The Primitive Church

A legend of great antiquity connects the foundation of the Church of England to Joseph of Arimathea. What little we know for certain about this figure comes from the canonical Gospels. Matthew described him as “a rich man” who was a disciple of Jesus Christ.1 Mark elaborated that he was an “honourable” member of the church council who “waited for the kingdom of God.”2 When Jesus was crucified it was Joseph who approached the Roman magistrate Pontius Pilate requesting “that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave.”3 Joseph “bought fine linen,” prepared the holy body for burial, “and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock.”4 According to Matthew it was the tomb that Joseph had prepared for himself.5 This is all that can be said with the authority of Scripture, but we can assume that he was among the disciples to whom Jesus appeared, when Jesus emerged from the tomb resurrected to life.

In the generation or two that followed the events of the New Testament, a wealth of biographical material and legend concerning Joseph was recorded. Extracanonical details appear in the writings of Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian and other Christian historians of the second and third centuries. Throughout the Middle Ages a folk memory persisted in England of Joseph having established a missionary church in Somerset or Cornwall on the southwest coast.

The Anglican clergyman Sabine Baring-Gould relates a very old Cornish story that, “Joseph of Arimathea came in a boat to Cornwall, and brought the child Jesus with him, and the latter taught him how to extract the tin and purge it of its wolfram.”6 The visionary poet William Blake made reference to this legend when he wrote, “And did those feet in ancient time, / Walk upon Englands mountains green: / And was the holy Lamb of God, / On Englands pleasant pastures seen!”7

Valuable metals have been mined in Cornwall for thousands of years. High demand for tin used in the manufacture of bronze led to the establishment of trade routes between Cornwall and Greece, Rome, and the Middle East in antiquity. Sources from the fifth and sixth centuries attribute Joseph’s wealth to the tin trade, identifying him either as a merchant or a “noble decurion” in charge of mining operations.8

But why would Jesus have been traveling with him? It is suggested by Lionel Smithett Lewis, who was vicar at Glastonbury in the early twentieth century, that Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the holy family. He cites “the Eastern tradition” that Joseph was the uncle of Mary and so the great-uncle of Jesus.This is pure speculation but it might explain why the body of Christ was given over to Joseph, and why Joseph performed the ritual preparations for burial, which were the duties of a family member.

In the Middle Ages it was considered a matter of historical record that Joseph of Arimathea returned to Britain as an apostle after the passion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. William of Malmesbury, in his history De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie, written around 1135, claimed that the apostle Philip “sent twelve of his disciples into Britain to teach the word of life. It is said that he appointed as their leader his very dear friend, Joseph of Arimathea, who had buried the Lord. They came to Britain in 63 AD”.10 As the title suggests, they established a church at Glastonbury in Somerset. It is believed by modern historians that the name of Joseph of Arimathea was interpolated by scribes who copied the manuscript several decades after it was written. But the description and date of the apostolic mission is original to William’s careful account. Moreover, the identification of Joseph is given context by the much earlier testimony of Maelgwyn of Llandaff, who wrote around 450 AD, that “Joseph of Arimathea, the noble decurion, entered his perpetual sleep with his XI companions in the Isle of Avalon.”11 Avalon is generally identified as Glastonbury Tor, which was formerly an island.

The English were sufficiently confident in the antiquity of their church that they asserted its seniority at multiple church councils in the fifteenth century. At Pisa in 1409, Constance in 1417, Siena in 1424, and Basel in 1434, the English delegations contended that, “the Churches of France and Spain must yield in points of antiquity and precedence to that of Britain as the latter Church was founded by Joseph of Arimathea immediately after the passion of Christ.”12

