Headless statues and brainless prelates

The forthcoming orgy of vandalism at Canterbury Cathedral is easy to blame on Archbishop Welby, and I do. Yet a great deal of the problem is inherent to the established status of the Church of England as a state religion.

“If I had a hammer…”

In any country where a state religion exists, the sins of the state will be visited upon it. Sooner or later its prelates will become government officials in cassocks, toeing the line drawn by the state.

And the line our anomic and anaemic state has drawn leaves reason, integrity and indeed sanity outside. Hence, if the state meekly surrenders to the diktats of the mob, so will the church.

Having said that, it’s possible even for a prelate of a state church to show more fortitude and intelligence than Justin Welby evinces. I don’t know how qualified he was in his previous job as oil trader, but in his present position he gives every sign of someone who has no clue.

The latest sign was flashed in his remarks on the future of the statues adorning Canterbury Cathedral. And there are quite a few of them – 55 just on the western façade.

Cathedral sculptures all over Europe have of course had their share of vandalism over the centuries. Many of the niches in the façades of great French cathedrals show headless statues as a result of the mob’s preferred method of art criticism.

Calvinists had a go first, then revolutionaries had a field day – and continued to have it throughout the 19th century. This proves yet again that iconoclasm survives long after the icons have been smashed.

English Calvinists, otherwise known as Puritans, also took a particular delight in toppling and decapitating statues. However, I can’t recall offhand many examples of high clergy in the defaced and desecrated churches not only going along with the vandals but actually inviting them over.

In that sense Justin Welby is a pioneer. He actually announced on TV that: “We’re going to be looking very carefully and putting them [the statues] in context and seeing if they all should be there.”

What context would that be, Your Grace? Historical? Ecclesiastic? Doctrinal? Biblical? No, of course not. The Archbishop has specifically identified the BLM movement as the context in which the history of England and her church must be viewed.

Looking at the Canterbury statues, I wonder which ones will be slated for destruction. St Augustine? St Anselm? Thomas Cranmer? St Gregory the Great? The Conqueror? Edward the Confessor? Thomas Becket? Elizabeth I or II? All of them?

Even assuming that some of the great people honoured with Canterbury statues fall short of the exacting moral standards of modernity, judging, say, medieval figures by such standards goes beyond idiotic – it enters the domain of psychiatry.

Some of the statue models never saw a black person in their lives; I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that some didn’t even know that black people existed. Their behaviour can only be judged by absolute moral standards, and perhaps also by the ethics of their time.

These statues commemorate the people who made England. They signposted English history and guided it into the conduits appropriate for their time. Let’s forgive them, shall we, their lack of foresight in not having anticipated the arrival of modern times, with their wars of total annihilation, concentration camps, genocides – and staggeringly sanctimonious self-righteousness.

The good Archbishop tried to explain himself with his usual eloquence: “Some names will have to change. I mean, the church, goodness me, you know, you just go around Canterbury Cathedral, there’s monuments everywhere, or Westminster Abbey, and we’re looking at all that, and some will have to come down.”

He then went on to expand my English vocabulary, a service for which I’m always grateful: “But yes, there can be forgiveness, I hope and pray as we come together, but only if there’s justice.” I get it: justice is the modern for vandalism.

Then of course there are all those offensive portraits of Jesus as a white man. Can’t have those, can we?

Here at least the Archbishop makes an accurate observation. When you travel the world, he said, “You see a black Jesus, a Chinese Jesus, a Middle Eastern Jesus – which is of course the most accurate – you see a Fijian Jesus.”

Truer words have never been spoken: indeed you do. And when you travel in the West, you see a white Jesus, right? Fair is fair and all that.

Yet by some twist of his already pre-twisted mind, the Archbishop seems to believe that a white Jesus is out of ‘context’. I must admit I don’t quite follow the logic.

Christians around the world are taught to believe that they are made in the image and likeness of God. Thanks to the Incarnation, this image can be depicted pictorially. In the era before jet travel, people would cast a look at their neighbourhood, see those around them and infer that they all reflected the image of God. Hence they painted God as they saw the people they knew: black, Chinese, whatever.

On what basis should European artists have been denied the same privilege? To paraphrase Pascal, Welby has his reasons that reason knows not of.

I think that even our state church could do better than Welby. In fact I know it can, if some Anglican clergymen among my friends are any indication.  

6 thoughts on “Headless statues and brainless prelates”

  1. The Church of England, whatever one thinks of it, used to have some intellectual heft. Anglicans dominated literature and the arts in the first part of the last century, and talked about things of universal interest such as our purpose here on earth, death, morality, beauty, and suffering. Even for outsiders, they brought something of great value to our national conversation.

    Today, they restrict themselves mainly to issues of politics, the Bishops clustering round the Labour Party and various forms of identity politics such as BLM and Gay and Trans Rights. I don’t criticise them for this at all. What does rankle, though, is how unutterably dull and shallow they have become. Someone remarked a few years ago that not a single Diocesan Bishop had a doctorate in Divinity or Theology; it’s all BMAs and similar management qualifications now. They do of course attempt to justify their political stances on he grounds that an incarnational theology and a commandment to love one another means that they have to engage with political and economic realities of deprivation and power. But what is unforgivable is that they are just so bad at it. They are not trained as political philosophers or even political scientists; they usually have little experience of practical politics; and so their opinions are no better informed than those of a taxi driver or nursery nurse, and usually expressed less pithily.

    For an intelligent person, listening to the C of E used to be a bit like being lectured to by an Oxbridge graduate about something intriguing which one could not quite grasp. Now, it’s more like listening to a pushy sixth former opining about something we have all heard many times before.

  2. The ABofC has almost perfected virtue signalling aka the art of looking good and feeling good. Actually I think he looks rather silly, but many will nod their heads at this.
    What he has yet to master is the art of doing good. I don’t think he has it in him though, but we can hope.

  3. I am sure His Eminence would be displeased with the various statues of the saints on display at the Vatican. Or even Russian icon also. Gotta go all of them. THEY have said so. Give in to the mob each time. Welby it ain’t gonna end there.

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