heavenly new pagans with a long history

The Church of England has issued a report on Britain's neo-pagan movements, which it presumably feels pose a threat to traditional Christianity. Radio 4's The Moral Maze devoted its entire programme last week to the report and the wider issue of the human need for irrationality, be it pagan or religious.

I think the Church is being too modest in playing down its own role in perpetuating these very elements. The pagan magic it now deplores was in on Christianity from the beginning. The emperor Constantine, who started the whole thing rolling in the 3rd century, owed his conversion to a heavenly portent - a vision of a flaming cross in the sky.

Similarly, the Christian conquest of these islands, radiating out from the Roman pattern of occupation and conversion, made paganism central to its mission. When St Augustine was busy colonising Canterbury and its surrounds for the new Christian movement, he specifically queried Pope Gregory the Great on how to treat the many quaint practices he found. No matter how eagerly they embraced the new revealed religion, Britons remained reluctant to abandon native beliefs. What was he to do?

In a response which makes Machiavelli look like a narrow-minded ideologue, the Pope urged tolerance. After "deliberating long about the English people", he exhorted Augustine to convert idol temples into Christian shrines. The people, he reasoned, would be more ready to come to places they were familiar with, and besides, "it is doubtless impossible to cut out everything at once from their stubborn minds". Now there was a natural-born politician.

The resultant hybrid, as pagan sites were turned into Christian ones and given their own saints, persisted for centuries in church architecture and interiors. Many other wonderful things followed from this religio- cultural splice. The plough was dragged into the church for blessing on Plough Monday to ensure the growth of corn; church bells were baptised with holy water to render them powerful enough to dispel thunder; soil from the churchyard was endowed with magical powers; and for a peck of oats St Wilgerfort would dispose of unwanted husbands for disaffected wives. St Brigid's Well in Oxford is still considered to bestow fertility.

Some enchanting customs, such as Morris dancing and maypoles, survived even the Protestant reformers, who used their destruction as stalking- horses to target the biggest magic of all - transubstantiation. But the Puritans went too far in the eyes of many when they banned Christmas and chopped down the Glastonbury Thorn. In many cases, Protestant magic was merely substituted for the old ways, as in New England, where the Bible was used to divine one's fate by opening it at random.

I remember the surprise I felt upon first encountering multiple deities in the house of an American Indian family in New Mexico. Lined up along their window sill was a sequence of gods: two Indian carvings, statues of the Virgin Mary and Christ - and a picture of John F Kennedy, the only one of the pantheon to merit a lighted candle. At the time, it blew my mind; now it seems the height of wisdom. After all, if the magic works why not co-opt it?

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk