Boyton in Cornwall. It was a small village with two places of worship – one at either end of the main street. One was a church and the other a chapel, a situation which posed an existential question.
“Are you Church or Chapel?” was the question posed to my mother one day after we moved into a house in a small Cornish village. We’d moved there from our previous home – also in a small Cornish village.
Church or Chapel? It was an important question, for it defined the social circle we would be joining, our emotional support team, and ultimately our chances of salvation. The Church of England and the Methodist Chapel were the two places of worship in the village, one the establishment religion and the other dissident. The chapel stood at one end of the one street in the village, and the church was firmly at the other end. The blacksmith’s shop, with its fiery orange furnace, the heavy clink of hammer on anvil and the burning smell of sizzling horses’ hooves, stood right in the centre.
Half a century later, I still live in a small village, this time just four miles from the edge of the north London suburbs. You can’t get horseshoes made in this village, but there are still variant theologies poised at either end of the high street, not only Christian but Jewish, too. Quite literally at opposite ends of the parade of shops lies the United Synagogue and the Reform Synagogue. Which reminds me of an old Jewish joke. When rescuers finally discover the lone Jewish survivor of a shipwreck on a desert island, they find that he’s used bamboos and coconut leaves to build himself two synagogues, one at either end of the island. “Why two?” they ask, “There’s only you here.” “Oh, this one is where I pray,” he replies, “and that other one is the synagogue I wouldn’t be seen dead in!” I think you have to be Jewish (or married to one) to fully grasp the sad irony of that joke, but the meaning is clear: human beings tend to pull any religion in two, and for as much as they love one they tend to spite the other. The reality is not far from the joke. Some years ago, the Jewish population of the island of Bermuda was a mere 110 – and there were, indeed, two synagogues.
Just last week I was in Liverpool where there are two grand cathedrals, both built over many years and at enormous expense. They are connected by one short street that runs between them – Hope Street. Although named after a local merchant, the theological implications of the name have not been lost on the local clergy. Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England live in hope of a full reconciliation between their respective denominations. Sadly, they have been trying for centuries without success. Religion, you see, would be so easy if it weren’t for human beings. We are influenced predominantly by raja and tama guna, the two forces of nature that ceaselessly pull us apart and then set us against each other. In this condition we are almost bound to project our own selfish concerns onto the pure messages of God. In doing so we appropriate the Divine and fashion Him in our own image then, because we are all individuals who, mostly, can’t agree with anyone else completely, we enter into conflict. Whatever the reason may be, we become heated in our opinions, find friends to support us, and then pull apart into distinct groupings.
What divides religious people? Often, it can be the very small things: bells, smells, decorations and robes, priests and songs, or whether being baptised with water is for babies or adults. Or the bigger things of which these are parts: Theology, liturgy, governance, gender issues, and whether God has a living representative on Earth and so on. But it doesn’t end there. History has shown, in every religion, that each division becomes rent by fresh divisions and the two become three, four and more. New theologies are developed to support human preferences, and the clear water of pure revelation becomes muddied by tribal thinking. In this way, the one great man who spoke the Sermon on the Mount is now represented by 41,000 different Christian denominations. The one Catholic Church, presumably in a bid to stave off the debilitating effects of multiple splintering, has given permission for no less than 23 different ‘Rites,’ 38 separate ‘Orders,’ and 272 distinct ‘Congregations,’ all with different costumes, customs, prayers and organisational structures.
The ‘Great Schism’
The tendency to divide is, of course, seen everywhere. We have become so accustomed to it that we may hardly even notice it at all. If we do, it may not even alarm us. Take sport, for instance. It wasn’t long after I joined my school rugby team that I learned that there were, in fact, two games of rugby: Rugby Union and Rugby League. The game originated in 1823 but only 72 years later, in 1895, the ‘Great Schism’ had taken place, never to be repealed. The ‘working class’ northerners had felt it necessary to separate from the ‘upper-class’ southerners, and the League and the Union were created accordingly. The game of rugby was itself an ‘upper class’ separation from the original game of football, played by all boys. In that game, the pulling apart continued to be a long-standing tradition of the game. Footballers were often pulled into two rival teams. A fan had to make his mind up who to support. There was, for instance, Liverpool and Everton in the same city; Rangers and Celtic in the same city of Glasgow, the two teams split along religious and social lines; and Manchester United and Manchester City, all rival teams for one town.
