Mythic history in the Presiding Bishop’s pastoral letter

By Mark F.M. Clavier

We Anglicans have long had a certain penchant for using myths to define ourselves. For example, at the Reformation many a learned Anglican divine accepted without question that Brutus of Troy founded the true British monarchy (whose blood ran in the Tudor line), thus imparting good Trojan blood to the people of Britain. These same historians also accepted that Joseph of Arimathea had visited Britain, followed not long afterward by St. Paul himself. These quaint legends, which no scholars today would find plausible, were often taken as facts in their day, and indeed were used both to attack Rome and to exalt the sovereignty of the English Crown. Ironically, these myths find their origin in the very form of medieval Catholicism that the Reformers sought to reject. But few myths have held on as tenaciously as that of the triumph of a “tyrannical” Rome over “gentle” Celtic Christians at the Synod of Whitby in A.D. 664, which makes its latest appearance in Presiding Bishop’s Katharine Jefferts Schori’s pastoral letter.

Bishop Jefferts Schori refers to Celtic Christianity twice in her short letter. In the first instance, she writes: “The willingness to live in tension is a hallmark of Anglicanism, beginning from its roots in Celtic Christianity pushing up against Roman Christianity in the centuries of the first millennium.” Later, she refers to the Synod of Whitby itself: “The uniformity imposed at the Synod of Whitby did similar violence to a developing, contextual Christianity in the British Isles.” In some respects, the Presiding Bishop simply repeats the age-old popular myth in which a monolithic and autocratic Roman church suppresses an independent Celtic church. Similar claims were made by English Reformers in the 16th and 17th centuries. Her choice of words suggests a Celtic church that was an inclusive and tolerant alternative to Rome and that was prevented by foreign intervention from developing into a vibrant local expression of Christianity. In this sense, the old myth has been presented in new clothing. No longer is the stress simply on the independence of the British church; now that British church is claimed to have been tolerant of diversity and able to “live in tension.”

It requires no leap of the imagination to see that what the Presiding Bishop has in mind here is the Episcopal Church itself. If one were, like medieval dramatists, to present the Synod of Whitby in contemporary garb, the Episcopal Church would play the part of Celtic Christianity and the “centralized authority” of the Anglican Communion would appear as Rome. Perhaps Bishop Jefferts Schori would play the part of Colman of Lindisfarne and Archbishop Williams the perennially despised Wilfrid. Such a setting for the Synod of Whitby would then carry the message that the current struggles in the Anglican Communion are simply another manifestation of the perpetual struggle between a powerful, hierarchical, and autocratic church against a vulnerable and egalitarian form of Christianity. Obviously, this is a heady message, calling to arms all who wish to resist the tyrant doing “spiritual violence” once again to those who wish freely to express their “Spirit”-led beliefs. Thus, the Synod of Whitby draws greater power by implicitly invoking the even older image of Babylon persecuting the faithful remnant. Strange how people can morph into a reflection of how they perceive their opponents.

That this is the myth by which the Presiding Bishop is operating is shown by her allusion to colonialism. This is the other governing metaphor of the letter, and in this sense the Synod of Whitby becomes an expression of ecclesiastical colonialism over a native, “Celtic” people. We have here a sort of theological variation on Avatar. The irony, of course, is that this claim is being made by the Presiding Bishop of the U.S.-based Episcopal Church: the world’s most powerful nation and one of the world’s most well-heeled churches. Likening the Episcopal Church to a weak and oppressed Celtic Christianity or to forcefully clothed Hawaiian women requires a degree of mental acrobatics that beggars belief. It is equally ironic that she thereby presents Archbishop Williams, a Welshman, in the role of an agent of the domineering Roman church seeking to suppress the wonderfully tolerant Celtic church!

As thrilling as all this may be to some, the problem is that it does violence (to use a recurring metaphor in the letter) to the actual history. The Synod of Whitby was convened to address two main questions: how to compute Easter and how properly to wear the monastic tonsure. But this was not a difference of opinion between Celts and Rome. Southern Ireland had already happily accepted the Roman and Continental customs, as had all of England except Northumbria. Only parts of Northern Ireland and the confederacy of churches and monasteries that hearkened back to Columba resisted. Thus, the debate was not so much between the Celt and the Roman as it was between the north and the south. By our way of categorizing such debates, Colman and those who sought to remain faithful to Columba were the recalcitrant traditionalists. But they were loyal traditionalists and, far from railing against Roman tyranny, they accepted the synod’s ruling and withdrew to the seclusion of Northern Ireland and Iona. Colman was succeeded not by an English “Romanist” but by a bishop consecrated and educated in southern Ireland. Furthermore, what was embraced was not a monolithic Roman Catholicism (such did not exist before the 12th and 13th centuries) but a Church that was remarkably tolerant of a wide spectrum of cultural expressions, largely because the institutional power did not yet exist to do otherwise.

Many might say that these are but small points and quibbles over minor details. But governing myths are anything but minor, since they seek to define the identity of both those who accept the myths and their opponents. In the case of the Presiding Bishop’s letter, the intention is to place the Episcopal Church in a long line of oppressed expressions of Christianity and Canterbury in a long line of oppressors. That myth, in turn, determines how the Presiding Bishop reads her history and leads to a presentation that few historians would find convincing. Yet the way in which the history has been presented reveals much about how the Presiding Bishop perceives the present struggle.

One suspects that Rowan Williams, a man deeply versed in Church history, will remain unconvinced by the letter. But like the various historic myths used during the Reformation, the purpose of the Presiding Bishop’s myth is not to convince but to rally. The mention of Celtic Christianity, Roman authoritarianism, oppressed women, and colonialism will resonate powerfully with many who already support her cause. Those same supporters will similarly find comfort in such phrases as “live in tension,” “contextual Christianity,” and “radical hospitality” that will mean little to most readers. The Presiding Bishop’s letter is therefore not pastoral but polemical, phrased in terms and with allusions that will ring in the ears of those who share her vision of an ideal Church.

One cannot help but wonder whether those “oppressed” Christians whose memory Bishop Jefferts Schori invokes would have approved of her ideal. Sadly, like the Hawaiian women under the power of European missionaries, the dead are unable to defend themselves against the tyranny of the living.

The Rev. Mark F.M. Clavier is a priest in the Church of England, a visiting lecturer in Anglicanism at Cranmer Hall, Durham, and a Ph.D. student at Durham University studying the role of delight in the theology of St. Augustine.