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|From: Church & State: Editorials
|Date: October, 2010
|By: Brendan Clifford
Henry The Eighthism
|What we know as Christianity gripped the imagination of what we call civilisation about 1,700 years ago. That is to say that it became the religion of the Roman Empire. Until it became the religion of the Roman Empire, it was not what we know as Christianity. Pre-Imperial Christianity was something different.
Civilised Europe remained true to its Christianity, in its fashion, until recently. What it did was done in the name of Christianity. And, as what was uncivilised was civilised, it became Christian.
The civilising of the barbarians of Europe was sometimes done by seduction and sometimes by force. The seducing seems to have been done by the Irish, who had themselves been seduced. The forcible Christianising was done by the Empire.
The Christianising of the Empire was done for reasons of state. Its function was to consolidate the Empire by weaving a popular ideology into the vast administrative structure which had long outrun whatever impulse had driven the Romans who had made the Empire.
The Romans had expanded their state by a long succession of wars, consolidating their conquests by administration, and leaving the conquered with their idols. They seem to have had no existential problems while they were engaged in that business.
When they defeated Carthage in the Third Punic War they wiped it out. Carthage was not like the city states or barbarian groupings that had previously been defeated and let be with their idols, on the condition that they paid their taxes. It was a rival civilisation, therefore it was wiped out.
The Romans then found themselves alone in the known world—the Mediterranean world—and they began to wonder what it was all about. They began to be a problem to themselves, and began to dabble in Greek philosophy. And Greek philosophy consisted of little but existential problems.
It may or may not be the case that the Greeks invented democracy. If they did, they gave it a bad name for the next two and a half thousand years. Greek democracy was discontented, chaotic, murderous towards its neighbours, and short-lived.
Greek philosophy became the philosophy of Rome, but the Romans saw that Greek politics was worthless to the Empire and carried on with their own.
The Palestine in which Christianity began its development was a province of Rome saturated with Greek philosophy. Christian development shaped itself to Roman administration and Greek dialectics. It soon felt at home with Rome, and eventually Rome felt at home with it.
Many centuries later Protestants in Ireland made a point of always referring to Catholics as Roman Catholics while Catholics knew themselves just as Catholics. The Protestant point seems to be that Catholicism was less than catholic because it was Roman and that Protestantism had freed Christianity from the Roman limitation. But, in actual historical circumstance, it was by becoming Roman that it became universal—i.e. catholic. For practical purposes Rome was the world and what lay beyond the reach of Rome was another world, or other worlds—another civilisation in the case of China.
The ultra-Christian rejection of Rome in the 16th century did not lead to greater universality. In the parts of Germany where the Reformation proper happened as a kind of social evolution, it led perhaps to rich local cultures of a sedate, self-satisfied, Lutheran kind. In Zurich, where it was gripped by the vision of a new universality to be established by whatever means were necessary, it came to grief in its first battle. Zwingli was killed in his war to carry universal truth to a neighbouring canton.
But the rigorously systematic Swiss Reformation of Christianity did make a permanent mark on the world. Zurich went on to produce its famous Gnomes. I don't know what the nickname of the apostles of the Universal Equivalent in Geneva is. But the subordination of everything else in the world to money, so that money is the equivalent of everything else, and everything else can be got for it, is not really what Pre-Imperial Christianity was about.
It is easier to say what it was not about than what it was about. And one of the things that it was not about was the transformation of human values into commodities exchangeable for money.
When Germany settled down after the 30 Years War in its multitude of little states, Lutheran life seems to have become sedately cultured in a way that was somehow conducive to the creation of both music and philosophy.
It was in England that Reformationist Christianity made a serious bid to achieve a universality comparable with Rome's. But the Reformation in England was not in any sense a religious evolution. It was, from first to last, a political affair. It began in politics, and throughout its life (which ended some time ago) it remained subject to political direction.
Its non-evolutionary character is evident in its artistic history. Art flourished in the Lutheran Reformation in Germany, but Henry the Eighthism required the destruction of art.