Is it true? Did Joseph of Arimathea convert the Britons? We do not know. It is a matter of legend, neither provable nor disprovable. But someoneconverted Britons to Christianity during the apostolic period. Before Patrick preached to the Celts in the fifth century, and long before the Church of Rome sent Augustine of Canterbury to Kent, at the turn of the seventh century, the Church of England was an autonomous ecclesiastical polity. Tertullian, who lived between 155 and 240 AD wrote, “the extremities of Spain, the various parts of Gaul, the regions of Britain which have never been penetrated by Roman arms have received the religion of Christ.”13 Eusebius, who lived between 260 and 340 AD, testified that, “The Apostles passed beyond the ocean to the isles called the Britannic Isles.”14 John Chrysostom, the great liturgist and Patriarch of Constantinople in the late fourth century, wrote that, “even the British Isles, which lie outside the boundaries of our world and our sea, in the midst of the ocean itself, have experienced the power of the Word, for even there churches and altars have been set up.”15

During the Reformation, English Protestants revived the history and legends of Primitive Christianity in Britain. As the Church of England purged itself of Medieval corruptions and innovations, the model of a pure and primitive church served as a symbol of the Anglican project.

Footnotes:

1. The Holy Bible: Authorized King James Version,Cameo Reference Bible. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010; Matthew 27:57. 
2. KJV, Mark 15:43.
4. KJV, Mark 15:46.
5. KJV, Matthew 27:60.
6. Sabine Baring-Gould, A Book of The West: Being An Introduction To Devon and Cornwall; A Book of Cornwall.London: Methuen Publishing, 1906; 57.
7. William Blake; David V. Erdman (ed.), The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, Newly Revised Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1988; 95.
8. Lionel Smithett Lewis, St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury: Or, The Apostolic Church of Britain. (Pamphlet.) London: Covenant Publishing Company, 1927; 32.
9. Lionel Smithett Lewis, St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury: Or, The Apostolic Church of Britain. London: James Clark & Co, 1955; 52.
10. William of Malmesbury; John Scott (ed.), The Early History of Glastonbury: An Edition, Translation, and Study of William of Malmesbury’s De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie. Rochester: Boydell Press, 1981.
11. Lewis, 1955; 18.
12. Lewis, 1927; 32.
13. Tertullian, Adversus Judaeos, ch. 7, v. 4, quoted in R.W. Morgan, St. Paul in Britain: Or, The Origin of British as Opposed to Papal Christianity. Oxford and London: James Parker and Co, 1880; 195.
14. Eusebius, De Demonstratione Evangelii, lib. iii, quoted in Morgan, 1880; 189.
15. William Richard Wood Stephens, Saint Chrysostom: His Life and Times: a Sketch of the Church and the Empire in the Fourth Century. London: John Murray, 1872; 129.

The Old Straight Track

John Michell writing in The View Over Atlantis describes the moment Alfred Watkins discovered ley lines:

One hot summer afternoon in the early 1920s Alfred Watkins was riding across the Bredwardine hills about 12 miles west of Hereford. On a high hilltop he stopped, meditating on the view below him. Suddenly, in a flash, he saw something which no one in England had seen for perhaps thousands of years.

Watkins saw straight through the surface of the landscape to a layer deposited in some remote prehistoric age. The barrier of time melted and, spread across the country, he saw a web of lines linking the holy places and sites of antiquity. Mounds, old stones, crosses and old crossroads, churches placed on pre-Christian sites, legendary trees, moats and holy wells stood in exact alignment that ran over beacon hills to cairns and mountain peaks. In one moment of transcendent perception Watkins entered the magic world of prehistoric Britain, a world whose very existence had been forgotten.

Pictured above: Michell photographed by Paul Broadhurst.

The Village Survival Guide

This week the Prince’s Countryside Fund released a Village Survival Guide. The 104-page booklet addresses challenges and needs facing rural communities in Britain. It follows from the belief of Prince Charles that, “The role of the countryside, with all its diversity and idiosyncrasies, in our national life is too important to be left to chance.”

The guide offers ten suggestions, including the reorientation of village life around the time-honored poles of pub, parish church, and post office. These are elaborated upon with stories and advice. Read the whole report and order a printed copy here.

Ruskin at 200

RuskinHunt24
John Ruskin (left) with William Holman Hunt circa 1894

The Victorian art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) believed that “wise work” has three characteristics: it is honest, it is useful, and it is cheerful.

