a good proportion of the congregation are divorced and remarried, or are simply cohabiting.

The changes being made to doctrine and practice in today’s churches are more radical even than the various heresies and accretions that marred Christianity in the bad old days of despotic kings and turbulent prelates. For they strike at the core doctrines of creation (God did not create them male and female), of salvation (guilt lies in being white, and remains even in the converted), and of mission (don’t do it amongst the heathen, without checking your privilege and finding it wanting).

Regarding the main theme of this article, the “apostolic deposit,” the new teachings cannot be made to fit with Scripture – believe me, I’ve looked at the biblical case apologists make for the LGBTQ+ agenda, and it leaks like a crochet condom. Therefore, in the end, the Bible always ends up being sidelined or relativised as a flawed human (not to mention homophobic and patriarchal) production. None of the mediaeval ruling class did that: they may have practised cheap grace in the form of “sin now and confess to a priest later,” but they never abolished grace altogether by rendering repentance for sin unnecessary.

Nor did they attempt what many of the denominations are doing by making the definition of sin a matter for individual churches, or even individual Christians. And so in the same church one individual might now be repenting in dust and ashes over an illicit relationship, whilst another is having the same kind of relationship blessed in a celebratory service. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but maybe that’s why they like it.

So in an odd way, today’s trendy “swinging shepherds” are more false even than the sociopathic Christian kings and the Renaissance Popes with their mistresses and toyboys and other broken commandments, for at least they didn’t “teach men so.” That seems to be unique to the Church of Western Values that the Putins and Assads of this world are rightly shunning as promoting pure depravity.

But hey – you too need some escapism, and you may not remember the meaning of the title of this column…

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in History, Politics and sociology, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Swinging shepherd blues

  1. Robert Byers says:

    I loved King Arthur as a kid. Amazing these stories became a world famous thing as britain back then was still just another backward cAtholic civilization. yet there it is. they say the author was in jail for these crimes but I’ve heard it might really be just crimes for fornication. even today its called rape if the girl is below 18 I understand.
    chivalary they say was a invention of the church to control the armed thugs that backed up the local tyrants. it was a conspiracy to turn the police into men who obeyed high orders of moral and ethics. indeed somewhat like in japan with those fighters.
    being really thugs they always fought each other at a glance and so it was figured out to make it more formal. the jousting was a reaction to fighting. Like stopping boys from fightimng but getting them to box in a organized way. indeed in america football was a christianized reaction to rugby. lets the boys crash into each other but bring in rules. i see the Knights as simply in this common equation to control armed unemployed men. a good idea.
    Indeed the new thugs today are forceful people like the gay activists and likewise we must learn skills to fight them and defeat and roll back any evil gains made. it must be a cause to end gay marriage in Britain. baptists are needed indeed. ;owr the lance and charge.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      “Fair Antifa activist – I see thou art slugging a journalist passing hard with a pickaxe handle. Unhand him, e’er you feel the sharp end of my spear, by my troth. Pray, what is thy name, under thy hoodie?”
      “I am Sir Avril of Portland, zhe/they/them, and I will teach thee a lesson before the town hall has finished burning down…” (etc)

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