Elegy to a Country’s Church

The Church of England is part of this country’s identity and the key to its past, according to Roger Scruton in his superb new book, Our Church

Books The Church of England

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.

His own faith is not, strictly speaking, confined within the limits of reason alone.  He is, perhaps, too good a philosopher to make that mistake. Rather, he proceeds from the psychological insight expressed in Psalm 51:

The Sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

Cynics might identify in these observations the philosophy of Christopher Hitchens, only in reverse. But that, of course, is what makes them cynics. For Scruton, the need “to refresh ourselves . . . to be purged of our transgressions, and to begin again with a clean slate” is at the very heart of consciousness itself and can be assuaged only in the religious reflux of penance. If that is true, then the fundamental question of religion becomes as much sociological as theological. Put another way, it is about how to incorporate the need for penance, and the pursuit of forgiveness, within the context of ordinary life. And if the solution to this question is indeed a church, that is, not just an article of faith but also a form of membership, then any viable and peaceful church must be at once a vehicle through which to inspire religious sentiment (to enable us to seek beyond ourselves) and an instrument for containing religious sentiment (to protect us from the temptation to discover the deity in ourselves).

Scruton believes that the Church of England performed this peculiar dual function particularly well for the English people over almost five centuries. In part, he argues this was precisely because it was Established, thereby subject to statutory provision and parliamentary oversight. In part too, it was the result of its grounding in the whole of national life-not just rural, agricultural and feudal, but also urban, industrial and class-conscious-and its consequent openness to the full range of vernacular expression, from neo-Gothic architecture to Hymns Ancient and Modern. Above all, it was owed to a historic literary achievement, contingently conceived and now foolishly imperilled, which consecrated the contents of ordinary life in a common language, at once worthy of God and yet accessible to every man. Hence the significance of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.

Some will find this account simply nostalgic. Others will deride its arguments as fogeyish. They should at least be encouraged to consider the possibility that they are mistaken. Even today-especially today-perceptive British Muslims lament the fate of England’s Anglican establishment. At the same time, intelligent unbelievers perform passages from 17th-century scripture to packed audiences in the National Theatre.  Few who attend humanist funerals discover in the experience any improvement in the traditional burial service of the dead. There is, in other words, a real point behind such seemingly wistful reflections. Something actually is being lost, and in front of our very eyes. Is it too fanciful to identify that loss as the final eclipse of the most effective instrument this country ever invented to enable rich and poor, educated and uneducated, even devout and non-committed, to communicate their most serious concerns to one another? And is not the proper response to that kind of cultural collapse the sort of sustained sadness outlined in this elegiac essay?