But it is when the divisions occur in religions that the potential for rivalry can escalate into something far more serious. Religion is no game, and the issues involved are all of the ultimate importance. The issues are so serious to the adherents of denominations that strongly opinionated members of opposing religious tribes can often go to war with each other, each convinced that they have the blessings of the Divine. In my own lifetime I have personally experienced street battles between Catholic and Protestant in the towns of Northern Ireland and have witnessed tensions between denominations of Jews. I have read of open conflict between factions of Tibetan Buddhists, and I am all too aware of the immense chasm that exists between Sunni and Shi’a strands of Islam, with periodic warfare between them in different parts of the world. Vaishnavism has not always been immune from these schisms. The followers of the teachings of the great Ramanujacarya (1017-1137) were united for seven centuries, but then succumbed to conflict over cardinal philosophical points, eventually becoming the Tengalai (Southern School) and the Vadagalai (Northern School) sometime in the 17th or 18th century.
In the Hare Krishna movement, the splintering tendency was regularly subjugated by the single, commanding voice of its founder-acarya who confessed “I am always afraid of this crack.” His urgent and repeated pleas for peace and unity amongst his followers didn’t stop some from splintering away during his life, and certainly hasn’t prevented them from doing it since. And, just as in Christianity, Islam and Judaism, where all fractures are done in the name of God, his son, prophet or blessed and inspired rabbi, in the Hare Krishna movement it was, and continues to be done, in the name of ‘what Srila Prabhupada really wanted.’ So it was that the ‘true’ followers of Srila Prabhupada began a campaign against all his other followers when they failed to support their views on how initiations would be conducted after his physical demise.
It was also how the similarly ‘true followers’ of Srila Prabhupada justified their transformation of a hitherto unknown Indian sannyasi into an international figurehead of messianic proportions. For them, who needed him to be so, the sannyasi became ‘the real inheritor of Srila Prabhupada’s legacy.’ The little-known sannyasi was preened, styled and re-branded by those who had left ISKCON as ‘Srila Prabhupada’s very dear friend who has come to give us the knowledge that he did not.’ The fame of the sannyasi followed a predictable arc. After some time, as his original supporters left him, he became convinced that he’d been used, and fell victim to fits of anger against ISKCON. It presumably didn’t occur to the ‘very dear friend’ that, when he told his excited and impressionable followers that ‘ISKCON must be smashed,’ that he might be stretching the limits of his much-vaunted friendship with A.C.Bhaktivedanta Swami. Now deceased, the rifts that he managed to create, pulling apart communities, marriages and families, are all but impossible to heal. ISKCON has thus lost hundreds of members to this and several other breakaway movements – movements of varying degrees of integrity and endurance – all of which claimed to have adopted their stance because of a more refined understanding of the founder-acarya’s instructions. Such is theology, and such is life.
ISKCON members could help themselves by learning a bit more of religious history. They should know that all of this has happened before. They need to learn sufficient Vaishnava theology to identify and understand the veracity of ideas that arise from time to time within their own community. They should be aware when someone seeks the imposition of Judaeo-Christian notions upon Vaishnavism, such as the ‘ritvik’ idea of a truncated parampara, or the deification of an ordinary sannyasi as a moshiach (messiah). Splintering of a religious grouping is also exacerbated by poor spiritual leadership, sexual and financial scandals, poor governance and managerial ineptitude. ISKCON would be helped greatly by putting measures in place to prevent all of these. In addition, and because members of any group will periodically enter into conflict, the ISKCON machinery must allow room for overheated members to find their place, always using the oil of reason to reduce friction, and the water of understanding to cool things down.
Like the Vatican and its shepherding of a disparate flock of many-hued sheep, we may end up with several dozen ‘orders’ within the Hare Krishna movement, but at least they will be working under the same name and style. Theologies have a tendency of variation according to the very genuine physical needs and faith-levels of their proponents. As such, they won’t always mesh together, and practices may not always conform to strict orthopraxis, but splintering might be prevented, and we may all be spared the debilitation of any further reduction in size and influence. Splintering diminishes the strength of collegiate effort and repeated division is a scourge that ultimately ends in a loss of power and increased apathy. If people can be united to do good in the world it is helpful for everyone concerned.
So, was it church or chapel? It was chapel. Actually, to be more precise, it was both. I went to the Methodist chapel on Sunday where I enthusiastically sang Wesleyan hymns and learned the elements of faith free from unnecessary rituals, bell-ringing or stained glass, and then I went bell-ringing every Monday evening in the Church of the Holy Name, where I pulled thick, well-worn ropes beneath the bell tower to my heart’s content, sending loud, thunderous peals throughout the village.