All the great ideas are older than we think. Centuries before Freud and Jung, for instance, the Greek dramatists showed us how well they understood human nature and its storms and shallows and pain. Europe thought of its first university (in Parma) as early as 1064, a century before Oxford. And the idea that religion is man-made rather than divine in and of itself occurred to the Victorians and probably before. In 1849 the radical American churchman Theodore Parker made the point rather well, like this:
“The church represents only the popular morality, not any high and aboriginal virtue. It represents not the conscience of human nature, reflecting the universal and unchangeable moral laws of God, touched and beautified by his love, but only the conscience of human history, reflecting the circumstances man has passed by, and the institutions he has built along the stream of time.”
Theodore Parker from The public education of the people: an address delivered at the Onondaga Teachers’ Institute, Syracuse NY, October 4, 1849 Speeches Vol III, p170 [courtesy of Project Gutenberg]
But it is still the secret that everybody knows, even in the pews, but pretends otherwise. It is that all religious practices, preferences and presumptions are culturally specific; that is, they are shaped and developed by a society for its own ends, and in ways most congenial to itself. It is as if societies and cultures were so many prisms through which the divine is to be encountered in each case in ‘the right way.’
We may raise our eyebrows at Ethiopian Christianity and its use of prayer sticks to lean on because their services are so long, but they probably have equally curt reactions to our hallowed practices. Anglicanism is so obviously the product of a moderate, reticent even restrained cultural ecology that it cannot be divorced from that Englishness which is different from, say, Scottishness.
Which brings us to the ecumenical movement and the Anglican Communion. As an Anglican Englishman I am supposed to take a polite interest in the frothings of the Primate of Nigeria and his anathemas against homosexuality. But, you know, I cannot find it in my heart to subscribe to any such attitude, however Christ-based it claims to be. Let the Church in Nigeria and places like it go where they will. I will not follow and I doubt very much that many other Anglicans have much interest in the Anglican Communion. So when we are told that the Communion is in trouble, why worry? “God in his own time will correct this.”