Is silence in the face of great wrongs always shameful? If so, Heretic TOC should plead guilty. By that demanding standard I should have howled the house down at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford last week. I should have “caused a scene”, “demonstrated”, hurled thunderous, passionate execrations, pointing an accusing finger at the stage, and at one man who occupied it: Sir Diarmaid Ninian John MacCulloch, University of Oxford Professor of the History of the Church, winner of numerous prizes for his many books, presenter of the “landmark” BBC TV series A History of Christianity.

Ironically, he was there to talk about shame and I, along with hundreds of others, to listen. The occasion was an exploration of the topic “Shame : A Force for Good or Bad?” as part of the Oxford Literary Festival. MacCulloch was a panelist along with crime writer Ruth Rendell and an American historian, Deborah Cohen, who has a new book out, Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day. It was an excellent discussion, well worthy of the Sheldonian, a splendid Wren-designed auditorium completed in 1668, sitting right at the heart of Oxford University near the Bodleian Library.

The date was 21 March. MacCulloch, the most formidably sharp and interesting of the three distinguished speakers, reminded his audience that on this same date in 1556, in this same city, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, had been burnt at the stake as a heretic. Cranmer had earlier recanted the Protestant “heresies” of which he had been accused in the reign of the Catholic queen, Mary. This desertion of his faith failed to save his skin. Ashamed of his weakness, Cranmer reasserted his faith in a sermon on the very day of his execution, when he had been expected to proclaim publicly the error of his ways. Then, famously, as he was being burnt, he thrust first into the fire “the unworthy hand” with which he had signed his earlier recantation. Shame, suggested MacCulloch, had in this instance been a noble force, memorably bringing out the best in Cranmer, redeeming, and more than redeeming, his ordinary human frailty.

We all feel ashamed when we fall short of our own standards, and it is surely right that we should be spurred by that shame to do better. Some might call this guilty conscience, a private matter, and argue that true shame is very different, a public affair: people are shamed into action, or into changing their ways, through community pressure. That too can be a good thing when we can all agree a common standard of good behavior, in a family, or a village; but is much trickier in large, complex, pluralistic societies such as our own. In societies like ours, paradoxically, it may be shameful to take the easy way out by falling in with the dictates of majority opinion when we have reason to believe the majority are wrong.

MacCulloch acknowledges this. In his latest book, Silence: A Christian History, he unsurprisingly sees a positive role for contemplative and prayerful silence; but he also tackles the more negative, shameful, aspects of keeping shtum, especially the failure of Christians in the past to speak out against egregious abuses. He focuses on three examples, of which these are two: slavery, and the Nazi holocaust against the Jews. So far so good. But you can see where this is going, can’t you? Yes, inevitably, his third example of negative Christian silence, in his book and in the Sheldonian discussion, is the covering up of clerical “child abuse”. This silence, bizarrely, he considers worse than the other two. Why? Because child abuse has always been against the teaching of the church, unlike either slavery or anti-semitism: the Bible depicted slavery as part of the God-given natural order of human affairs, and condemned the Jews as killers of Christ. Child abuse was therefore more shameful because it alone fell short of the church’s own standards at the time.

Well, imagine, fellow heretics, how I felt upon hearing this tosh. Apart from forgetting that the Catholic church certainly did at one time openly support real child abuse by using castrated choirboys (first authorized by Pope Sixtus V in 1589), this offensive nonsense also carries an implicit value judgment that giving a child an orgasm in necessarily worse than the chaining, whipping, beating, starving, terrifying, torturing, working to death, and outright mass murder – of children as well as adults – that characterized Nazi and slaving atrocities. Surely, I had to get up and say something? Usually, I am not shy on such occasions: I can and do raise questions from the floor. But this, I confess, defeated me. I did not trust myself to be coherent. In a room full of churchy types who had come to listen to a very prestigious ecclesiastical historian, I was worried about coming across as a raving lunatic. A moderately skeptical question might have worked, but I was just too angry to find the words.

So I compromised. At the end of the talk I knew MacCulloch would be signing copies of his new book. Being the polite person I am – perhaps far too courteous on this occasion – I bought a copy and meekly stood in line waiting for him to sign it, so I would have the opportunity to speak to him. Actually, I held back until last, so others would not be kept waiting during the substantial harangue I had in mind.

Eventually, my turn came. He signed my copy, punctiliously putting in the date. “Must have the date, eh?”, he said cheerily, “Cranmer’s anniversary.”

“Thanks,” I began. “It was a good discussion. But you seem too sophisticated a person to have such an absolutist position on clerical abuse, so-called. What if you have a priest and an acolyte who love each other?  Shouldn’t the priest have the guts to defend his love? Wouldn’t it be shameful not to do so?”

“It’s abuse,” he replied, “and the church’s teaching is clear.”

“Look,” I said, with perhaps a hint of rising anger, “I have sexual feelings for children and I am not ashamed to say so publicly. If there’s a loving relationship, why should that be abuse? How can it be right to take an absolutist stance when there is love?”

“Well, I do pretty much feel we should be absolutist on this issue. I’ve thought about it a lot.”

“Not enough, clearly,” I snapped.

Silence.

“Well, you know now how I feel,” I added, awkwardly. “And now that you do know, would you nevertheless be prepared to inscribe my name along with your own?”

I handed him my business card: “Tom O’Carroll, Director, Dangerous Books Ltd”.

He dutifully wrote out my name in the book, above his own. But he said nothing. He did not inquire about Dangerous Books, nor ask anything about me. He just silently left the card lying on the table until I picked it up. It was as though he felt any further inquiry or discussion would be just as dangerous as my card implied. Of course, he was right.

What I should have told him was that he may have thought a lot about “child abuse” but perhaps studied too little, preferring to focus on clerical stuff rather than research papers in psychology: his book shows no sign of any such reading. But I was too angry for such niceties. Frankly, I just wanted to beat the complacent bastard around the head with his own book, so that I could leave him with the sound of Silence ringing in his ears.

I took my leave, still angry, but soon restored to good cheer in the company of an old friend. An Oxford man himself, he showed me his old college, St Peters, and the next day he took me for a long walk along the River Isis, past Port Meadow and the stretch of water where Lewis Carroll once shared a rowing boat with his little child friend Alice Liddell, his inspiration for Alice In Wonderland. Those idyllic days when a man and an unrelated child could keep each other’s company without scandal – despite nude photography – seemed very far off indeed.

One other discovery before I left Oxford: MacCulloch is openly gay. Suddenly the moral certainty and absolutism of this buttoned down academic, soberly conservative in suit and tie, fell into place as part of one of the defining cultural tropes of our times: the respectable homosexual, a figure whose success has largely been build on distancing himself from the “shameful” paedophile with whom he was once bracketed as a fellow “pervert” or “deviant”. MacCulloch styles his career in history as “devoted to showing up the emperors with no clothes: the smug, the pretentious, the imposters, the liars”. I can’t help wondering when he last looked into a mirror.