Saturday, November 05, 2005

Guy Fawkes Day

Guy Fawkes Night
Originally uploaded by Ichor.

So it's the 400th anniversary of the attempt to return England to her roots in the True Faith ... :-) Or, if you will, the 400th anniversary of that dastardly deed, whose failure was surely a sign of Divine Providence, and pleasure at the cause of Reform. Or, maybe, the 400th anniversary of perhaps the first instance of religious terrorism. Ah, how our perspective shapes things ... :)

The BBC has a great page with history and background.

Opendemocracy has this interesting article:

The 1605 plot happened, after all, because extremist members of a religious faith felt that the political system they lived was so oppressive that it needed to be overturned. This is, presumably, what motivated the suicide-bombers who struck in London on 7 July 2005. We inhabit a culture where, for most people, there is little place either for a strong religious faith or for ideological politics more generally. This is why acts of terror (whether the July bombings, 9/11, or the IRA bombings in several English cities in the last three decades) seem so incomprehensible. If nothing else, the history of the Gunpowder Plot provides a shortcut to understanding a world where people were willing to die, and kill, for their religious faith.

Rich Leonardi at Catholic Exchange has a little piece on the lurking Catholic history of England.

Of course, while Britons (or, rather, the English. Guy Fawkes is an English holiday, wot?) burn their effigies, one cannot help but think of what was once their arch-enemy, also once the Eldest Daughter of the Church, consumed by an orgy of burning.

[Hattip to Amy Welborn for the following articles. Well, I saw the Tablet one on my own :)] The anniversary is certainly leading to some commentary in the British press on supposedly analogous situation of today's British Muslims and the oppressed Catholics of the 17th century, viz. Philip Johnston writing in the Daily Telegraph, "Remember, remember and credit society with moving on." John Derbyshire in the NRO disagrees.

The Tablet in a fantastic, well-reasoned piece by Fr. Michael Barnes SJ, Terror, Treason and Plot, wisely suggests:

It is easy to forget that in many ways late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England was still a Catholic country. If Catholics had divided loyalties, it was because the Anglican settlement was by no means well established, and in many places not much loved. The missionaries saw their first task as keeping the memories of the “old faith” alive. Today their Muslim counterparts work in a very different situation. Islam is a relatively new arrival. For most Muslims the biggest challenge is not how to retrieve the past but how to develop a form of Islam that can live with integrity alongside other faiths in a secular state. British Catholics have had centuries to adjust to this reality, and to grow from being a persecuted minority to the single biggest practising religious community in the country. British Muslims are still undergoing a painful adjustment to life in a pluralist society, a process not made easier by being conducted under the intense glare of media scrutiny.

If there is a lesson Muslims and Catholics can learn from the past, it is not the rather lame point that states, whether theocratic or secular, find religious nonconformity difficult to accommodate. That has always been the case. It is, rather, that religious difference cannot be domesticated by a purely political – or indeed any other – fiat. The politicising of religion drove Catholic dissidents underground and made rapprochement that much more difficult to achieve. Today’s more liberal society deals with its dissenters by moving in the opposite direction. The appeal to “moderate” or “mainstream” Islamic elements is intended to sideline the extremists. But to many Muslims it seems like another attempt to fragment a tradition that is only too aware both of the power of the West and of its own decline and weakness.

There is no easy way to understand the confusing and threatening events of the last few years. Today’s terrorism is not to be assimilated into our various myths. Appeals to history get us only so far. The same can be said for more modern ideas such as the “clash of civilisations” thesis. Like all myths it contains an important insight, namely that the impact of religion on questions of iden-tity and motivation can no longer be confined to purely national considerations. But it seeks to prove too much. Neither “the West” nor “the world of Islam” can be portrayed in monolithic terms – any more than Elizabethan England can be characterised as some militant Protestant police state fighting for its life against a devious Jesuit menace.

::UPDATED:: do check out this pieace at Godspy: "November 5, Guy Fawkes Day, Go out with a bang," with this great coinage: "Al-Chiesa." Ha! Oh, and Peter Steinfels has the faith-based terrorism angle as well in the NYT.


assiniboine said...

Fr Barnes's view of late 16th and early 17th c. England is in a longstanding tradition of scholarship, to be sure (and it makes for a very nice analysis of the circumstances of latter day Muslims living in the West): when I was a bairn the primary school history textbook went right along with it (ie Henry VIII's break with Rome was not a Protestant
reformation at all; only a severing of the link with Rome); it was view of John Henry
Newman and his fellow Tractarians before he and some others got a little carried away, and it
continues to be dearly ascribed to by the more precious of High Church Anglicans.

I fear it doesn't really hold up very well to disinterested historical scrutiny, alas. (And I speak as one who would gladly welcome a return to the eastern orientation of altars and the liturgy in, if not Latin, at least a literate form of the vernacular.) Even Eamon Duffy in his quite splendid revisionist study of parish life in Tudor England, "The Stripping of the Altars," points out that it wasn't the much-maligned Puritans of Cromwell's Commonwealth at all who stripped the popish idolatry from English churches; Henry VIII's men had done it far too thoroughly a century before for there to be anything left to strip; and, one might add, it would surely have been tricky to enlist the necessary manpower to effect the indicia of the Reformation if people had been wary of its consequences for their immortal souls, even with the Tyborn pyre in people's minds. (Lots of heretics gladly embraced the flames rather than compromise their Protestant convictions, after all, when Sir Thomas More was enthusiastically playing with matches.) Sure, of course there were atavistic holdouts for (Roman) Catholic faith and practice after 1558, and for that matter plenty of outright recusants. But the Elizabethan Settlement was just that, and there were dissatisfied Catholics (both small- and large-C) and Protestants on both sides of her Via Media; and Archbishop Laud didn't lose his head because he wanted Stuart England to return to Rome. The thing is, it wasn't good enough for anyone in those days that you go to your church and I'll go to mine; it was you come to my church or I'll fix your wagon, which makes the traditional take on the Pilgrim Fathers' quest for religious liberty seem a little droll (and I now speak also as someone who has a certain admiration for liturgical austerity).

But as for the situation of Muslims living in the West today...well, I'll put that reflection where it belongs, under your observations regarding the current conflagration in Paris. However, as for Bonfire Night -- interesting, isn't it, that in North America, despite the urgency of its Protestantism in most quarters in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was the pagan and Celtic Hallowe'en which survived, not Guy Fawkes Day which largely supplanted it in England.

assiniboine said...

(I appreciate that that is your point precisely regarding the purported parallel between Tudor and Stuart Catholics and English Muslims today but I thought it only proper to point out that the analysis of the former isn't entirely valid either.)