The existing culture of England in the early 16th century was incompatible with the political project of the State which the Reformation was devised to serve. It was therefore destroyed. And no new culture sprang up to take its place. The State clearly had not acted in response to pressure from society when it broke with Rome and declared itself the rival of Rome.
The Normans were a secular arm of the Papacy in the eleventh century. The Norman Conquest of England was authorised by Rome. English culture remained closely bound up with that of Rome right up to the moment when the English state broke with Rome and declared itself an Empire in antagonism with Rome.
Henry the Eighth would have acted as the secular arm of the Papacy against Lutherism, but for the affair of state which led to the breach. Rome had accorded him the title of Defender of the Faith against the new heresy not long before the political rupture happened. In order to consolidate the political breach, Henry had to set about the destruction of the Roman infrastructure of English life.
The fact that an anti-Roman culture, that could spring into place when the State required it, had not been gestating in English society and that the State could destroy the existing culture without effective resistance from society, says something about the relationship between State and society in England.
Social pressure had not caused the State to act as it did against Rome. But neither did the State meet with effective social resistance when it decided to destroy the existing culture for a political purpose.
English society was malleable by the state. The State, of course, used a degree of force, but that does not explain it.
The State did not introduce Lutheranism, or Calvinism, or Zwinglianism. It introduced nothing coherent. It made things up from year to year, and sometimes from day to day. There were moments when it was virtually impossible to know what to believe, and it could be dangerous to believe the wrong thing, even though it might have been the right thing yesterday.
Henry the Eighthism was capricious in its religious conviction, and English society adapted to its caprice. It just wanted to be told what to believe about these eternal truths and, while the State dithered, it committed itself algebraically to the uncertain particulars of authorised beliefs at any given moment.
There was terrorism of course. But terrorism is never altogether absent from affairs of state, and it is never an adequate explanation of major political developments.
I spent a considerable time trying to understand Russia from the twenties to the forties. The standard explanation was that its development was caused by Stalin's apparatus of terror. I just could not see how a minuscule group of terrorists could move that society, over such a long period, to do the wide variety of complicated things that it did.
Russian society, by and large, and leaving aside frustrated elites, must have been complicit with the State for those remarkable things to have happened. It was obviously not a prior complicity. The elements of Bolshevism had not been gestating throughout Russian society awaiting the arrival of Bolshevism in state power. But when the Bolshevik state arrived and asserted itself, the society was responsive to it and accepted guidance from it, even when the guidance was zig-zag.
And, as it was with Bolshevism in Russia, so it was with Henry the Eighthism in England.
Thomas Cromwell has been in the news recently. A novel about his rise to power has been awarded a literary prize. Cromwell, an adventurer with extensive European experience, was Henry's fixer and destroyer. Henry made him an Earl and executed him as a traitor in the same year. The charge of treason seems to have been entirely groundless—except that he supplied Henry with his 4th wife in the effort to secure the male line (Ann of Cleves, a Lutheran) but neglected to tell him that she was really ugly. But he seemed to take his execution in good enough humour, satisfied that he had played a necessary part as fixer, procurer and destroyer in a great enterprise.
Anyhow a new Imperial Christianity appeared in the world—a kind of Protestantism, without a core of positive belief, that was cobbled together piecemeal to be the ideological facade of a new Empire.
Cardinal Newman, beatified by the Pope in September 2010, once described the Papacy as Anti-Christ. He had begun his religious career as an earnest member of Henry the Eighth's Church, taking it to be a religion, and therefore he could not have done other than say the Pope was Anti-Christ.
A reason later given for the break with Rome was that Rome had taken the religion of Christ and made it Anti-Christ by making it part of the Empire. But, by the same token, Henry the Eighthism too was Anti-Christ because it was the religion of an Empire.
Furthermore, it had never, unlike Romanism, been a free religion before being made an Imperial religion. It was conceived as Imperial. It only ever existed in the service of an Empire. Without the Imperial development of England it would never have existed.
