Master of Reform


Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life, London: Penguin Random House 2018.  
728 pages, hardback. 45 full-colour plates.  
ISBN 9780670025572  
$50 online.  

The downside to studying theology at Melbourne’s Trinity College in the 1970s was the lack of explicit input concerning Anglicanism.  The upside, of course, was access to the best lecturers in Australia regardless of denomination, and the cross-fertilisation between Methodists, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics and Anglicans.  

We needed both, of course; the grounding in our own tradition, and tools to engage with others. Overall, Trinity didn’t do too badly, but I have felt my lack of knowledge about our Anglican tradition – until now.  Reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Thomas Cromwell was like a semester-length course in the English Reformation with a particularly knowledgeable and clear communicator of Church History.  

The first and obvious thing I learned was that the clichés of Henry VIII starting the Church of England solely to have his marriage to Queen Katherine annulled, and of Cromwell, the systematic destroyer of monasteries, are both wrong.  

Cromwell did become one of Henry’s chief ministers, rising to Lord Privy Seal and Vice-Gerent of the Church before being torn down by enemies like the Duke of Norfolk and finally beheaded on the King’s orders. Henry and Cromwell were both politicians who needed each other, but MacCulloch discerns their subtly different agendas. Henry was at times obsessed with the Queen question, but he also sought to be the Supreme Head of a Church with the best of Lutheran theology and the conservation of many papist ideas, especially the real presence of the Lord in the bread and wine of Holy Communion.  

Henry was a progressive Catholic, believing he could achieve a middle way conserving the best of Rome and political stability. Luther had given rise to great instability, so it was wisest while presenting Henry with Lutheran books, not to mention the name!  

MacCulloch, who is Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University, argues that Thomas Cromwell pursued a consistent ‘evangelical’ agenda, ‘evangelical’ being the term he chooses to describe those pressing for reform. Cromwell knew how to use the power King Henry gave him as his Vice-Gerent of the Church. He put himself above all the bishops, even above his friend Archbishop Cranmer of Canterbury. He invited scholars from Geneva to bring reformed ideas to England. He promoted his ‘evangelical’ friends to important bishoprics. He encouraged printers to produce tracts that expressed his ’evangelical’ ideas, and was not afraid to explore even more radical views.  

Cromwell ’s role in the dissolution of the monasteries is dissected with clarity, explaining why Cromwell ordered some to hand over their property to the king, while remaining friends with the Abbots and Priors of others.  

Following his early mentor Cardinal Wolsey, Cromwell wanted to reform monastic life. In particular, he wanted them to become centres of bible study, social justice (including proper provision for the poor) and morality. Cromwell made sure there were proper pensions or livings for the monks after the lands of their monastery were distributed to the wealthy. The Anglican Church never condemned the principle of monasticism, just its corruption.  

Frontispiece of the Great Bible

He promoted the principle of ordinary Christians reading the Bible, sometimes risking the King’s anger. He manoeuvred the King and Parliament into insisting that every church have an English Bible. Henry finally took pride in the Great Bible whose influence carried through all English translations. Cromwell often turned to the friar Miles Coverdale to carry out the work of translation.  

It was the King, particularly when he needed more and more money to build up the coastal defences, who saw the dissolution of monasteries as a cash cow. He often left the details, and the blame, to his minister.  

Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell was skilled in getting things done. He generated the contacts, he used his power ruthlessly, and he did more than others in centralising the organisation of the kingdom. He divided Wales into shires and put in charge there a trusted lieutenant. He tried the same, without great success, in Ireland.  

Cromwell played a leading part in turning Tudor England from an island backwater into a major power. As a Member of Parliament responsible for managing the King ’s business first in the Commons and then in the House of Lords, Cromwell threw himself with great energy into the detail of legislation and process.  

It may well be that Thomas Cromwell was the reason England did not experience the same violence as did Germany and other reforming countries.  

The mystery of Thomas Cromwell is how he rose from the yeoman class to the most powerful Lord in the land after his King. Little is known of his early life, although MacCulloch has more information than other biographers. He learned several languages, presumably while in Europe. It was probably then that he developed his interest in the reform of the Church. He made friends with a number of Europeans, and used them to grow an import business. At some time, he was picked up by Cardinal Wolsey who trained him as a politician.  

