There was a moment, standing at the chancel steps while waiting to be installed as a canon of the Saint Patrick’s, our national cathedral, when the whole thing seemed completely absurd. Dressing in archaic outfits to recite 16th Century words in a vast medieval building; it was a moment hard to reconcile with the 17th Century radical Protestants who have often been a personal source of inspiration.
The names of the radical groups from the English Civil War are like a litany of radical politics, a hope for a better world, a building of a new Jerusalem. Cromwell’s overthrow of the English Establishment gave rise briefly to all sorts of radical Christian and democratic groups, the Levellers being the foremost.
The flowering of hopes of democracy and a new society was brief; Cromwell’s Puritans created a society every bit as oppressive as that peopled by the English aristocracy. It would be three centuries and the election of Clement Attlee in 1945 before a society emerged where there would be care for everyone. The trauma of war and the misery of the preceding decade made the English determined that they were never going back to the old ways.
Yet, sometimes, the roots of radicalism are to to be found in the very heart of the Establishment. The British Royal Wedding on Friday included the singing of the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ (which will probably be a cue for requests on this side of the Irish Sea that it be included in marriage services, despite it being inappropriate and despite it being English). It is hard to imagine William Blake, the writer of ‘Jerusalem’ imagined his protest against the dehumanising effects of industrialisation would be turned into an anodyne piece sung at patriotic moments, yet if the sentiments of ‘Jerusalem’ could provide the springboard for a critique of British society, then radicalism would not have just found roots, ot would have burst into bloom.
In Ireland, there is no equivalent to the nationalistic theology expressed in ‘Jerusalem’, or ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ or ‘God save the Queen; Padraig Pearse may have shrouded his calls for a republic in mystical theological, terms, but the anthems are firmly secular; there are no national theological sentiments that can be channelled in radical directions. The prevalent politics are those of blame; in the context of a point blank refusal by the government to adopt a radical approach to the country’s bankruptcy, all that is left is to quarrel over who should bear most blame for the situation.
Yet there have always been radical traditions in Ireland, particularly in Dublin. The voices dissenting from the proposals that working people pay for the gambling mistakes of the mega rich come from a radical political vein in Dublin that stretches back a century. Dissenting theological voices have been less audible, yet if there is a place that has a radical tradition, then it is Saint Patrick’s; it is outside of episcopal control, its potential is always to be a troublesome thorn in the side of the ecclesiastical Establishment.
Standing there this afternoon will have been futile if the twice yearly opportunity to preach is not used to add to the critical voices seeking a new Jerusalem.