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“God cannot alter the past, though historians can,” said Samuel Butler, one assumes in jest.

Diarmaid MacCulloch – arguably the most influential historian of the Church in the world and one of Britain’s most distinguished living historians per se, seems to have taken up the challenge.

The dapper Oxford don – who dispels any image of historians as relics of a fossilised past – brings to the profession a combination of rigorous research, disruptive ideas and an outspokenness not traditionally associated with academics keen to cover all their bases.

That’s because he doesn’t see historians as spectators on the sidelines. “History cannot be value-free,” he said to Spectator in an interview recently. “We should feel ashamed of the Holocaust. And we should blame someone or something if we see evil. Our profession is not a revolutionary profession but it is a subversive one: we are always subversive of smugness, and stupidity, and lies and power.”

He brings that subversiveness, and a finely-honed intellect, to extensive research on Christianity – and he certainly doesn’t sit on the sidelines of opinion.

Born to a family of Protestant Anglican ministers, religion has been part of Diarmaid’s landscape from childhood. Alongside acquiring a superb education – he has a master’s in history followed by a PhD in Tudor History, both from Cambridge – he was ordained as a deacon of the Church and may well have taken the ecclesiastical route had his sexuality – he is gay – not clashed with the Church of England’s belief systems. “I was ordained Deacon. But, being a gay man, it was just impossible to proceed further, within the conditions of the Anglican set-up, because I was determined that I would make no bones about who I was; I was brought up to be truthful, and truth has always mattered to me. The Church couldn’t cope and so we parted company. It was a miserable experience,” he said later.

Diarmaid, who was knighted in 2012 for his services to scholarship, has written more exhaustively about the church than arguably any historian alive: his book Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, won the National Book Critics Award and the British Academy Book Prize; his 2009 book A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years – with a related 6-part television series on BBC – won him McGill University’s Cundhill Prize, along with serious critical acclaim.

It’s a provocative, surprisingly accessible work, notwithstanding its size. He looks back, not just at the 1,000 years preceding Jesus’ birth but also at the timeline of the two cultures who influenced what the religion would become. “It’s really two different sets of thousand years, one of them a Jewish thousand years and the other a Greek thousand years. And both those lie behind Christianity,” points out MacCulloch in an interview to NPR. “These two cultures — Jewish culture, Greek culture — they’ve got entirely different views of what God is. And then you get a man coming along who people regard as God: Jesus. Because these followers came from two traditions, an issue arose: Which God?

“A Jewish God or a Greek God?” MacCulloch asks. “That fascinating clash seems to be a fundamental thing about Christianity. It makes it a very unstable thing.”"

He’s vocal in critiquing the last two papacies, as well as what he calls the church’s inexplicable imposition of celibacy on clerics, which he points out has dangerous implications as sexual abuse cases against priests around the world rise. “Christians outside the Roman Catholic church, and very many inside, can see what nonsense compulsory clerical celibacy is. Its effect is often malign, producing loneliness, alcoholism and, at worst, efforts at emotional compensation through irresponsible exercise of clerical power and unprincipled sexual activity,” he wrote in The Guardian last year. “Critics say there is nothing wrong with celibacy as such; it’s a fine vocation. But to mix up the vocation of celibacy with that of priesthood, tying them unavoidably together, is a category mistake, and it’s time for the Church of Rome to sort it out. The Church of England and the rest of the Protestant world did this half a millennium ago, and the effects on Protestant Christianity have been unmistakably good,” he argues.

His new book, Silence: A Christian History, reads into the gaps in recorded history – he references Conan Doyle and says a good historian must do his own detective work and listen for voices that weren’t recorded. “History has been written largely by men and the noise in history is mostly male,” he told the Spectator. “Subtract that, and you can hear all the other voices which haven’t been heard — most obviously, and crudely, women.”

It’s evident that Diarmaid is, once more, out to correct that skewed perception. Samuel Butler, one cannot help but feel, would approve.

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