Diarmaid MacCulloch has written “A history of Christianity: The First 3000 Years.” William Whyte of the Church Times interviewed him about it, and talked about questions of unity and uniformity.
The book is a companion to an upcoming BBC4 series “A History of Christianity.”
Whyte describes his encounter with MacCulloch:
Indeed, that dominating and divisive figure St Augustine, the single most
important theologian the West has ever produced, is deliberately introduced very late — some 300 pages in — “to emphasise how unimportant he is to most of the Church”.
For the Orthodox, he is irrelevant. For the Eastern Churches, he is simply unknown. It is just a single example — one of many — but nevertheless a significant one. It highlights the effect of taking a truly worldwide perspective: a view that makes many of the preoccupations of the Western Church seem provincial — even parochial.
That, in a way, is the key message of this book. Rather than revealing a clear, unified, and coherent Christianity, this is an account of the many different Churches and creeds that the Christian faith inspired. Professor MacCulloch’s account of Christianity shows it as a debate from the beginning: a constant argument between Greek thought and Jewish ideas, between hierarchy and equality, order and inspiration. Indeed, for him, “the history of Christianity is a history of division.”
This is not, however, a problem for Professor MacCulloch — much less something to be mourned. He rejects what he calls a “neurotic obsession with unity” in favour of a celebration of diversity: a history that reveals the ways in which the Church has changed and accommodated itself to historical circumstance.
Small wonder, then, that Professor MacCulloch is so dismissive of those who have tried to enforce unity, and especially doctrinal uniformity. “Confessional purity”, he argues, “is always a chimera.” Take, for example, the Council of Chalcedon — the critical meeting of 451 which defined the two natures of Christ. This was, he argues, “a catastrophe, a disaster”. As
he points out, fully two-thirds of the Church refused to sign up to it, and the ensuing battles ensured that the unity it was intended to enforce was never — and could never be — achieved.
IT IS for that reason, too, that he is so keen to celebrate the Church of England — at least as it evolved from the 18th century onwards. “Born of an almost risible historical accident”, Anglicanism can never claim to be a confessional Church: it is a compromise between different theological positions.
Nor is it a centralised Church, capable of enforcing dogma or discipline:there has always been room within it for the independent- or simply bloody-minded, people such as his father, “a man with a high view of episcopacy, but a low view of bishops”.
In that sense, for Professor MacCulloch, the Church of England is a picture of the “Church as it might have been” — de-centred, decent, and dispassionate: able to deal with division; able to stand back and reflect on the complexities of faith; able, too, to laugh at them. That is why Robert Runcie remains his hero, and why he is pictured in the book, umpiring a cricket match at the Lambeth Conference of 1988. Perhaps prophetically, the teams are Australia versus the rest of the world.
Read the rest here.