Professor MacCulloch traces the life of a great man whose influence in the development of England and the Anglican Church was long-lasting. Cromwell teased out the interdependence for England of Church and State. He served Henry VIII, that difficult master, with deep loyalty. He also inspired deep enmity, and conservative noble churchmen like the Duke of Norfolk were ever ready to bring down the upstart.  

Though they succeeded, within a year, the King was complaining that he had lost his best advisor. Many of the men he had put into positions of power remained there after his death and extended their mentor’s influence in their lifetime.  

Diarmaid MacCulloch has written a highly readable biography which should be a standard text for students of Anglicanism. For me, I am grateful that a large gap in my theological education has been filled so thoroughly and enjoyably. 

Advent Scholastics


Now begins the year ecclesiastical
with storms of judgment, visions of the end,
rejection of all ideas plastical
they clog the soul and block God from being friend.

Without our spiritual cleansing drastical
blindness hides the holy incarnation,
makes belief selective and tactical
its fearful retreat from fervent vocation.

Advent imagery wild and fantastical
stirs up our hearts to see the larger stage.
opens us to live enthusiastical
integrity in this and the coming age.

He will come, he says, in clouds of glory:
Now the time to heed and join his story.

Ted Witham, Advent I, AD 2018

Laugh-out-loud descendant of Don Quixote


Graham Greene, Monsignor Quixote, London: Penguin Books, 1982.

In public library system.

256 pages, paperback. New $15, Used $10, online

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Graham Greene’s modern take on Don Quixote made me laugh out loud. The way simple parish priest Father Quixote becomes a Monsignor is delightfully unbelievable. With a vague ideathat he is like his ancestor Don Quixote, the new Monsignor sets out on adirectionless road-trip with deposed Communist mayor ‘Sancho’ Panza. He nameshis ancient Seat motor car Rocinante after Don Quixote’s steed.

Fortified by a few sausages and a great deal of wine of La Mancha, the priest and the mayor, old friends and sparring partners, find themselves hilariously tilting at the Guardia Civil, the modern equivalent of windmills.

The two friends discuss faith and communism, friendship and authority, and sleep off the wine. The exploration of these deep topics is playful but insightful.

Greene’s writing is lucid and engaging. I don’t know how I missed this, Greene’s ‘best novel’ according to the Spectator, but it was great fun.

In the dark


In the dark  – the night of Christian faith

I didn’t expect, at age 70, to have to contend again with the dark. Not the dark of my childhood, when I feared a dressing gown draped over the door was an alien axe-wielding murderer, but the darkness of not knowing the God of my Christian faith. 

Each time the darkness comes, I find it is easy to forget all I have been taught. Each time the darkness comes, I feel shame; shame as if the relationship with God I thought I had was sham; shame as if the faith I have taught I no longer experience; shame at the thought of having to profess publicly that I was wrong. 

Along with the shame comes fear. At age 70, my thoughts turn healthily to my coming death and whatever follows. What if there is no “life after death”? What if there is no “beatific vision”? What if there is nothing? What value then do I have? 

So it is good to be reminded by French Franciscan Thaddée Matura, in his essay An Ardent Absence, that darkness in Christian life is the norm, that grand encounters with God are infrequent and fleeting. Matura recalls us to the teaching that God is a fiery furnace, and if we were to encounter him as he is, we would immediately be burnt to nothing. It is due to his grace that we do not see him face-to-face in this lifetime. 

Father Matura also reminds us that despite the darkness, we can continue to follow the paths to God to which we are committed. We are to prepare for the beatific vision, for the great meeting that will raise us to God ’s presence. 

The darkness is hard. As we pass through it, we do not know what we are doing. We experience both fear and boredom. We may encounter the ‘plague that destroys at noonday’ (Psalm 91), the acedie of the desert fathers and mothers, as we question the whole of Christian life; we wonder if this darkness is the normal, then why? Why? 

