Parish churches are the sentinels of England’s past. They soar over every town and village, pinning it to the nation’s soil. The nave may be empty, the graveyard unkempt and the roll-call of the faithful soon to cede primacy to the mosque. But the Church of England guards our rituals and speaks for our communities. The English still want their local spokesmen to be vicars not mayors.
Roger Scruton should have been a bishop. He would have gone to the top, and spared Anglicans their present agony over whom to send to Canterbury. Archbishop Scruton would have gathered up the church’s shattered canticles, creeds and conflicts and marched them to death or glory with learning and charm. This book is an elegant manifesto. It should have been a job application.
Scruton claims to address his biography of Anglicanism to believers and non-believers alike. Since the latter includes me, and since we were both born into Nonconformist scepticism, I was intrigued to see how our paths could agree on so much yet diverge so widely on religion. The initial answer appears to be that Scruton played hooky from Baptist Sunday school by sneaking round the corner not, like most of us youngsters, to the nearest smoking shed but to his parish church. While we found a humanist optimism, he seems to have found a godly pessimism.
Scruton’s Church of England emerged from the middle ages an insular version of the Protestant reformation. Since Henry II, English kings argued with popes over the demarcation between church and state. Tyndale and Wyclif had forged an English proto-reformation before the messy and drawn out breach under Henry VIII. To Scruton, Henry’s apostasy was not the theological opportunism of a royal sex drive. It was conceived of a sacred compromise, a God-sent amalgam of state triumphant and church holy, of poetry and prose, of Calvin and Cranmer. Anglicanism was Christianity not as ‘outward obedience to often non-sensical rules,’ but as ‘a truer and more inward discipline’. God was not law — at least not foreign law — but love of person and love of place.
The non-believer can only find all this hard to take. Early Anglicans were all over the place, flirting with counter-reformation under Mary and conspiring against Elizabeth. Many were vicars of Bray through the troubles of the 17th century and subsided into reactionary corruption in the 18th, self-satisfied imitators of Rome’s episcopacy. It was not Anglican tolerance that eventually emancipated Nonconformists and Roman Catholics, it was sheer weight of numbers. The church could not strip half the nation of civil rights or send it to America.
Only when seriously challenged by Wesley’s Methodists did the ‘genius for compromise’ eulogised by Scruton induce reform and rebirth. But until the late 20th century, Anglican bishops joined with the Tory right to protest against every democratic or progressive measure. They opposed an end to rotten boroughs, a wider franchise, Irish land reform, Catholic emancipation, votes for women and the parliament acts. Scruton is right to applaud the church’s promotion of much liberal learning, of great architecture and fine poetry, but as an estate of the realm it was a disgrace. If the bishops had had their way, Britain would have endured a French revolution.
Even today the Church of England uses its bizarre parliamentary status to oppose Lords reform and retain extraordinary control over admission to many state schools. And this despite being, Scruton admits, the ‘spiritual representative of a people whose attitude to the Christian religion could be described as one of loyal indifference’.
Protestantism has long offered its adherents the best of all worlds. In its Anglican manifestation, it eschews gestures and rituals (up to a point) and resorts to words as ‘the enemy of superstition … the torch that lights our spiritual path’. Scruton sees it ‘filtered through the landscape, through the web of spires, pinnacles and finials that stitched the townscape to the sky’. Its holiness resides in the Book of Common Prayer, the nine lessons and carols and the echo of church bells over the countryside, calling the faithful to prayer.
He surveys all this with an indulgent eye. He might be guiding us round a much loved ancestral home, patting the Chippendale here, pointing to a Gainsborough there, reminiscing about a dodgy uncle, quoting Milton, Bunyan, Auden, Larkin. The very language of the church, entrenched in the 17th century and never bettered, ‘endows us with a mysterious key to God’s presence’.
Yet Scruton comes close to winking at us. He quotes Orwell’s church as ‘a conscious artefact which, like good manners, does not bear too close an examination’. The appeal to words remains a device, a trick. Protestants may deride the mumbo-jumbo of Roman Catholicism, but they merely laundered it for north European ears. The Anglican church is not on any high road to reason, rather a more user-friendly version of the original, so as not to frighten the squeamish.
Scruton writes beautifully about a subject to which he is clearly devoted. His church was once a tribal superglue, its strength indicated by never taking real hold among the Celts. He reminds us why we love English churches, their music and ritual, their traditions and, usually, their clergymen. But I have an uncomfortable feeling that, were he an Aztec on a ziggurat, he would equally celebrate the blood of 1,000 sacrificial virgins, hallowed by custom as it cascades down the steps to succour God’s earth.
Nor can we escape the final paradox. Women and gays have replaced Wesleyans and Irishmen to torment the Anglican faithful. Were Scruton true to his cause, he would surely sympathise with the church hierarchy as it struggles ‘in prayer’ with the reactionaries to sustain the secular yet sacred compromise. Yet he is splendidly partisan. Present-day Anglicans are no longer Tories at prayer but ‘the Labour party trying to remember how to pray, while not really understanding the point’.
He appears to deplore his church’s continued attempt to compromise with the state, on gender equality, adoption, homosexual marriage and sex education. What Scruton professes to be a ‘quiet, gentle, unassuming faith, that makes room beneath its mantel for every form of hesitation’ is castigated as a church in denial, cringeing before ‘the onslaught of political correctness’. I sense a man who wants to have his cake and eat it.
Our Church is beautifully written in the cadences of a lay preacher. Its nationalist piety is nostalgic and undeniably attractive. Scruton’s parting thought, that a minority Anglicanism may yet decline into a fragmentary congregationalism, is realistically radical. He knows his faith in the round, and derives from it comfort and delight. But by deserting scepticism, he inflicted on himself a needless pessimism, when the smoking shed offered the light of reason and good cheer.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 10 November 2012