This morning I found in a bookshelf the copy of Volume 2 of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall which I had been reading 22 years ago, when appointed the Independent’s religious affairs correspondent. It might seem absurd now to prepare for such a job by mugging up on the theological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries, but those were the days when a bishop smelled of pipe smoke and the form of Christianity that I was brought up with, if not in, derived a lot of its authority from its refusal to be troubled by the passage of earthly time. If the ground-breaking and important thought has been done 1700 years ago, then we must go back then and study it, just as one starts in the study of mathematics or of philosophy, with the discoveries of the Greeks.
But what I found in Gibbon was not just a careful account of the disputes. It was an understanding, of subtlety still unsurpassed, of the ways in which heresy hunts are driven. Nothing might have seemed more distant from the struggles of Christianity in the late twentieth century. Nothing in fact could have taught me more. When I look at the passages underlined or marginally decorated in pencil by my younger self, I see the insights that have guided me ever since. I could quote for days. But here is one passage, with my underlinings italicised.
The Arians soon perceived the danger of their situation, and prudently assumed those modest virtues, which, in the fury of civil and religious dissensions, are seldom practised, or even praised, except by the weaker party. They recommended the exercise of Christian charity and moderation; urged the incomprehensible nature of the controversy, disclaimed the use of any terms or definitions which could not be found in the Scriptures; and offered, by very liberal concessions, to satisfy their adversaries without renouncing the integrity of their own principles. The victorious faction received all their proposals with haughty suspicion; and anxiously sought for some irreconcilable mark of distinction, the rejection of which might involve the Arians in the guilt and consequences of heresy. A letter was publicly read, and ignominiously torn, in which their patron, Eusebius of Nicomedia, ingenuously confessed, that the admission of the Homoousion, or Consubstantial, a word already familiar to the Platonists, was incompatible with the principles of their theological system. The fortunate opportunity was eagerly embraced by the bishops, who governed the resolutions of the synod; and, according to the lively expression of Ambrose, they used the sword, which heresy itself had drawn from the scabbard, to cut off the head of the hated monster. The consubstantiality of the Father and the Son was established by the council of Nice, and has been unanimously received as a fundamental article of the Christian faith, by the consent of the Greek, the Latin, the Oriental, and the Protestant churches. But if the same word had not served to stigmatize the heretics, and to unite the Catholics, it would have been inadequate to the purpose of the majority, by whom it was introduced into the orthodox creed.
Nothing about the Anglican schism can be understood without bearing this passage in mind, along with one other remark of Gibbon’s: "The degrees of theological hatred depend on the spirit of the war, rather than on the importance of the controversy"