Friday, June 30, 2006

Repenting of the Reformation?

This is reality television! In the UK that is ...

Nuns have got us on the run

Read this whole thing. In full ...

Two reality TV programmes show just how admiring our culture has become of monasticism. What would Martin Luther make of it all?

The Convent is the most interesting and provocative bit of religious broadcasting I have seen for years, much better than its male precedent, The Monastery - mainly because women are more emotionally open than men (if that's not too sexist).

For the uninitiated, it is a reality show in which four more-or-less secularly minded women spend 40 days in a convent, receiving plenty of religious instruction, and painfully introspecting. (The final episode is next week.)

Its tone is far from neutral. The women do not come to the convent as mere observers of an alien way of life: they come as seekers after wisdom. They have the chance to discover the spiritual enlightenment the nuns enjoy. Their reservations about this form of religion are presented as issues that they must try to work through on the way to inner peace.

The reverential tone is fuelled by the palpable goodness of the nuns, who come across as warm, wise and calm. In the first episode, one of the visitors, Angela, is moved to tears: "They're all so good, and I'm so bad." In a later episode she expresses her religious doubts, adding: "But you can't get away from the fact that they all have this light in them." This is the core pathos of the series: the confused sense that maybe life could be different - entirely full of calm, quiet love.

It reminds me of the conclusion to Larkin's poem Faith Healing, which relates the orgasmic sense of release felt by women at the hands of a charismatic preacher who gives them a sensation of divine love:

... In everyone there sleeps
A sense of life lived according to love
... That nothing cures.

The entire series is a television version of that poem, but without Larkin's detached scepticism.

The constant question that drives the series along is whether the women will dare to acknowledge their need for God. Of course, this is the nuns' perspective. But the narrator often echoes it, speaking in a ticking-off tone about the participants' resistance to the regime. This is held to be "resistance" in the psychotherapeutic sense: hiding from the truth about oneself. It is simply taken for granted that openness to the monastic way of life will bring spiritual enlightenment.

At one point three of the women ask to be excused from the full round of worship, as rising at 5am is getting them down. Debbie, the fourth, "finds the strength" to accept the rules, says the narrator. To question the total wisdom of the nuns is to be a selfish coward. It is not reported that anyone finds the strength to question or defy the nuns' rules.

Fortunately one of the women, Victoria, voices liberal misgivings. At a discussion she expresses the opinion that organised religion is authoritarian and responsible for division and violence. She wonders why the divine must be so closely tied to a particular, rigid way of life, and challenges the church's treatment of homosexuals and women. One of the nuns answers that the institutional church is less important than the people who make it up, and that in reality all the people of God have various different opinions on moral questions.

This won't do. Victoria is right to point out that the seeming moral goodness of the nuns is not the whole story. They belong to a powerful institution and are answerable for its policies. Being gentle and kind does not excuse one from political responsibility. The great deficiency of the series is to sideline such questions; to forget that the personal is political. Why should any religious believer, even a sweet, middle-aged nun, be exempt from hard questions about the social and political consequences of her institutional allegiance?

The programme steers away from these questions. It wants to establish a polarity between the saintly nuns and the muddled, selfish secularists. For that gives rise to a simple drama: dare the worldly women submit to the power of holiness? Or will they try to hide from the truth of spirituality?

Both The Monastery and The Convent take it for granted that Roman Catholic monks and nuns are the essential Christians: the hard-core believers, the spiritual elite. No real consideration is given to the idea that monasticism might be a strange misunderstanding of Christianity, an eccentric activity that ought to have died out in the Middle Ages, a reactionary and legalistic corruption of the gospel.

In other words, there is no Protestant perspective. Or rather, there is no effective Protestant perspective. For in The Convent, as in The Monastery, one of the participants is an evangelical Christian. Perhaps this is in the interest of ecumenical balance. The evangelical in The Monastery was a rather aggressive Ulsterman who kept arguing with a fellow participant; in The Convent she is a bubbly Sloane called Iona, hot from the Alpha course no doubt. Of course, she does not think to represent the concerns once voiced by Martin Luther: she seems to agree that fully authentic Christianity resides here.

I see these programmes as landmarks in Britain's religious culture. Monasticism has not received such good press since the Reformation. This reflects the dramatic demise of the liberal Protestantism that used to be central to our national identity. For centuries it was assumed that British Protestant culture was a more modern and a more authentic form of Christianity than any other. Monasticism was widely seen as epitomising Roman Catholicism's failure to adapt to modernity, its political backwardness, and contempt for freedom.

Today the average British Christian is either Catholic or lost in admiration for that church. We have effectively repented of the Reformation.