But I hang on to those fleeting moments of revelation, those traces, hints of reality. A realisation grew through 1969, the year of the Leighton Ford crusade, that friendship with Christ is the heart of Christian living. I remind myself of the dove I saw [in my mind] flying up and expanding its wings over the congregation after we had received communion on the Fourth Sunday in Easter in 1974 in St Mark’s, Fitzroy. I revisit my tears when, meditating in the hard seats in the chapel in Perth’s Wollaston College, I felt enveloped by love. I feel my heart jump when the icon of St Francis behind the chapel of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in Brisbane appeared to move and gaze back at me. 

And I can simply be affirmed by Thaddée Matura, as I am by St John of the Cross, by St Francis, by St Richard of Victor, by a lengthy list of Christian teachers, that we make our way through this world blind, in darkness, and our joy is real — but anticipatory.  

George Appleton, the prayerful Archbishop of Perth during the 1960s, once wrote, ‘I go on in cold faith only because you push me.’ That push from an-Other keeps me going. 

Invictus? Really?


I am troubled by the Invictus Games. Not just the strange ways the Latin participle ‘invictus’ gets used, but by the normalisation of the warrior spirit. The propaganda around the Games makes war seem good.

In a world where it has become part of the culture to thank every member of the military for their ‘service’, and the Invictus Games seems set to increase such thoughtless commentary even more, I know I need to be precise in my criticism.

War is the way of the world. And the world is divided into nation states. I would be crass indeed not to recognise these realities and fail to acknowledge the sacrifices that the military make to keep our nation safe.

I respect individual sailors, soldiers and airmen for their choice and for their part in my freedom. I am in awe of the peace-keeping that Australian forces do around the world. I recognise that much of the activity of the Australian Army in Afghanistan was building schools and hospitals, surely a good legacy.

But war is a sub-optimal activity for humanity. Partly because the nation-state is an imperfect institution – nations both create conditions for our flourishing and also create artificial divisions between human beings – and mainly because the aggression and killing war involves means that we should not consider war the final best way of relating that human beings can find. We live in a fallen world, and war is a symptom of our sinfulness and not of our glory as human beings.

Much of the lethal activity of war is sly. Drones fly invisible above their targets, and ‘clinically’ murder only the targets. Insurgents, who consider themselves patriots, leave death-dealing devices on roadsides. Proxy wars are fought in countries like Syria between the US and Russia, condemning millions of children to a half-life in refugee camps.

I look forward to a world in which nations are superseded by a common humanity and war has given way to peace, where swords are beaten into ploughshares, and the trillions of dollars we spend on armaments are diverted to the benefit of humanity.

This is why I think we should take care with the language we use, and the language we accept, around the Invictus Games. The fighting spirit that restores the wounded to purposeful lives is to be admired. The positive attitudes to disability the Games foster are to be encouraged. We should applaud the new appliances which improve the lives of those living with disability. The contributions the participants made through their service in the armed forces are to be commended.

But any implication that war itself is unambiguously good needs to be challenged. Let us ‘normalise’ disability, by all means. But let us not ‘normalise’ the fact of war. Let us in all ways and in all circumstances question its place in our common life, and decry the death, destruction and waste it brings. Let us aspire to a world without war, a world without the need for warriors, a world where we embrace, not fight, our fellow human beings.

Scandals and faith


SERMON – ST MARY’S, BUSSELTON/ST GEORGE’S, DUNSBOROUGH

September 30/October 7, 2018.

Pentecost 19/20
Saint Francis

I Corinthians 1:17-31

Mark 9:38-50

In the name of the living God + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The land where Jesus lived, the land of Palestine/Israel, consists of the Jordan Valley, which is a little bit green, and rocky hills and dry landforms. Jerusalem was the only city in Jesus’s day, so for the most part, there were no roads. Even the Roman road avoided Jerusalem and crossed the Jordan into Galilee in the northern extreme of the province.

