I hope all our first-year students studying ‘Introduction to Christian Doctrine and History’ have been watching BBC1’s latest costume drama epic based on the Hilary Mantel novels, ‘Wolf Hall’.
Unlike some previous romps into this tumultuous period in our history, such as ‘The Tudors’, this adaptation picks out the various delicate threads that underlay events that we group together under the grand name of ‘Reformation’. Power, personality, philosophical principles, the overhanging influence of international politics and, of course, conviction and faith, all played a part in decisions that affected not just individual lives but the future religious shape of our country.
The issue of principle versus self-preservation was a real question for people at this time. In this situation was it right, as Anne Boleyn and the later radical Christian group the Familists thought, to say whatever would keep you alive? Or was it justifiable, as happened in episode 3, to stand up and declaim your faith knowing it meant your life? Given flesh and put to the test, these questions do not appear quite so straightforward as they might seem in the black and white of print on paper.
I have recently returned from the Society for the Study of Theology conference at St John’s College, Durham.
The theme for this year was ‘Speech and Silence’. It was a topic that certainly got people talking. At times we also came up against the limit of words, as we confronted spaces where we do not know how to speak, let alone what to say. One of these moments was the contribution by the black liberation theologian Robert Beckford. His plenary paper presented a room of 200 theologians, almost all of whom were white, with the reality that we still have not constructed a theological language to deal with the experience of empire or to reflect post-colonial culture.
Another of these moments was engendered by the contribution from Gerard Loughlin of Durham University, who talked about the history of the Anglican church’s response to societal changes surrounding sexuality. This paper was delivered raw, in the immediate aftermath of the Church of England’s official response to the legalisation of gay marriage. It portrayed the desperation of feeling at a loss for words. In both of these cases, and others, the task of theology is to help the church to learn to speak. Like a patient recovering from the trauma of a stroke, this will be a laborious process. There will be confusion and malapropism, the frustration of feeling tongue-tied. Nevertheless, without it we will become mute; constrained within ourselves, unable to communicate or to be heard, and, ultimately, invisible.