It was Anti-Christ in its very origin. But it was an obligatory article of its belief that Romanism was Anti-Christ. Indeed, its only actual content was Anti-Romanism. And, if by the same measure that it held Rome to be Anti-Christ it must be itself judged to be only a rival Anti-Christ—well, that was something not to be dwelt upon.
About twenty years ago somebody in the North who aspired to become a clergyman read the 39 Articles and decided that he couldn't because they declare the Pope to be Anti-Christ. The 39 Articles are unalterable dogma drawing from Henry the Eighthism. Anglican clergymen need not believe them to be true, but they must say that they believe them.
Newman belonged to an Anglican generation that, after a century of scepticism, took Henry the Eighthism to be a real religion. Industrial capitalism was producing a mass proletariat that needed to be taken in hand by the Church of the State, lest some force hostile to the State should get control of it. So there was a generation of sincere religious Anglicans in the ruling class. Newman was the most thoughtful of them, and he soon became the most eminent. And, through taking Anglicanism entirely in earnest, he discovered that it was not a religion at all but a state ideology.
If Roman Catholicism too was once the ideology of a State, it had a long history prior to its establishment by the Empire, and an even longer history subsequent to the fall of the Empire. When the Empire broke up, it became the religion of many states, and it was subject to none of them.
When I was thirteen I discovered that I was simply non-religious. But I lived in a community in which almost everybody was religious in one way or another, and in which what had been the religion of Ireland from time immemorial had not entirely given way to the more strictly Roman form launched after the Famine event by Cardinal Cullen.
Being surrounded by something for which I had no feeling, I naturally wondered what it was about. Among the books that presented themselves in the backwardness of of rural Ireland in those times were Tolstoy's and Dostoevsky's. I was greatly taken with Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Kreutzer Sonata, and even more by Dostoevsky's White Nights, and this led me to read other things by them. From a book on Christianity by Tolstoy I got the idea of it as an element in a way of life—which it had obviously been in Ireland for more than a thousand years before being systematically destroyed by the regime of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Remnants of that old kind of religion survived still in lively, conservative, Slieve Luacra, but the progressive forces were displacing it by a newer form that had not quite bedded in as a way of life. And, judging by the recent turn of events, it never did bed in anywhere in the country.
From Dostoevsky I got the fable of the Grand Inquisitor, in The Brothers Karamazov.
After 1500 years Jesus came to earth again, in Seville.
"This was not the coming in which He had promised appear in all His heavenly glory at the end of time… He came just for a moment to visit His children amidst the fires that were burning the heretics… He came in human form and moved about quietly, but he was recognised straight away…"
The people demanded that he should perform miracles, as he had done before. The Grand Inquisitor heard of it and came to reason with him, taking him prisoner in order to concentrate his attention and bring him to a sense of his responsibilities. He refuses to be reasoned with.
The Inquisitor says he knows he has come to interfere again, and it won't be allowed. They had just managed to bring the world to order again after his last interference. So he will be declared a heretic and burned. He had thrust freedom on the world and it made people miserable. But order had been restored.
"And now for the first time it was possible to think of people's happiness. Man is rebellious by nature and how can rebels by happy? You were warned about this but you paid no heed… In the desert you were made three offers but rejected them. That was your blunder. Those offers contained the future history of mankind… You would not turn stones into bread. You didn't want to deprive man of freedom by bringing it to him with bread. You said man does not live by bread alone… But we give them bread and lie to them that we do so in your name. There was no knowledge capable of supplying them with bread while they remained free… And they said to us “Enslave us, but feed us”. They came to understand that freedom is not compatible with a regular supply of daily bread. They realise that they cannot be free because they are weak, corrupt, worthless and restless… Their great need is to have something to worship, and not individually but in common… In the attempt to have a universal form of worship they have gone to war to destroy rival gods… And that is how it will always be. You were offered something that would have gained you unchallenged loyalty. You could have given men bread and they would have worshipped You because there is nothing more basic than bread. But if someone else captured their conscience they might have left Your bread to follow him. You were right to that extent. The human mystery is that people don't just want life, they want something to live for… There is nothing more seductive to men than freedom of conscience, and nothing more disturbing… Instead of giving them something to calm their consciences, You gave them strange, incomprehensible words which increased their freedom and their torment… There are only three forces that capture and hold the conscience of these weak, undisciplined creatures and make them happy: miracle, mystery and authority. You rejected them all…"
But the Church based itself on what Jesus rejected.