The topsoil was thin, and there were always rocks that poked through the topsoil. If you weren’t watching, these obtruding rocks would trip you up. A rock like this was called a skandalon. We get the English word ‘scandal’ from this Greek word. A ‘scandal’ is something, like one of those rocks, that crops up unexpectedly and makes us stumble or fall. A scandal like the child abuse scandals can make us lose faith; we don’t trust the person involved anymore, we feel betrayed and we re-consider what we think of the person’s character.

38410784-rocky-hills-of-the-negev-desert-in-israel
Skandaloi – rocky hills of the Negev

In this morning’s epistle and gospel, scandals are there, but somewhat hidden in the English translation. We hear of ‘obstacles’ to faith.  We hear how Jews are stopped from believing because the signs are wrong. Gentiles are stopped from believing because they don’t think Christian preaching measures up to their sophisticated world of philosophy. Or in the original Greek, the lack of proper signs is a skandalon, a scandal for Jews, the lack of wisdom is a skandalon, a scandal for Gentiles.

The signs were an obstacle for Jews believing. They indicated the wrong sort of Messiah; the Jews wanted a political or military Messiah, the sign of the cross indicates a Messiah for whom love and forgiveness were the winning combination, not defeat of the Romans and the unity of the Jewish nation.

The Gentiles looked for wisdom, the sort of wisdom they found in debates and complex philosophy. We know that the New Testament has depths of interpretation and meaning, but the Gentiles at the time heard only a simple and direct preaching of the cross.

Having tripped up on the issue of philosophy, the Gentiles then found other factors to be scandalised about. Christians appealed to the poor and weak, not to the masters and house-holders and the powerful. How could that make sense in a patriarchal world where the more power you had the wiser you were, and the wiser you were the more powerful? Women and slaves and children had little power. They could not possibly be wise, could they?

So the question Paul poses to us 2,000 years later is this: what is skandalon for us? What crops up unexpectedly to prevent you from believing, or believing more fully? For you, it could be – I know it is for some people – that the cross is a scandal. If Jesus was exterminated like a criminal, wasn’t that losing rather than winning? For you it could be, as it is for some people, that the cross is ugly, that Jesus’s people, tax-collectors and prostitutes, are not proper advertisements for God.

What obstacle do you trip over?

Let us turn to Mark’s Gospel where Jesus paints a picture of sin creating a skandalon. If your hand is a skandalon, cut it off. We don’t need much imagination to envisage our hand becoming a scandal; imagine the sins we can do with our hands – theft, murder, assault, fiddling our tax returns.

Perhaps we have to think a little harder to imagine our eye becoming a scandal, but we know from other things Jesus said that it is not only what we look at, but how we look, that can be a scandal, an obstacle to our faith. Looking at others’ spouses sexually, with lust, looking at valuable property enviously, in other words using our eye to desire things that if we possessed them would be harmful to others and ruin ourselves – that can become a scandal.

But what is this second sort of skandalon? This is not being tripped up by our wrong expectations; this is being tripped up by our own sinful actions. Imagine someone using his hand to enter fraudulent details on the internet, then he feels guilty for stealing. He is tripped up looking at himself as a thief, as a sinner, as guilty. Uh-oh! He should cut off his hand, perhaps by restricting his internet access, then repent, repay the money and re-consider his desire to be ahead in money or material things. Otherwise he will slide into a hell of self-recrimination, self-loathing and become so self-absorbed that he is unable to be in relationship with others. The path to ruin is too easy a story to write.

Jesus makes us squirm by compelling us to ask ourselves what we trip over with the actions of our hand and our eye. What ruinous actions could be our obstacles to faith?

The gospel today gives three remedies for skandalon; three prescriptions for removing these obstacles to faith.

The first is accepting a cup of water because of our faith. If we can’t be kind to others, Jesus suggests we reflect on the kindness of others to us. What does that mean? How does that recall us to our Christian standards and believing? What does their kindness say about the possibility of Christ working through that person, and through ourselves?

The second is a little strange on the surface. Jesus says, ‘Have salt in yourselves.’ Don’t lose your saltiness. There is a cluster of good things, like salt, that we should take into ourselves that will restore us to faith.

