The Church has always maintained a neutral stance on its authenticity but the faithful are free to believe

There was an interesting feature on the Holy Shroud in the Telegraph last Saturday. Written by former Herald editor, Peter Stanford, it was an interview with one Thomas de Wesselow, an agnostic and former Cambridge art historian, who has thrown up a promising academic career at King’s College to research a book about the Shroud. Just published, it is called “The Sign: The Shroud of Turin and the Secret of the Resurrection”. I would love to recommend it to readers but won’t do so for reasons I shall explain below.

Before I go any further, let me reassure readers that the Church has always maintained a neutral stance as to the Shroud’s authenticity, though she does commend it as an article of devotion. I am not even sure Stanford is correct when he says that the Church “accepts the result” of the (notorious) 1988 carbon-dating of the Shroud, which decided it was a medieval forgery. I don’t think the Church – as opposed to an individual cleric, happy to chat to the press – has made a statement as to its fraudulence or otherwise; she leaves it to scholars and scientists to fight it out but does not forbid the faithful from coming to their own conclusions.

Having joined the million-plus pilgrims to Turin in 2010 to see the Holy Shroud displayed in Turin cathedral in one of its rare public showings, readers of this blog will know what side I come down on, quite apart from sensible criticism from other scientists about the flaws in the carbon-dating of 1988. I am not a scientist – indeed I never got beyond “general science” at school, of which I recall only the Latin meaning of “QED” – but I have been interested enough in this mysterious piece of cloth with its enigmatic figure of a tortured man, to have read some of the extraordinary scientific findings associated with it: that it is actually 3-dimensional; that the figure shows the systematic markings of 40 lashes of the dreaded Roman flagrum; that the herringbone pattern of the linen cloth went out of fashion by AD 150; that the image is like a photographic negative, centuries before cameras were invented; that the nail wounds are in the wrists (the only way a body can be suspended on a cross) rather than the palms depicted on medieval paintings; that there is evidence of pollen from Palestine in the linen fibres; that the thorns on the crown are from a near Eastern shrub and so on. Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

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In the interview de Wesselow does mention the pollen discovery and the significant warp and weave of the cloth. Indeed, having given the Shroud his undivided attention for the last eight years, I am sure he knows a lot more about it than I do. Being an agnostic, he has come to his own conclusions as to what the Resurrection means – and inevitably they diverge rather widely from Christian scripture and tradition. They are too eccentric to reproduce here; suffice to say they do not involve the bodily Resurrection of Christ that we Christians have always believed.

Mind you, I write “we Christians” over-confidently. I can accept that de Wesselow, though correct as I see it about the provenance and image of the Shroud itself, might pick, choose and invent his own fanciful theological theories. But I admit I was startled to read that Peter Stanford, a former editor of this august newspaper, harbours his own doubts. He writes, “The exact nature of the Resurrection troubles me as it does many Christians. Was it physical, against all the laws of nature but as the Church claims, or was it ‘symbolic’, as the Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, famously suggested in 1984?”

Good grief, man. Don’t you yet realise that the whole point of God is that he is not bound by “the laws of nature”? And that although symbols perform a useful function for the human imagination they are not the real thing? (When the writer Mary McCarthy once described the Blessed Sacrament as just a “symbol”, a finer American writer, Flannery O’Conner, who was listening, responded, “If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it.”) Finally, who, outside woolly liberals, would ever give the time of day to the heretical and unedifying ramblings of the former Bishop of Durham on this subject?

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