Religious Division and Identity – Richard III and the Rest of Us – Part I

Thanks to Mark Movsesian for inviting me to guest blog here.  I’ll mainly be posting in October, but here’s a down payment inspired by Mark’s entry about the decision to re-inter the recently-discovered remains of King Richard III in Leicester’s Anglican Cathedral rather than give him a Catholic burial.  The Catholic bishop of Nottingham  has approved the plan, and Mark’s post was appropriately relaxed, even tongue-in-cheek, about the whole thing.  But some Catholic commentators are genuinely upset.  They argue that Richard was Catholic, not Anglican, and deserves a Catholic ceremony.  They insist that, for that matter, the Anglican Church didn’t even exist when Richard died.

Fights over long-dead bodies, famous or not, are often both religiously fraught and emotional.  Consider the efforts of American Indian tribes, bolstered by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990, to reclaim remains that have ended up in museum collections.  But they can also implicate deeper issues about religious identity and continuity — questions that end up involving theology, history, and law.  For example, are prehistoric remains, such as those of Kenwick Man, genuinely the patrimony of modern native tribes?  The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit famously said no.

Back to Richard III, though.  Many Anglicans would deny that Richard III was “Catholic” in the limited contemporary sense of the word that would exclude his membership in the “Church of England.”  The simple reason is that Anglicans claim a direct line back from their Church to the Church to which Richard belonged.  As the COE’s website puts it, “The roots of the Church of England go back to the time of the Roman Empire when Christianity entered the Roman province of Britain. Through the influences of St Alban, St Illtud, St Ninian, St Patrick and, later, St Augustine, St Aidan and St Cuthbert, the Church of England developed, acknowledging the authority of the Pope until the Reformation in the 16th century.”  Thus, Henry VIII might have split the English Church from Rome, but he did not create it anew.  To be sure, Catholics have a different view. But neither position is self-evident by sheer definition.

At one level, the question is theological.  When a religious community divides, how do the groups that come out of that division understand their identities?  (1) They might — one or both of them — consider themselves to be the sole carrier of the full religious DNA, so to speak, of the original community.  Thus, as far as some (Roman) Catholics are concerned, the Church of England, led by Henry VIII, though it seized church property and appropriated ancient ecclesiastic titles, was not, and is not, in genuine continuity with the ancient Catholic Church in England.  (Hence the resentment about Richard III.)  (2) Or they might consider both themselves and the other group to carry the original DNA, if maybe to varying degrees and more or less completely.  (3) Or, to the contrary, they might emphasize their radical break from what came before.  Most Protestants, for example, though they might want to emulate one or another vision of “ancient Christianity,” nevertheless understand the Reformation as rejecting the then-existing model of Catholic Christianity, so that direct continuity with the pre-Reformation Catholic Church is the last thing they would want to claim for themselves.

This is all often as much a matter of intra-group angst as inter-group relations.   “Evangelical Anglicans,” for example, are (if I understand them right) much more “Protestant” in how they view their Church’s relationship to Catholicism.  In my own faith tradition, Conservative Jews are similarly split.  Many see the Conservative Movement as authentically continuous, maybe even more than contemporary Orthodox Judaism, with the rich, plural, dynamic, tradition of pre-19th-century Judaism.  Others want to embrace a sense of discontinuity and new possibilities.

This suggests yet another complication:  What I’ve called continuity with the “original DNA” of a religious community or tradition requires some sense of stable identity.  But it can also include a commitment to the possibility of authentic, organic, even radical change.  Consider the most fraught and consequential of all the many religious splits in Western religion — between Judaism and Christianity.  Much has been written about the early, complicated, history of that split.  (I briefly discuss some of that split in my article on “The Abiding Lure of the Hebrew Bible In-Itself.”)  In any event, the main line of “supersessionist” Christianity claimed for a long time that its faith embodied both a radically new covenant made possible by the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the only authentic successor to the “Old Covenant” of ancient Judaism.  Jews, of course, have always seen the matter very differently.  Jews stake our own identity on continuity with the Covenant declared at Sinai.  Yet Rabbinic Judaism is not, and does not claim to be, purely a religion of the Hebrew Bible.  In a deep sense, the Talmud and the rest of the Rabbinic corpus are as much a “New Testament” as the Christian Scriptures.  (See again my my “Abiding Lure” article)  Thus, even John Paul II’s famous, decidedly anti-supersessionist description of Jews as the Church’s “elder brother”  always struck some of us as a bit tone deaf.  Judaism as we know it and Christianity as we know it are both equally “young,” not to mention the fact — appreciated by Benedict XVI — that “elder brothers” in our common Biblical imaginary tend to get the short end of the stick.  

So authenticity in religious identity is, for many of us, inherently paradoxical:  Ancient and fresh, continuous and radically new.  Which is, I venture to say, as it should be.

Meanwhile, we should only hope that Richard III rests in peace, and doesn’t rattle around too much in his new home.

See Part II of this post for a few thoughts on history and law.

(Cross-posted with minor differences on ReligiousLeftLaw.com.)

One response

  1. Very interesting post, but I disagree strongly with your assessment that, “Most Protestants, for example, though they might want to emulate one or another vision of “ancient Christianity,” nevertheless understand the Reformation as rejecting the then-existing model of Catholic Christianity, so that direct continuity with the pre-Reformation Catholic Church is the last thing they would want to claim for themselves.” That is why it was called a “reformation.” Luther, Calvin et al. wanted to reform the church form falling away of its original DNA. Most of the reformers cited St. Augustine more than any other authority other than Scripture. I also don’t see Christianity as a “radical” departure from the Old Testament (Hebrew Scripture). Yes, there are some changes as Jeremiah 31:31 describe, but it also true that the Messiah was prophesied in the Old Testament, and as early as Genesis 3. http://blackstoneinitiative.com/2013/06/13/old-testament-ethics-for-the-people-of-god-by-christopher-j-h-wright/.

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