Recall the fire, the sharp burning taste, that is in salt. Allow the fire of appropriate criticism to burn away our inclination to turn away from God. It may be a member of your family or a stranger in the street, but when someone criticises our actions, we should welcome it as from God himself.

Secondly, let the strangeness of the Gospel change us. We say we are trying to be more like Christ. The implication is that if we hear something in the Gospel or in the words of other Christians that seem strange, that may well be because it points to unfamiliar characteristics, unfamiliar because it is not yet part of us, but is part of the Gospel. Welcome the strangeness of the Gospel.

Thirdly, a little sprinkle of salt affects the taste of the whole meal. Let the Gospel spread through the whole of your life so that every aspect reflects the love of God.

Last Thursday we celebrated the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, a hero and mentor of mine. Francis grew up thinking the church then, 800 years ago, was a scandal. Its main focus was wealth and the power needed to protect that wealth. For example, there was a large Benedictine monastery up the hill from Assisi. When Benedictine property anywhere in the region was threatened, the monks would down their farming tools, their hoes and scythes, and pick up swords. Even the Pope had a large and busy army.

As a cloth merchant, Francis had experienced firsthand how bishops loved the finest cloth for their vestments! Many of the clergy were squeezing peasants for land rents and whatever other corruption with which they could enrich themselves.

The church then was a scandal. St Francis did three things: firstly, he embraced poverty as a way of life. This meant for him that he constantly experienced the generosity of others. Francis believed that when he experienced people’s generosity he was experiencing God’s generosity through them.

Secondly, Francis could be weird, screwy, pazzo as his fellow Italians said. From

Francis & crucifix Brisbane
Saint Francis embraces the Christ on the cross – wooden sculpture in the guest house. Society of St Francis, Brisbane

eccentric dress to over-the-top acted parables, like spinning at a crossroads until you were dizzy to decide which way ahead. But there was gospel in his madness. In dressing down like the worst beggar, Francis reminds us of our constant concern about our appearance and what it says about ourselves. Not necessary in God’s kingdom.

 

In spinning at a crossroads for direction, Francis reminds us how little control we have over our own decisions. For him this points to the need for greater and greater trust in God.

Thirdly Francis was constantly doing little random acts of kindness, bidding people peace, smiling, listening, leaving behind little scraps of gospel wherever he walked, salting the world with hints of Jesus.

What we need to do to hear the gospel through the scandals will be different than Francis in the 13th century. But just like Francis, just like this morning’s readings we too need to:

  • Have salt in ourselves.
  • Allow the kindness of others to reveal Christ; and when other criticise, let that reveal Christ too.
  • Scatter little signs of gospel everywhere we go.

These are the ways to peace with God and with each other.

Peace be with you!

 

The Quadrangle at Wollaston Theological College


Dennis (former Warden, fellow-pilgrim)

transported the surrounding bush inside

to this once stark square where (when young)

we used to kick a footie and the Archbishop chide

that thongs were not professional wear.

 

Now that so proper lawn has gone.

A eucalypt roughly embraces a pencil pine.

She has lost her slender straightness

and has grown a new and swollen line.

She has a definitely pregnant air.

 

Dog collars and stiff stocks were de rigueur.

Now a Silver Princess sways at head height

like a demented and giant alien insect

hovering and bobbing with foreign delight.

a tree, a chimerical vision, creation’s dare.

 

Parrots in the colossal wandoo

scatter pollen, drop nectar to the ground,

neck and squawk their sweet nothings.

In no way to convention bound,

splashing seeds of new life everywhere.

 

The climbing plant has eaten the wall,

And grown a vigourous, lush and living screen.

The sun shafts aggressively rays,

making the rest dark, and wild, and green,

busting with birds and vital mysteries there.

 

We have grown a little wild and unkempt too.

The old straight edges are softened and coalesced.

God’s tendrils of outrageous vitality

have sprouted even in the hearts of his old priests,

neatness overturned for more authentic care.

 

***

Published in Access Press’s Galloping On VI, Winners And Selected Poems From The Grand National Poetry Stakes 1995.

 

pricing-1
Photo courtesy Wollaston College