Melvyn's newsletter - The Pelagian Controversy - 21/04/2011

Episode image for the Pelagian Controversy


This week's programme was recorded, which meant, of course, that we went over by a few minutes. Just as well, because the last few minutes revealed what had been under the surface for much of the time, which was the very opposed views on Augustine held by Martin Palmer and John Milbank. I think John Milbank, who is a very great expert on Augustine, is right in qualifying the brutal headlines of Augustine's influence. Yet, from my own - far, far lighter reading - I still think of him as the man who branded Christians with original sin and hobbled them with predestination. Predestination is a sort of tyrannical insanity, in my mind. Martin Palmer is much more of a Pelagian and, as John said, thinks that Pelagius was an Anglican, ie: tolerant, seeing all sides, and I also believe there is something in this. He inherited a pluralistic tradition and wanted to keep that alive, whereas Augustine was much more in tune with, and perhaps in thrall to, the idea of what had been the centralised Roman Empire, wanting to recreate it in the centralised Roman Church which eventually happened.

After the programme finished, John said to Martin 'you were unfair on Byzantium. They were not all emperor worshippers.' But then he added 'but this was only a minor qualification'. Martin responded that Anglo-Saxon kings had views very similar to the Byzantine emperors. They had a strong sense that they were king-priests and above the normal priesthood; that as kings they were the divine part of Christ. And being Anglo-Saxon they could look back not only to Adam but also to Thor. The divine idea of kings wended its way through for centuries and its articulated apotheosis was in a work by James VI of Scotland/James I of England, and its nemesis was in the execution of his son, Charles I, in 1649, for upholding in what was supposed to be a court of law the idea that because he was a divinely appointed king, he was the law and above their law. The divinity that did hedge a king tottered along into the age of Charles II, who rather cynically reinstituted the notion of the healing of the king's touch - it was supposed to cure scurvy, among other things. But this was soon exposed as a rather cynical act, particularly as he came to abhor the scruffy and diseased crowds around him, perhaps wisely understanding that far from curing them by the king's touch, they would infect him by their touch.

One of the interesting things about Pelagius was that there are many mentions of him being surrounded by aristocratic women. There's no sense of any sexual relationship whatsoever. In fact, they seemed to have come to him to practise asceticism and admire, or even adopt, chastity. But a lot of the Christian missionaries targeted the elite women. Pelagius got at the powers in Rome through the Roman matrons. The Celtic monks went through the women to influence the courts of Northumbria and further south. The Jesuits did the same in China.

The fascinating thing about the Anglo-Saxon women was that they were enabled to set up monasteries and nunneries (in the case of Hilda, a 'double house' - men and women) and these became hereditary. This meant that the aristocracy - because all the women involved were daughters of the aristocrats of the time - could vastly increase their landholding. These landholdings were immense. It was said that if the abbess of Shaftesbury had married the abbot of Glastonbury, they would have owned more than half of England.

So as this is a record of a recording I can do no strolling around London, but with a bit of luck, when you get this, I will be going up a fell in Cumbria and, fair weather permitting, looking down into the Lakes and west across the Solway into Scotland, and what could be better than that?

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

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