Musings of an Anglican/Episcopal Priest

Category: History (page 2 of 2)

“The pressure to embrace the full equality of women in the life of the church […] was coming from the mission frontier from where ‘come reports of converts to Christianity-often made by women evangelists” (p 260)

Torture, American Exceptionalism, and Chronological Snobbery

C.S. Lewis used to talk about what he termed Chronological Snobbery, that is, the belief that the art, practices, culture etc… of an earlier time are inherently less valuable or evolved than those of the current era. This attitude, of course, crops up a lot at every point in history. Unless we’re incurable cynics we like to focus on the good things going on in our time, and explain away the bad. It goes against the very modern narrative of continual progress to suggest that there may actually be some ways in which we are less moral or less well-equipped than our forebears.1 One of the ways this comes out in the era of the New Atheists and the like, is the condemnation of religion as a source for the world’s ills. Two events in the history of the Christian west in particular bear a great deal of scrutiny and are repudiated, with reason: the Crusades and the Inquisition.

Obviously I’m not going to defend the actions that folks are condemning when they condemn the Crusades and the Inquisition.  The sorts of things people have in mind are fundamentally wrong, whether such actions actually color the whole of either set of events. Moral outrage is not a very nuanced emotion, in large part because it cannot be, and still lead to the sort of cleansing that is needed. An ironic thing came to my attention this evening though, as I read the newest edition of the Atlantic Monthly (January/February 2012). One of the articles in the magazine is entitled “Torturer’s Apprentice” and discusses the use the United States has made of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” I’ve written about issues of torture and Christian belief in the past, and shared resources, here and here.

Our continued justification of torture-by-another-name, as well as other behaviors we would never tolerate from another nation if directed toward us, are attributable to a particularly negative aspect of American Exceptionalism (and no, I am not a person who believes that everything that would fall under that category is necessarily wrong or evil.  I would argue there are definitely good aspects related to the unique character of the United States). I’ve argued in the past that this negative form of exceptionalism, which sees the United States as always being in the right, is in part bolstered by a national narrative that can only exist because of the Civil War and the creation of a shadow side in the form of the American South. Because the United States was purified through blood in the fighting of a morally good war to free people from slavery, somehow it affirms the God-given rightness of all that we do. Ironically, many of those raised in what Flannery O’Connor rightly called the Christ-haunted South (as distinct from Christ-centered) are the most supportive of such a narrative.  On the other hand, I think that Southerners are often in a better position to question the dominant narrative of the spotless moral record of our nation, since there are aspects of our own history–communal and familial–that, when dealt with honestly, force us to weigh our past as a morally mixed bag of both good and bad.

All that is to say, these two factors combined: generalized chronological snobbery overlaid with an unjustified presumption of moral superiority2, lead us to assume that some things done in our name are not wrong because they are done in our name.  Case in point from this article in the most recent Atlantic.  It is not out online yet, so I will simply type the portion I’d like to highlight, but I encourage you to purchase the magazine and read the article in its entirety:

As it happens, the Inquisition invented that defense [i.e. the defense that the number of time someone was waterboarded actually meant ‘pours’ rather than ‘sessions’ and was therefore not as bad as it looked]. In theory, torture by the Church was strictly controlled. It was not supposed to put life in jeopardy or cause irreparable harm. And torture could be applied only once. But inquisitors pushed the boundaries. For instance, what did once mean? Maybe it could be interpreted to mean once for each charge. Or, better, maybe additional sessions could be considered not as separate acts but as ‘continuances’ of the first session. Torture would prove difficult to contain. The potential fruits always seemed so tantalizing, the rules so easy to bend.


The public profile of torture is higher than it has been for many decades. Arguments have been mounted in its defense with more energy than at any other time since the Middle Ages. The documentary record pried from intelligence agencies could easily be mistaken for Inquisition transcripts. The lawyer Philippe Sands, investigating the interrogation (which used a variety of techniques) by the United States of a detainee named Mohammed al-Qahtani, pulled together key moments from the official classified account:


‘Detainee spat. Detainee proclaimed his innocence. Whining. Dizzy. Forgetting things. Angry. Upset. Yelled for Allah. Urinated on himself. Began to cry. Broke down and cried. Began to pray and openly cried. Cried out to Allah several times.’


The Inquisition, with its stipulation that torture and interrogation not jeopardize life or cause irreparable harm, actually set a more rigorous standard than some proponents of torture insist on now. The 21st century’s Ad extirpanda is the so-called Bybee memo, issued by the Justice Department in 2002 (and later revised). In it, the Bush administration put forth a very narrow definition, arguing that for an action to be deemed torture, it must produce suffering ‘equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.’ To place this in perspective: the administration’s threshold for when an act of torture begins was the point at which the Inquisition stipulated that it must stop.

