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The key to England's past: For Scruton, the C of E remains part of our identity 

Magdalene College, Cambridge welcomes a new Master in 2013. That would not normally have made the national news. The fact that he is Dr Rowan Williams ensured that it did. The Archbishop is making way for a younger man (Justin Welby) long before his anticipated retirement. Conventional wisdom insists that he had found it impossible to continue the mutually incompatible responsibilities of Primate of All England and head of the worldwide Anglican communion. More rueful observation suggests he had surreptitiously concluded that the necessary effort was no longer worthwhile.

 If so, even an infidel onlooker might sympathise with his choice. Organised, weekly Christian worship once attracted half the population of this country. As late as the 1950s that figure was still something close to a fifth. Today, little more than 5 per cent of the population attends church each Sunday.  Less than half of that paltry figure patronises our national church. The impact of such precipitous decline is there for all to see. Sacred buildings are demolished or deconsecrated. Parishes have been twinned and parsonages sold off. The church's ministry has been diminished in income and status. Its services have been transformed out of all recognition.

Professor Scruton-a loyal if idiosyncratic Anglican-is only marginally concerned about the many reasons why. His fundamental preoccupation is with the loss involved. This is a surprisingly underdeveloped theme in the contemporary sociology of religion. Too many optimists deny the fact, or minimise the extent of decline. Too many pessimists are indifferent to the effect, insisting on the vitality of Christianity's substitutes. A few gloating secularists even celebrate what they take to be the putative advantages of universal faithlessness. As Scruton observes at one point, you really do have to live in cloud-cuckoo land to believe that. Perhaps as a result, Our Church largely ignores the polemics of the "new atheists". Readers in search of a philosophic critique of materialistic naturalism might be better advised to turn to Alvin Plantinga's recent study Where the Conflict Really Lies.

Not that Scruton's book ignores the great questions of religious belief. Far from it. But it is also concerned with the not inconsiderable matter of England's historic Christianity. Indeed, it is rooted both in the conviction that religious belief is the natural state of a self-aware person and an insistence that "our country is greatly misunderstood by people who fail to see that our national church remains part of our identity, and the key to its past". It should go without saying that such concerns need not necessarily be connected. Scruton's achievement is to establish why thoughtful Englishmen might properly want to consider them together.

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November 29th, 2012
1:11 PM
Whatever other reasons Rowan Williams may have had for retiring early, one was surely that he found the present Church of England unmanageable. The liberal majority seem hell-bent on changing the church into an unorthodox sect whose views and values miror contemporary society. This has never been the Church's purpose. The orthodox will leave and, in time, the Church of England will fade into obscurity.

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