"And now everyone will be happy, except for the hundred thousand who accept the burden of knowing and governing. The people will die peacefully comforted by Your name. And we will keep the secret and keep them happy in death with the offer of heavenly bliss."
Dostoevsky was a liberal revolutionary in 1848 who was sentenced to death and reprieved when he was before the firing squad, and spent a term in Siberia. He subsequently rejected the liberal ideal—as set out in Chernyshevsky's novel, What Is to Be Done?—as being without human content. He became Orthodox in religion, and fiercely anti-Rome. This is his view of Rome, as sharpened by Vatican 1.
It is also an English Protestant view of Rome. The Bronte family took a view of Rome something like this from County Down to Yorkshire and it is expressed in Charlotte's novel about Belgium, Villette.
What sense does it make? None at all from an Anglican position. It is more acceptable from a Russian Orthodox source. To the best of my knowledge, Tsarism, in the course of civilising Central Asia, did not plunder or exterminate. But Anglicanism was a department of a plundering and exterminating state. Sir Charles Dilke, who would probably have taken over the Liberal leadership from Gladstone if he had not been cut down by a divorce action a couple of years before Parnell, boasted, in a very popular book (Greater Britain) that the English were the greatest genocidal race the world had ever seen. Anglican England plundered and exterminated across the world to make the English masses well fed and content with ideological sophistry.
If there was an authentic and viable pre-Imperial Christianity, it was not Protestant England that was going to recover it and live be it. I don't know if there was or not. I recall a remark by Nietzsche that the original Christianity, as far as it can be guessed at from the Gospels, was suitable for anarchist communes. The farthest I went in trying to get some idea of the original form of this thing from Asia that gripped Europe and held it for two thousand years was to read Albert Schweitzer's Quest For The Historical Jesus. His conclusion, as far as I recall, was that the actual Jesus had disappeared and was unreachable. And St. Paul, who hadn't met Jesus, said he wasn't particularly interested in knowing about him "after the flesh".
Early Christianity takes on the quality of a mirage. But, whatever it was, it seems from the start to have been Roman. It was located in the Roman state and had no yearning for another State.
The Gospel story suggests that Roman tolerance would have been extended to it, only that the Jews, who were the majority of the people in the area, were seriously offended by it, and the Roman Governor felt he had to suppress it to keep the peace. I know that Gerry Adams says that this was an Imperialist slander, and that it is now widely held to be Anti-Semitism. But I can't see why Rome, of its own volition, should have bothered about a small new sect that sprouted amongst the multitude of sects in the Empire.
There was trouble between the Jews and Rome because the Jews were between catastrophic attempts to restore the Jewish state of the Old Testament as a narrow, exclusive, exterminating theocracy as laid down in Deuteronomy. If the Christian movement had any such notion, it was soon discarded, and Christian eyes were fixed on Rome.
The Christianity that gripped Europe was shaped by the Roman Empire. The Empire decayed but the religion made by it remained. Many centuries after the fall of the Empire, during which the religion had been functioning independently, England rejected Roman Christianity as Anti-Christ and reformed Christianity so as to purify it of Imperial accretions. But the reformed Christianity of England was from the very start the ideology of an Empire that was being formed, and throughout its effective life of about four centuries it was a subordinate department of State of that Empire.
