Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Ecumenical child of divorce

While I was on vacation last week, I finished reading Sir Walter Scott's excellent book The Abbot. Scott is one of those writers who, when I pick up one of his novels after not having read anything by him in some time, I inevitably think to myself, "Why don't I read him more often?" His work is so easy to read and so entertaining for all the right reasons.

The Abbot, if you're not familiar with it, is historical fiction. The overarching historical event is the imprisonment and subsequent, short-lived escape of Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary, who was Catholic, was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle. In Scott's story, a young man who is secretly the child of a Catholic family is planted in the household of a Protestant family of prominence who eventually make him part of Mary's retinue to keep an eye on her, but of course he instead helps Mary effect her ill-fated escape. Throughout the novel, the main character, having had his religious education split between two factions of Christianity, has difficulty forming a solid allegiance to or disavowal of either and seeks alternately the counsel of both Catholic priests and Protestant ministers, leading to some interesting passages on theology.

The discord between Catholicism and Protestantism, of course, consumed much of early English history, with monarchs seated and dethroned on the basis of their brand of Christianity, the result being that those whose religious practice was not in step with the current ruler found themselves worshipping in secret or setting off for distant lands where their views were tolerated or were the norm.

I'm not sure whether to feel encouraged or weary when I think about that history and the parallels I see in modern Western Christianity. On the one hand, I'm strangely and sadly encouraged by the realization that we haven't reached some new level of ridiculousness; nothing, after all, is new under the sun. And, of course, I'm weary when I realize that, lo these many years later, we are still waging the same wars, just sometimes with different names. This or that pastor or leader or writer says something that others disagree with and, instead of reasoned debate or gentle reproof, we unleash a torrent of vitriol. Sigh. I think I have decided on weary.

Don't get me wrong here. I'm not saying that we should throw doctrine out the window and all just sing Kumbaya (although it does bring back some rather fond memories of junior high). But it seems to me sometimes that even in Christian circles we spend more time slinging accusations around like mud and valuing snarkiness more than actual Godliness. Can't we leave all that to the politicians?

All this is why the following short passage from The Abbot struck me as so true and sad and fitting.  The setting is the battlefield, where Mary's supporters meet the supporters of the Regent, James Stewart:

"God and the Queen!" resounded from the one party; "God and the King!" thundered from the other; while, in the name of their sovereign, fellow-subjects on both sides shed each other's blood, and, in the name of their Creator, defaced his image.


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