Ruskin looked with admiration upon gothic architecture of the High Middle Ages. He determined, writes P.D. Anthony, in John Ruskin’s Labour, “that it required forms of social organization and forms of manual labour that are superior to those of contemporary society” and “which are essential to human development and happiness.” Modest masons and craftsmen working in their own limited spheres had the opportunity “to express themselves in magnificent creations which transcended the humble contributions of ordinary men.”

By 1854 Ruskin was contemplating “a great work” he meant “to write on politics—founded on the thirteenth century.” However Nicholas Shrimpton writes, in The Cambridge Companion to John Ruskin, that by the end of the decade he “had turned away from overt medievalism to a deeper, more implicit use of medieval assumptions. Pre-modern concepts, such as intrinsic value and the ‘just price,’ were applied to modern problems in a series of controversial books and lectures.”

In the 1870s Ruskin founded the Guild of St George. Its mission was to encourage arts education, independent craftsmanship, and sustainable agriculture among the working classes. He attempted to spread the message of the guild through a series of pamphlets collectively titled, Fors Clavigera. Shrimpton writes, “these texts would seek to suggest an alternative to the industrialism, capitalism, and urbanization of modern society.”

Ruskin’s program was the inspiration for the Arts and Crafts movement developed by William Morris in the 1880s. Morris’s philosophy was a somewhat uneasy amalgamation of Ruskinian and Marxist ideas. But Ruskin’s own critique of laissez-faire came from the Right, not the Left. “I am, and my father was before me,” he once wrote, “a violent Tory of the old school,” whose politics were marked by “a most sincere love of kings, and dislike of everybody who attempted to disobey them.” He was a strict Protestant, and although he had a religious crisis in middle age, Anthony writes, his “Christian faith developed and broadened as he grew older.”

From the perspective of the present day, when the interests of labor are considered the purview of the political Left, it is interesting to consider someone who devoted the whole of his considerable talents to the welfare of the working classes, for reasons of traditionalism and noblesse oblige. Shrimpton traces Ruskin’s thought, writing that he was not,

an ancestor of the British Labour Party…Neither the Marxian nor the Fabian branch of English socialism was significantly Ruskinian…his politics and economics belong to a different and more marginal tradition which stretches from the Ultra-Tories and Götzists…of the 1820s and ‘30s, through the Tory Young Englanders of the 1840s, to the Arts and Crafts and ‘back to the land’ movements of the 1880s, and the Guild Socialism and Distributism of the early twentieth century, with partial echoes in some of the Green or Ecological parties of the present day.

This entire “marginal tradition” has been pushed well outside the margins of political debate in the twenty-first century and our civic life seems poorer for it.

Sources:

Anthony, P.D. (1983) John Ruskin’s Labour: A Study of Ruskin’s Social Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ruskin, John. (1866) The Crown of Wild Olive: Three Lectures on Work, Traffic, and War. New York: John Wiley & Son.

Shrimpton, Nicholas. “Politics and economics,” in O’Gorman, Francis (ed). (2015) The Cambridge Companion to John Ruskin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Souvenirs of Paris

RaymondDuncan

Raymond Duncan (1874-1966) was a noted eccentric of the twentieth century. The brother of dancer Isadora Duncan, he was born in San Francisco but spent most his life in Europe. Duncan developed a philosophy of living that combined labor, the arts, and physical movement, which he called “Actionalism.” He taught simplicity and self sufficiency at his Academy on the Rue de Seine in Paris, where he made his own textiles, books, ceramics, and sandals. (He dressed in classical Greek attire.)

Orson Welles interviewed Duncan for an episode of the 1955 ITV program, Around the World with Orson Welles.

Years ago I purchased a second-hand volume of Duncan’s (not very good) poetry, which had tipped into it several handbills advertising events at the “Akademia.” The book and the flyers had been printed by Duncan himself in his workshop around 1953, shortly before Welles’s visit.

Building Better, Building Beautiful

The UK government has announced a “commission to champion beautiful buildings as an integral part of the drive to build the homes communities need,” according to a press release today. This can only be taken as good news for advocates of traditional architecture.

