Sunday, July 31, 2011


An aftermath of the divorce debate has been a demand for revision of the relations between Church and State. However, the actual adjustments proposed in legal terms do not seem to amount to more than fine-tuning. Shouldn’t there be more reflection on the relationship between religion and culture in our island as globalisation and the electronic revolution become increasingly prevalent?
Concrete instances are usually the best way to tackle such general questions. On July 19, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority issued permits to the parish priest of Manikata, Fr Reginald Magri, and to Joseph Attard, an architect I’m not acquainted with, to demolish a significant part of the parvis of the internationally-famous church designed by Richard England, and to develop some underground spaces to be illuminated by three skylights, each of which four metres high.
I do not know whether this project had previously obtained approval of the aesthetics board of the Liturgical Commission. If so there would be just cause for complaint about clerical insensitivity to contemporary art.
When I first learnt of the apparently imminent outrage, I was even more taken aback to discover that the State was not doing any better. It had failed to schedule the building, now more than half a century old.
Of all 20th century Maltese buildings it has figured most frequently in books and foreign journals of art and architecture.
An ironist would no doubt delight in this shining instance of Church-State collaboration in damaging a pinnacle of the not-so-abandoned masterpieces expressive at once of the sacred and of our national building traditions with its recollections of the ġirna and megalithic culture.
Surely Mepa should agree urgently to schedule Manikata church. It would at least be preserving a memory of that happy moment of religious and cultural rebirth that occurred in the wake of Independence on one hand and Vatican Council II on the other.
There were some excellent examples of the intersecting values of religion and politics coming together against their common enemy, which is mediocrity in the recent arts festival. What do you say about that?
Let me again tackle your question by way of a concrete example: the Globe’s Hamlet.
I will begin by confessing incidentally that I would prefer – in the run-up to the European Capital of Culture Year – getting a local company of actors set up as was done last year for the production Ospizio. It would perform Elizabethan plays with a special local reference, such as Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta or The Knight of Malta by John Fletcher.
Although admittedly popular, the Globe performances continue to be profoundly perverse.
For instance, as critic Paul Xuereb could not help observing in his review, the most famous speech in the whole of world theatre – “to be or not to be” – was thrown away, spoken so fast that it led a woman sitting next to me to wonder after the performance whether it had been cut.
In spite of this, Shakespeare’s play could not be prevented from stimulating inward rumination on the deep interlocking of religion and politics.
Many literary historians have written books about whether it is a Catholic culture (as argued for instance, by Peter Milward) or a Protestant (Grace Tiffany) or secular (Stephen Greenblat) that is reflected in Hamlet.
Yet there seems to be a convergence on what the real choice that “to be or not to be” is about.
The events in the year when Shakespeare was writing this speech were forcing upon everyone whose family was like the author’s recusant Catholic the dilemma: should they continue to accept passively “the slings and arrows of outrageous” persecutions, or “to take arms” against it, as Essex did and was done in the Gunpowder Plot?
Shakespeare built the whole play as generally recognised, on the credibility of the ghost. He claims to be in purgatory (“confined to fast in fires/Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature/Are burnt and purged away”). But, purgatory had been declared non-existent by the Protestants.
Worse still, the ghost urged in the most unholy way from a Christian point of view, revenge, rather than forgiveness. Hamlet begins to question: “The spirit that I have seen/May be the devil”.
In the Globe’s performance the other great soliloquy by Claudius, the murderer who kneels to ask forgiveness of God, which has been called “the most religious speech in all the plays of Shakespeare” was also spoken in throwaway fashion. Nevertheless, even this mode of delivery could not completely blunt the power with which Shakespeare drives home the literary vital importance of morality in politics.
A play like Hamlet, even perversely performed in the prevalence spirit of political populism, acts like the Manikata church: a beacon in which the twin tongues of the most authentic religious and political values conjoin in a single flame.
On the basis of these two concrete examples can you formulate in more general terms your answer to my basic question?
Let me answer in the words of Marilynne Robinson, considered by some to be the greatest living American novelist after Thomas Pynchon, or perhaps even ahead of him:
“There are those who think that the majority religious tradition in the country, by virtue of its being the majority religion, ought to be asserted very forcefully as an intrinsic part of our national identity.
“These people see an onrush of secularism intent on driving religion to the margins, maybe over the edge, and for the sake of Christianity they want to enlist society itself in its defence…”
How is it consistent with the belief that the Church is the Body of Christ, a belief I share, to think it has no intrinsic life to be relied on, and must, for the sake of its survival, be fastened to a way more vigorous body, that of the nation?