Growing up in post-war Britain, there was a belief in progress, that, year upon year, things would get better. In the long perspective, in secular life, things have improved immensely; in church life, the institution continues its downward spiral, no vision, no excitement, no magic.
Magical tales were common in childhood years; eight miles from Glastonbury, it was hard to avoid them. Glastonbury was the centre of the world when I was a child; the stories with which we grew up made it the most important place in Britain. It was a place that resonated with hope of a different and a better world.
The Arthurian stories promised heroes who would again ride forth and right all wrongs. Layamon’s Brut from c.1200, concludes with the death of Arthur and his being carried to Avalon – the isle of Avalon for anyone from Somerset could only be in one place, Glastonbury.
“And Arthur himself wounded with a broad slaughter-spear; fifteen dreadful wounds he had; in the least one might thrust two gloves! Then was there no more remained in the fight, of two hundred thousand men that there lay hewed in pieces, except Arthur the king alone, and two of his knights.
Arthur was wounded wondrously much. There came to him a lad, who was of his kindred; he was Cador’s son, the Earl of Cornwall; Constantine the lad hight, he was dear to the king. Arthur looked on him, where he lay on the ground, and said these words, with sorrowful heart: “Constantine, thou art welcome; thou wert Cador’s son. I give thee here my kingdom, and defend thou my Britons ever in thy life, and maintain them all the laws that have stood in my days, and all the good laws that in Uther’s days stood. And I will fare to Avalun, to the fairest of all maidens, to Argante the queen, an elf most fair, and she shall make my wounds all sound; make me all whole with healing draughts. And afterwards I will come again to my kingdom, and dwell with the Britons with mickle joy.
Even with the words there approached from the sea that was a short boat, floating with the waves; and two women therein, wondrously formed; and they took Arthur anon, and bare him quickly, and laid him softly down, and forth they gan depart.
Then was it accomplished that Merlin whilom said, that mickle care should be of Arthur’s departure. The Britons believe yet that he is alive, and dwelleth in Avalun with the fairest of all elves; and the Britons ever yet expect when Arthur shall return”.
Legendary history still has the power to fire the imagination; most Christian history lacks any sense of the heroic. The man from Nazareth has been so domesticated, so shaped by church councils, so obscured by ecclesiastical squabble and politics that the promises he made are taken by most people with no more seriousness than the tales of Arthur.
Listening to further tales of internecine conflict in a parish, it is hard to imagine that the Church of Ireland might ever have the power to fire the imagination.