It was properly speaking not a religion at all but a state cult. Connolly said as much when he observed that the Penal Laws did not have the object of converting the Irish but of plundering them. Anglicans who were fully in earnest about conversion were always frustrated. If the Irish converted they could not have been plundered—at least not without giving the game of the Glorious Revolution away
Newman was bred to Anglicanism and he took it seriously as a religion:
"I read Newton on the Prophecies, and in consequence became most firmly convinced that the Pope was the Antichrist predicted by Daniel, St. Paul, and St. John" (Apologia Pro Vita Sua, p100: this was Newton the mathematician).
I don't know if Newman ever wrote about the formation of the Anglican Church—the Church formed by the English State as it was asserting itself to be an Empire. He had no reason to do so in the Apologia, which is a detailed account of how, as an Anglican clergyman and academic, he reasoned his way into Popery, written in response to a scurrilous attack by a former colleague who had become a famous "muscular Christian" Imperialist, Charles Kingsley. I have read little of Newman beyond the Apologia, which I read because of an interest in the muscular Christian as an Imperialist. But I have read Froude's History Of Henry 8. This Froude was the brother of Newman's Tractarian colleague. He was much hated Ireland because of what he wrote about Ireland, but much worse things were written about it by others and continue to be written. He takes Henry 8 to be the greatest thing that happened to England, but he wrote so extensively and with such ample quotation that one can get a very good idea from him of what did happen.
The Apologia was issued as a Fontana paperback in 1959. It must have been about then that I went to find the Catholic Cathedral, which I had not noticed during the year or two I had been in London. I wanted to see how close to Westminster Abbey it had been built. I found it had been set up discreetly in a side-street off Victoria Street. (I think more space has been opened up around it since then.) And, in the Cathedral bookshop, I picked up a Newman Anthology put together with Newman's approval in 1875 and reissued on India Paper in 1959 so that its 350 papers have the thickness of a fraction of an inch.
The Anthology includes an extract from Sermons To Mixed Congregation in which this comment is made on Anglicanism:
"…does not its essence lie in its recognition by the State? …what would it be… if abandoned to itself? …Strip it of this world, and you have performed a mortal operation upon it, for it has ceased to be… You know that did not the State compel it to be one, it would split at once into three several bodies, each bearing within it the elements of further divisions… Methodism represents some sort of idea, Congregationalism an idea; the Established Religion has in it no idea beyond its establishment…; it is carried forward into other places by State policy, and it moves because the State moves; it is an appendage, whether weapon or decoration, of the sovereign power; it is the religion, not even of a race, but of the ruling portion of a race" (p262).
From Anglican Difficulties:
"We must not indulge our imagination in the view of the National Establishment. If, indeed, we dress it up in an ideal form, as if it were something real, with an independent and a continuous existence, and a proper history, as if it were indeed and not only in name a Church, then indeed we may feel interest in it, and reverence towards it, and affection for it, as men have fallen in love with pictures, or knights in romance do battle for high dames whom they have never seen… But at length… the spell is broken and nothing is seen but the wild heath, the barren rock… Then we perceive, that aforetime we have not been guided by reason, but biased by education and swayed by affection. We see in the English Church… nothing more or less then… a department of Government, or a function or operation of the State— …a mere collection of officials, depending on and living in the supreme civil power… It has no traditions; it cannot be said to think; it does not know what it holds, and what it does not; it is not even conscious of its own existence… Bishop is not like bishop, more than king is like king…; its Prayer-Book is an Act of Parliament of two centuries ago, and its cathedrals and its chapter-houses are the spoils of Catholicism… Its life is an Act of Parliament" (p212).
To ensure that this Church of England (and of Ireland too, of course) did not succumb to religious notions, it was not allowed to meet in Assembly for hundreds of years. And, if it was made by Parliament, then Parliament was made by the Crown.
