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

Thanks again to Mark and Marc for inviting me to guest blog this month.  I hope to use this opportunity to think about a range of questions, and also introduce a bit of my own work.

Back in August, I posted Part I of some mediations on religious division prompted by the minor kerfuffle over whether the newly-discovered remains of Richard III should be reinterred in a Catholic or an Anglican ceremony.  That post looked at the question from a bit of a theological lens. I want now to say a bit about the same problem from the perspectives of history.  (I’ll have one or two more parts to this discussion, so stay tuned.)

So let’s go back to our test case: Was Richard III a “Catholic” in the modern sense of the word that would exclude his membership in the “Church of England”?  For that matter, is the contemporary Church of England in some meaningful sense Catholic and not merely catholic?

Historians, I think, would resist these questions from the get-go. For one thing, they would want to be more contextual and specific.  There is no one answer to the religious identity of either Richard III or the contemporary Church of England.  Are we talking about formal belief structures, lived spiritual premises, personal devotion, liturgical practices, institutional relations, personal networks, political allegiances, or something else?  How does the civil war that Richard fought and lost figure into the equation, if at all?  What about the radically different technology of the time, with its implications for travel and communication?  What about the long, complex, and often violent history of relations between King and clergy that long predated Henry VIII’s split from Rome?  How would Richard III himself have understood the question?  Would he have understood it?

For that matter, historians might find the question too essentialist to begin with.  Yes, categories such as “Catholic” are real and important.  But time is change.  Richard III could not be “Catholic” in the sense we understand the term because nobody in his time – before the Reformation, the Enlightenment, England’s split from Rome, the rise of secularism, and for that matter the advent of modern forms of communication and transportation – was “Catholic” in the sense we understand the term.

All this interests me, not because I’m a historian, but because the question of historical consciousness (and its limits) strikes me as deeply important to all sorts of other puzzles and challenges I’ll be taking up this month.

For now, though, I will leave to the next post or two some thoughts about the possible further theological implications of what I’ve just said about history to the fate of poor Richard III and about how law (this is a law blog, after all) fits into all this, both specifically and more generally.

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