Martyn Percy’s Anglican poetics don’t scan for Peter Sanlon
The Dean of Christ Church, The Very Rev’d Professor Martyn Percy, has written a 5,000 word essay calling for more ‘poetry’ to help resolve the Anglican Communion’s sexuality debates.
Christ Church was the college of Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland. He knew better than most that words at their best help us to understand other people. So Alice upset the Mouse by her talk of cats and dogs:
Alice called softly after mouse, ‘Mouse dear! Do come back again, and we won’t talk about cats or dogs either, if you don’t like them!’ When the Mouse heard this, it turned round and swam slowly back to her: its face was quite pale (with passion, Alice thought), and it said in a low trembling voice, ‘Let us get to the shore, and then I’ll tell you my history, and you’ll understand why it is I hate cats and dogs.’
‘I’ll tell you my history, and you’ll understand.’ If Alice understood the personal history of poor mouse, she would have empathy for his hatred of cats and dogs. Understanding the other has always been a feature of great poetry. One of my favourite poets is W. B. Yeats – he had a wonderful appreciation of the numinous and sensual. His poems sought to make real to readers the desires and losses he experienced. As he wrote, ‘The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.’ With a similar grasp of the role poetry has in sensitising us to the depths of reality, C. S. Lewis wrote, ‘Poetry […] is a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible.’ Thus poets such as Carroll, Yeats and Lewis viewed poetry as a way of bringing to light that which is hidden, sensitising us to reality and deepening empathy.
Poets, Prof. Percy avers would enable us to take a ‘seemingly simple word, term or expression – like ‘sex’, ‘gay’, ‘issues in sexuality’, or even ‘church’ – and turn this into a quite different language.’ Thus would poets and prophetic theologians lead the Anglican Communion out of its labyrinthine sexuality debates.
Christ Church has produced great poets – I am unsure of the extent to which Prof. Percy views himself as poetic – did he see his essay as an example of the poetry he calls forth from the Communion? If so, it lacks the empathy and human understanding so essential to good poetry. If he wants to write poetry about people, he needs to get to know them better. Understanding those you disagree with is, after all, a key step for Christians to take.
In a radio interview Prof. Percy agreed that his essay was in effect an ‘open letter’ to the Archbishop of Canterbury. His essay is remarkably critical and pejorative of Archbishop Welby, coming close to even stating that his background makes him unfit for ordination to the priesthood. These remarkable words from Prof. Percy:
‘The Archbishop, can do little to re-narrate his background – as a privileged white male; Etonian, upper-class; and related to titled people, who has little experience of powerlessness. Indeed, in terms of powerlessness, it is hard to see how he can enter into it, let alone comprehend it. His negotiations as a businessman in sensitive areas of Nigeria, whilst winning plaudits in the media, are not the same as the work of reconciliation, and arguably not the right ‘fit’ for the church, where first-hand experiences of powerlessness are often important for shaping episcopal ministry. Indeed, any ordained ministry.’
Now poetry should be read slowly; meditated upon; dissected. Perhaps – good reader – we should together chew over what the Dean of Christ Church has said about the Archbishop? He has, in effect, charged Archbishop Welby as being incapable of transcending his background. He has ignored the widely-known stories of genuine suffering recounted in his biography (including an alcoholic father and child bereavement). He suggests that Archbishop Welby’s skills are ‘arguably not the right fit for the church.’ He leaves hanging with his final phrase the possibility that the Archbishop is not equipped for ‘any ordained ministry.’
Prof. Percy’s article throughout has a rather hectoring tone – directed in the main at the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is noticeable that the British media have refrained from such negative comment on Archbishop Welby’s personal background – finding his relational skill and leadership appealing. Thus Prof. Percy feels free to speak in negative and personal ways about the Archbishop. Regarding the polity of the Church of England more generally, he dismisses it as ‘an inherently homophobic polity.’ None of this has the mark of empathic understanding essential to good poetry.
Might it be that Prof. Percy’s willingness to be so negative and insulting towards the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Polity of the Church of England, ill-equips him to discern that orthodox Anglicans have in recent years been deepening their respect and appreciation for traditional polity? Prof. Percy’s views are so rigidly held to that he seems to find it difficult to be charitable towards either Archbishop, Anglican polity or traditionalists.
Prof. Percy has unveiled his remarkably negative opinion of Anglican polity in general, and Archbishop Welby in particular. He does so at a time when those who uphold a traditional line on sexuality are deepening their expectations and hopes for episcopal leadership. This means that Prof. Percy is poorly placed to provide poetry that fosters positive steps forward for the Anglican Communion – for poetry of substance and quality would need to better understand those it writes of. As one observes the drift of highly placed church leaders such as the Dean of Christ Church into antipathy towards his Anglican leaders and polity, one is tempted to say that the movement is – well – poetic.