The fixer of Henry the Eighthism for Henry was Thomas Cromwell. Parliament was the King's Council. Its role in English political affairs was increased by Cromwell's handling of it, butt remained the King's Council still. And, in one of the zig-zags of the English Reformation, Cromwell, its fixer, found himself beheaded on a charge of treason. He was not subjected to trial. He was dealt with by Act of Parliament. Parliament passed an Act of Attainder against him at Henry's behest. And if the reason for it was not that Cromwell had found Henry yet another wife, but one whom he found repulsive the moment he saw her but whom he had contracted to marry, and whom he could not execute on a trumped-up charge because she was a German Protestant with political connections, it is hard to see what it might have been.
The caricature of the English Reformation as a product of Henry's lust seems less of a caricature the more it is gone into. But, in the case of Anne of Cleves, it was an inability to summon up any lust at all. And who knows but, if he had gone to bed with Anne, and bred a healthy male heir with her, he would have gone onto make a Lutheran settlement?
Protestantism established the individual conscience in command of morality, while Romanism subordinated conscience to authority—that's the story, isn't it?
What one finds in the course of the long, incoherent, tumultuous Reformation launched by Henry is a remarkable flexibility of conscience in the part of the English society that counted, ready to shape itself to whatever authority decreed. Henry's new free individuals only wanted him to make clear to them what he wanted them to believe so that they could get on with believing it.
(In the early 19th century the Anglican Bishop of Durham suggested that England broke with Rome because English good sense rejected the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist as absurd. A Catholic writer pointed out to him that, if he had lived in Henry's time and rejected the Real Presence, Henry would have had him burned. The Real Presence was one of Henry's dogmas and made a compulsory belief by Parliament.)
Where conscience and morality could not comply with authority, or failed to keep up with its zig-zags, it was liable to gets itself burned, either as Lutheran or Romanist.
Moral behaviour in its original use means behaviour in accordance with custom. And I can't see that the meaning has changed very much.
The singularity of the Anglican State lay in its failure to make a coherent new settlement in place of the one destroyed by Henry. The populace was disrupted by uncertainty in the State. It could not live securely, conscientiously, in accordance with a stable and comprehensive body of belief. Security lay only in a nimble compliance with the vagaries of the State. Public opinion was the opinion of the State. Wide scope was allowed for non-public opinion—a notion thrown up by existential German angst in the 1950s—so long as public expression of the opinion of the State was not interfered with.
A few years ago, when it became clear that the British Government intended to launch a war of destruction on the Iraqi State, a million people demonstrated against it. The Government said that showed how different England was from Iraq—people were free to express their opinion—and that was an additional reason for making war on Iraq. The war turned out to be a very bad war. Some people said it was not only wrong, but illegal. The Government said in effect: You're entitled to your opinion that it is a wrong and illegal war and you must support it, because it is our war—our Army is engaged. Public opinion fell into line with this, supporting the actual fighting of the war, even while continuing to say it was wrong. And public demonstration against the war was criminalised. The regiments fighting this illegal war that brought mayhem to Iraq had to be welcomed home as heroes in public ceremonies. It was made a crime to heckle them as murderous agents of a war that was immoral or illegal. And there was scarcely a murmur of dissent when tangible public disapproval of the war by people who thought it criminal was criminalised.
There was nothing unusual in that. It is how things happen in England. It would require skilled Jesuitry to discover in it the functioning of conscience independent of authority, and transcendent morality free of both custom and the state. But of course England is amply supplied with the casuistical skills it deplores as Jesuitry—much better supplied than Ireland ever was.
The English Reformation was the making of an Imperial State, and its religion has ever been ideology of that State.
In the week of intense Anti-Papist propaganda that preceded the Pope's visit, Jeremy Paxman of BBC's Newsnight said that the Pope was visiting England almost 500 years after England had won her freedom from Rome.
What did England's struggle for freedom consist of? An assertion by Henry that he was supreme in matters of religion, and that England was an Empire—and the rubber-stamping of Henry's assertion by his Council, called Parliament.
If only Ireland could have freed itself from England so easily, by the vote of an elected Parliament acting freely!