The commission “will develop a vision and practical measures to help ensure new developments meet the needs and expectations of communities, making them more likely to be welcomed rather than resisted.”

The ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’ Commission has a mandate:

l. To promote better design and style of homes, villages, towns and high streets, to reflect what communities want, building on the knowledge and tradition of what they know works for their area.

2. To explore how new settlements can be developed with greater community consent.

3. To make the planning system work in support of better design and style, not against it.

Perhaps most exiting is the news that Sir Roger Scruton has been appointed chairman of the commission. Sir Roger is a great advocate of classical and vernacular design. As Rev Marcus Walker writes on Twitter: “The government is finally doing something actually Conservative: appointing Sir Roger Scruton to chair a commission into the Built Environment.”

Prince Charles on the London Skyline

“All around me is what used to be one of the architectural wonders of the world: London.”

In this short excerpt from the 1988 BBC documentary HRH Prince Of Wales: A Vision Of Britain, Prince Charles discusses the transformation of the London skyline and the redevelopment of Birmingham in the post-war period.  The Prince is a passionate advocate for traditional architecture and city planning. His critique of modernism is blunt, eloquent, and entirely correct.

This video has been little seen since it originally aired on Newsnight. I am delighted to have unearthed it.

Help Save Stonehenge

Since 2014 a plan has been under consideration to dig a nearly two mile tunnel through the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. From the Stonehenge Alliance website:

The Government proposes to widen the A303 trunk road to the south west.  The 4-lane carriageway, tunnel, slip roads and trenches would cross the iconic Stonehenge World Heritage Site (WHS): a landscape that is considered “the most archaeologically significant land surface in Europe without parallel”.  The whole Stonehenge landscape has an outstanding universal value that is of immense significance for all people for all time, and this transcends any consideration of sorting out a 21st century part-time traffic jam.

The whole site, extending to beyond the horizons around the famous stones themselves, is c. 5.4 km across. All of it makes up a “huge ancient complex” that holds many secrets yet to be discovered. Yet the proposal is for a 2.9km (1.8 mile) tunnel.  It would result in at least 1.6 km of above-ground 21st-century road engineering within the WHS.

The lifespan of concrete is remarkably short. Modern reinforced concrete needs repairs after only fifty years. In the fullness of time the decay of the tunnel will destabilize the landscape around Stonehenge. Assuming this generation wishes to bequeath the monument to posterity the risk is unacceptable. Please help Stonehenge Alliance protect the site.

A Medieval Legend of the Crown Jewels

The following entry appears in E. Cobham Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable:

Ring. It is said that Edward the Confessor was once asked for alms by an old man, and gave him his ring. In time some English pilgrims went to the Holy Land, and happened to meet the same old man, who told them he was John the Evangelist, and gave them the identical ring to take to “Saint” Edward. This ring was preserved in Westminster Abbey.

King Edward’s ring contained a sapphire. Somehow this gem survived the interregnum of the seventeenth century, when the rest of the Crown Jewels were lost. The present day Crown Jewels date from the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Queen Victoria had the sapphire placed at the center of the cross at the top of the Imperial State Crown. It remains there to this day.

A Family Tree of the Indo-European Languages

196 (1)

Scandinavian illustrator Minna Sundberg has put together a lovely “family tree” of the Indo-European languages (here). A profile in the Guardian explains:

Sundberg’s illustration maps the relationships between Indo-European and Uralic languages. The creator of the webcomic Stand Still. Stay Silent, put the illustration together to show why some of the characters in her comic were able to understand each other despite speaking different languages. She wanted to show how closely related Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic were to each other, and how Finnish came from distinct linguistic roots…

The European arm of the tree splits off into Slavic, Romance, and Germanic branches. Here you can see the relationship between different Slavic languages. You can also spot some of Britain’s oldest languages clustered together…

The size of the leaves on the trees is intended to indicate—roughly—how many people speak each language. It shows the relative size of English as well as its Germanic roots.