So, the next time someone bashes the Inquisition, perhaps we should tout their humanitarian credentials…


  1. Of course, this is not to deny that there’s a whole other swath of people who believe that things were better in the past simply because it was the past, but we’ll leave them to the side for the moment, and talk about these issues in another post. []
  2. This is not to deny that there are areas where a sense of moral superiority is justified–it simply has to be recognized that it is not uniformly deserved–that’s just honesty []

Above all things, good policy is to be used, that the treasure and monies in a State be not gathered into few hands; for, otherwise, a State may have a great stock and yet starve. And money is like muck, not good except it be spread. This is done chiefly by suppressing, or, at the least, keeping a strait hand upon the devouring trades of usury, engrossing, great pasturages, and the like.

The essays or Counsels, civil and Moral, of Francis Bacon, Henry Morley – Google Books (page 101).

Reading up on Cranmer’s Eucharistic Doctrine

“It has been a common mistake to assume that there was no fourth alternative open to Cranmer besides Catholic, Lutheran, and Zwinglian. There was in fact, a fourth available possibility in Virtualism, the Eucharistic doctrine according to which, while the bread and wine remain unchanged after the consecration, the faithful communicants receive with the elements the virtue or power of the Body and Blood of Christ.  This was the view of the Eucharist affirmed by Martin Bucer, Henry Bullinger, Peter Martyr, and John Calvin.  It has been argued at length by C.W. Dugmore in The Mass and the English Reformers and more recently by Peter Brooks in Thomas Cranmer’s Doctrine of the Eucharist, that Cranmer’s was a high Calvinist doctrine.


Furthermore, however close to Calvin or Zwingli Cranmer’s Eucharistic beliefs were, it must be noted that Cranmer and Zwingli differed in their evaluation of the importance of the Eucharist.  Cranmer, like Calvin, desired a weekly Eucharist, whereas Zwingli settled for a quarterly Eucharist.  On balance, then, I think Cranmer moved from a Catholic through a Lutheran to a Calvinist or Virtualist doctrine of the Eucharist, and that the final stage was accompanied by the strong influence on him of Nicholas Ridley, relying on the Nominalism he found in Radbertus.  Cranmer, it must be insisted, affirmed that by the power of the Holy Spirit, the true consecratory agent in the sacrament, Christ with all the benefits of his passion and resurrection was spiritually present at the Lord’s Table, and that this was known in the hearts of believers by the interior testimony of faith.  Faith did not create the presence–that would be blasphemy.  Rather it confirmed the presence through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Cranmer would undoubtedly have agreed with the statement made by his mentor, Ridley, in the Cambridge debate of 1549.  There Ridley stated that the three practical benefits of the Eucharist were unity, nutrition, and conversion.  (Worship and Theology in England, Book 1: I. From Cramner to Hooker, 1534-1603; 2. From Andrewes to Baxter and Fox, 1603-1690, p. 183 & 185)


I have two items to share in thanksgiving for our country today.  The first is a prayer (actually a thanksgiving), the second a poem that I’m sure many will recognize.

First, the thanksgiving:

Almighty God, giver of all good things: We thank you for the natural majesty and beauty of this land.  They restore us, though we often destroy them.

Heal us.

We thank you for the great resources of this nation. They make us rich, though we often exploit them.

Forgive us.

We thank you for the men and women who have made this country strong. They are models for us, though we often fall short of them.

Inspire us.

We thank you for the torch of liberty which has been lit in this land. It has drawn people from every nation, though we have often hidden from its light.

Enlighten us.

We thank you for the faith we have inherited in all its rich variety. It sustains our life, though we have been faithless again and again.

Renew us.

Help us, O Lord, to finish the good work here begun.  Strengthen our efforts to blot out ignorance and prejudice, and to abolish poverty and crime. And hasten the day when all our people, with many voices in one united chorus, will glorify your holy Name.  Amen.

And now the poem:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emma Lazarus, 1883

As I celebrate the birth of our nation, and out many accomplishments, I pray we’re able to honor the spirit of this thanksgiving and these verses.

