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The quiet man: Historian Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch

Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch has written a noisy book about silence. The Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford, whose earlier books Reformation and A History of Christianity (later a BBC television series) generated their fair share of controversy, likes nothing better than to provoke his audience. At a recent Oxford colloquium, for example, his obiter dicta included the claim that the nation state was a very recent phenomenon, “only 150 years old”, and a rather unsuccessful one at that. (The professor later conceded that the English nation state, now well over a thousand years old, might be an exception.)

Silence: A Christian History (Allen Lane, £20) began as the 2006 Gifford Lectures. Professor MacCulloch pays tribute to William James, one of many distinguished former Gifford lecturers; James’s 1901-02 series, published as The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature became “one of the foundational attempts to describe the nature of mysticism”— and much else besides. We may be fairly sure that the pioneer of experimental psychology, founder of pragmatism and brother of Henry James did not, however, envisage a Gifford lecturer turning his own sexual experiences to advantage in the study of religion. Yet this is just what Professor MacCulloch proceeds to do.

“All through my historical career,” he writes, “I have been keenly aware of the importance of silence in human affairs, for a good biographical reason: from an early age, I was conscious of being gay, and that proved to be a great blessing for a young historian.” Growing up in the 1960s, young Diarmaid “was lucky to be able to face up to this challenge”, became “attuned to listening to silence and to finding within it the keys to understanding many situations, far beyond anything to do with sexuality”. Moreover, “as a gay child and teenager, I also effortlessly developed the historian’s other essential quality, a sense of distance: an observer status in the rituals constructed for a heterosexual society in a world which in reality was not quite like that.”

Apart from casting the author in a heroic role, this paean to “gay sociability” has a larger purpose: to indict “conservative religion” for its silence on sexuality, specifically on homosexuality. The silence of the hierarchy is mere “evasion and wilful avoidance of truths”. Perhaps mindful, however, of his own exalted position at Oxford University, one of the oldest Christian foundations in Europe, Professor MacCulloch promises to take “seriously the Christian assertion of divinity” (though he evidently does not share it) and to treat its history “with appropriate sympathy”.

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