December 5, 2002
-- Lawrence Webb
There's a majesty about the huge church in the little Welsh village in the Wye Valley. The complex of buildings adjoining the church once housed an order of contemplative monks who spent much of each day in silence.
Everything about Tintern Abbey is silent now. The church, which dates back to the 13th century, is an empty shell. No roof. No glass. The cloisters where Cistercian monks paced in mute meditation for nearly two centuries are empty paths with only the sky as their arched ceiling. Low outlines of rock walls are all that remain to suggest the shape of dormitories and the refectory where the brothers took their meals.
I was first drawn to the site by William Wordsworth's poem, "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey." I had the romantic notion that somewhere along a hiking trail "a few miles above" the Abbey a plaque would read, "On this spot in 1798, William Wordsworth penned the immortal words."
There is no such marker. A jaded clerk in the Abbey gift shop even suggested the poem was written in a hotel room in Bristol, England, some miles distant. A souvenir book from the same shop offered a compromise: Wordsworth did compose much of the poem "a few miles above Tintern Abbey," then polished it on a ferry ride to Bristol.
Regardless of where Wordsworth was when he wrote the poem, the romance associated with Tintern Abbey floated up through its roofless shell as I reflected on King Henry's destruction of the monasteries and the Abbey's untimely end in 1536.
Henry had been a Roman Catholic, standing so firmly for the church of his birth that the pope formally declared him "Defender of the Faith." Then, when the pope refused to grant Henry a divorce, which would legitimatize a second marriage, the king broke with Rome and formed his own church. Soon after, Catholic monastic centers across the British Isles were disbanded and destroyed.
There was only one room at Tintern Abbey where any heat was permitted, other than the kitchen. As I stood in the "warming room" on a cool October morning and thought about Henry's actions, I experienced a chill. Then I got hot under the collar, thinking of a succession of secular authorities who extended their rule over the sacred precincts. From Constantine to the popes leading armies in the Crusades, it was literally "onward Christian soldiers, marching into war." I thought about the brief history of our own country; Salem, Massachusetts, 1692 came to mind.
For most of our life as a nation, there has been a struggle to maintain the respectful distance between church and state, a legacy wisely gifted to us by Madison, Jefferson and other founders. Now the conflict is surging once again. Tax money is being channeled to religion-based charities and church-sponsored academies. Religion News Service reported an October 11 meeting of the Christian Coalition in which President Roberta Combs said, "We need to take back our country," and leaders said they would do more to blend the spiritual and political realms.
One of the strongest advocates of church-state separation was the church group which nurtured me, the Southern Baptists. They, too, are changing as Southern Baptist leaders move to the forefront in seeking to erase the dividing line between church and state.
In Wordsworth's poem, he says he experienced "tranquil restoration" as he recalled an earlier time in the Welsh countryside. These recollections had more than "slight or trivial influence" on him as he thought of:
That best portion of a good man's life, His little, nameless, unremembered acts Of kindness and of love.
Wordsworth was probably not reflecting on Henry VIII at the Tintern ruins. But in my thoughts, Henry's acts and the acts of all who ride roughshod over others in the name of religion stand in sharp contrast with "acts of kindness and of love" and are hardly "that best portion of a good man's life."
I have no romantic notions about good coming from commingling church and state. Regardless of good intentions on either side, there is a real danger that such compromised religion will stand one day as a hollow shell of its former self, much like Tintern Abbey.
Lawrence Webb, an ordained Baptist minister, is emeritus journalism professor at Anderson College, Anderson, South Carolina.