Random Tidbit: From “The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity”

In the desert tradition, vigilant attention to the body enjoyed an almost oppressive prominence.  Yet to describe ascetic thought as “dualistic” and as motivated by hatred of the body, is to miss its most novel and its most poignant aspect.  Seldom in ancient thought, had the body been seen as more deeply implicated in the transformation of the soul; and never was it made to bear so heavy a burden.  For the desert Fathers, the body was not an irrelevant part of the human person, that could, as it were, be “put in brackets.”  It could not enjoy the distant tolerance that Plotinus and many pagan sages were prepared to accord it, as a transient and accidental adjunct to the self.  It was, rather, grippingly present to the monk: he was to speak of it as “this body that God has afforded me, as a field to cultivate, where I might work and become rich.


Ladder of Divine Ascent

The Ladder of Divine Ascent

[…T]he cumulative experience of ascetic transformation quietly eroded so stark an image of the self.  Life in the desert revealed, if anything, the inextricable interdependence of body and soul.  When Dorotheos himself came to write as an old man he noted that in some mysterious way, it was possible to “humble” the body–by physical labor, fasting, and vigils–so that one could actually bring humility to the soul.  So intimate a connection of body and soul both puzzled and reassured him. 

[…]In the desert tradition, the body was allowed to become the discreet mentor of the proud soul.  No longer was the ascetic formed, as had been the case in pagan circles, by the unceasing vigilance of his mind alone.  The rhythms of the body and, with the body, his concrete social relations determined the life of the monk: his continued economic dependence on the settled world for food, the hard school of day-to-day collaboration with his fellow-ascetics in shared rhythms of labor, and mutual exhortation in the monasteries slowly changed his personality.  The material conditions of a monk’s life were held capable of altering the consciousness itself.  Of all the lessons of the desert to a late antique thinker, what was most “truly astonishing” was “that the immortal spirit can be purified and refined by clay.” (Brown, 235-237)

Charles, King & Martyr

January 30th is the feast day of Charles, King & Martyr for many within the Church of England, as well as some around the Anglican Communion, including the members of the Society of King Charles the Martyr.   This is a particularly interesting and ambivalence-inspiring observance for Americans, given our own elevation of democracy to divine status. It is for this reason, of course, despite regular attempts, that Charles Stuart has never been on the official calendar of the Episcopal Church.

The long and short of it is that Charles I was a poor politician, and an ineffective ruler who is, by today’s standards, seen as despotic (though, of course, no more than many current petty dictators with whom we are happily allied!).  All the same, he was a sight better than the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell (though the importance of Cromwell’s readmittance of the Jews to England shouldn’t be overlooked), and seems to have been a decent human being who was committed to his principles and his faith.  Because of this, it did not take the people of England very long to look with fondness upon the days of Stuart rule, as opposed to the equally oppressive (and much more stodgy) rule of the puritans.

I think the best summary of this that I’ve read is in JRH Moorman’s A History of the Church in England:

On January 30, 1649, the king was beheaded on a scaffold outside the banqueting-house in Whitehall.

When the bleeding head was held up, the cry of horror from the crowd drowned the derisive shouts of the soldiers.  During the trial and at the hour of death Charles had behaved with a quiet courage and dignity which had won many to his side, even among those who had been ready to take up arms against him seven years before.  Royal despotism was a bad thing, but military despotism was worse.  English people dislike the sight of blood; and the execution of a king sent a thrill of horror and detestation through the country which has never been forgotten.  It has been described as ‘a crime against England even more than against Charles’.  But not only did it outrage the deepest feelings of the country, it also alienated many who might have been Cromwell’s supporters, and thus made a restoration of monarchy and Church inevitable in due course.  The regicides little realized that in cutting off Charles’s head they were cutting their own throats.

From 1662 to 1859 the execution of King Charles was commemorated in the calendar of the Prayer Book and special services were held each year on January 30.  Charles thus came as near to canonization as it is possible to be in the Church of England.  he stood as a symbol of the patient sufferer who lays down his life for his creed and for his Church.  He was certainly a good man and devout.  He had great courage and firm convictions.  In his own way he was convinced that he was doing what was right.  His father had taught him that the Divine Right of Kings was part of the will of God, and he had upheld this doctrine even unto death.  Such devotion to duty, such readiness to die rather than surrender his belief, is worthy of honour.  But his faith in Divine Right made him exasperating to others, especially his enemies.  His duplicity and irresponsibility, to which, in his own mind, he was perfectly entitled, to others appeared as sheer dishonesty.  To Cromwell there could be no peace for England so long as Charles Stuart was there to disturb it; hence the desperate remedy of a royal execution.  So Charles died; but with his death the fate of Puritanism was sealed and the Church’s future ensured. (Moorman, p. 240-241)

Further Reading:

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