Midweek Mysticism: Towards a truly English church
Christianity is often thought of as quintessentially English. A country parish church or a great cathedral are so typical of our landscape that they have become deeply woven into the tapestry of British life.
We easily skip over the oddities and cultural disparities of the Bible texts because they are so familiar. But try reading Leviticus with its many pages of detailed proscriptions and “thou shalt nots”. The similarities with stern Islamic texts are immediately apparent. It might be renamed The Ten Thousand Commandments.
It is not easy-going Anglicanism where a belief in God is optional. While the New Testament is more compatible with spiritual Protestantism, the cultural and legalistic overlay of authoritarian desert tribal beliefs are still present.
In short, the full texts grate on modern British sensibilities and become more alien over time. Of course, not many churchgoers bother to read the Bible today, and the Church does its best to water down the mystical passages by attaching literal meanings to them.
And yet, the mystical bits are often superb and, properly understood, are on a par with any other spiritual traditions in world mysticism.
I’ve long trawled the Old and New Testaments, and the Gnostic Gospels, for their spiritual truths, while passing over the cultural complexities that embed them.
In our age of Middle Eastern turbulence and sickening violence — the very antithesis of religion — we in the West are turning away from the bedrock that once supported our belief system. It’s not as English as we thought.
The churches are struggling for adherents. Catholicism is buckling under the weight of sexual and mafia scandals, while the CofE seems almost alien on holy days when the clergy parades at Canterbury in full regalia.
The Rt. Rev. Peter Price, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, addressing the Church’s General Synod, claimed that “rioting can be, literally, an ecstatic, spiritual experience. Something is released in the participants which takes them out of themselves as a kind of spiritual escape”.
The words literally and ecstatic betray an abyss of ignorance: “literally” suggests exactitude, when it’s no such thing, and “ecstatic” paints an emotional element into a period of preternatural tranquility.
More pointedly, a spiritual episode is not an “escape” but an uplifting from the darkness into the light.
Clearly, His Grace has never had a spiritual experience, which is almost certainly true of the vast majority of churchmen and women. To confuse the sublime calm of individual spiritual/mystic experiences with the mass hysteria of groupthink euphoria found in riots and the so-called Toronto Blessing, is to demean his calling.
I’ve spoken to a number of CofE clergymen who think that spiritual experience is a diversion from their real work of officiating at services, running the church fete and, above all, social work in the parish.
They should read the passage in Luke’s Gospel where their saviour tells Martha that she is destined to labour and organise (as an Active), while her sister Mary is a natural Contemplative who must be excused work “for she is of the highest kind”.
Not surprisingly, the passage has been severely edited and curtailed by a fastidious Romanised hand, but the meaning survives. Moreover, this Mary of Bethany is almost certainly Mary Magdalene who has her own Gospel in the Gnostic tradition and was said to be the highest of the disciples.
Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, the Last Supper (see below) has a very feminine figure leaning away from Jesus on his right and forming a powerful “M” shape. Traditionally, this is John, “the Beloved Disciple”, but it’s actually Mary. Leonardo was trying to tell us something that had been suppressed by the Roman Church.
That distinction between Active and Contemplative was once prevalant and understood in the Church. Nowadays, the art of contemplation is dying out in everyday Christianity in favour of social work and political activism.
It’s not so odd then, that pagan beliefs, which Christianity attempted to stamp out, are making a strong recovery from a long near-death experience. Human beings need to believe in something, and if they stop believing in the official code they will believe in anything.
On this site I’ve been suggesting an alternative: taking the genuine mystical insights from both Christianity and Paganism — remember that Plato and Aristotle, the Buddha and Krishna, are regarded as pagan by hardline believers — and forging them into a modern, near-scientific system, minus the excessive materialism, that both fits our age and has the merit of leading directly to spiritual enlightenment.
The alternative is a world of rapidly growing cults and a slow decline of Christianity and the crumbling of our magnificent churches.
Let’s leave the quarrelsome Middle East to its own devices and reintroduce an English sensibility to our national religious life.
… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.
Mystics in the Modern World is coming soon.
Recent Related Articles