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Prayers in stone

The meaning of an English church

10 November 2012

9:00 AM

10 November 2012

9:00 AM

No institution is more vividly expressive of the English genius for creative muddle than the Anglican Church. A Protestant church whose liturgy declares it to be Catholic; a national church with a worldwide congregation; a repository of holy sacraments, which is regulated by a secular parliament; an apostolic communion whose authority descends from St Peter, but whose head is the English monarch: looked at from close up it is all nonsense, fragments left over from forgotten conflicts, about as coherent as the heap of broken crockery that remains after a lifetime of marital -quarrels.

But English institutions should not be seen from too close. They are best observed from a distance and through an autumnal haze. Like parliament, the monarchy and the common law; like the old universities, the Inns of Court and the county regiments, the Anglican Church stands in the background of our national life, following inscrutable procedures, and with no explanation other than its own existence. It is there because it is there. Examine it too closely and its credentials dissolve. How can we receive spiritual comforts from an institution that is so much a thing of this world? How can we believe in the Church’s power to baptise us, to marry us and to bury us, if we see it merely as a compromise solution to territorial conflicts that ended long ago?

However, since the end of the 17th century, when the Puritans at last calmed down and the clergy signed up to whatever was needed for a quiet and prosperous life, the Anglican Church has done its bit for our national way of life. It has baptised, married and buried our countrymen with no sense that it was trampling on their sensitivities or presuming to ask more of them than the minimum required by decency. And it has avoided the deep metaphysical questions. It has gradually ceased to enquire whether it has a rightful claim to holiness, or whether it has been set in judgment on its congregation. Instead it has developed a less anxious and interrogatory role, stepping forward on solemn occasions with words and music and filling the countryside from time to time with the sound of bells. It has also maintained buildings that are now the principal tourist attraction in every village, and the most important landmarks in our towns.

What do these buildings mean to us today? English churches tell of a people who have for 300 years preferred solemnity to doctrine and routine to enthusiasm. The architecture is noble, but bare and quiet, without the lofty aspiration of the French Gothic or the devotional intimacy of an Italian chapel. Iconoclasm and Puritan vandalism have swept through their interiors like a boiling tide, washing away their ornaments and endowing them with an unassuming dignity — the dignity of an architecture that speaks for itself and largely without the benefit of images.

The English village church as we know it today is a place of light and shade, of tombs and recesses, of leaf mouldings and windows decked with Gothic tracery and leaded glass. Strange aedicules line the chancel walls — aumbry, sedilia, vestry door — suggesting the rituals of an ancient temple. Choir stalls, rood screen, altar, font and pulpit are elevated above their uses, as though symbolising some eternal version of themselves. The scents of damp stone and plaster, of altar flowers and dusty kneelers, mingle to form a kind of restrained incense, and you fall silent as in the presence of a mystery.

People travel up and down England visiting these places, and there is one simple explanation as to why: namely, that they are sacred. The holiness that was instilled in their foundations rises to hit you in the face when you enter them. Our churches are symbols of a consecrated England that we know from our poets, painters and composers and from brief glimpses caught from time to time through the turmoil of modern life. Our war memorials are built in a style that derives from them and when we invoke the sacred duties of remembrance it is in  the words of Laurence Binyon, hewn from the rock of the Anglican liturgy.

But sacredness is a vanishing phenomenon. In places where the lamp of sacrifice once was burning we encounter only a kind of hollowness. In our secular culture, birth and death have been reduced to biological facts, with no theological significance. Marriage too has lost its sacramental meaning. The moment of God’s presence which the Jews call shekinah and which is the topic of Anglican poetry, from George Herbert to T.S. Eliot, no longer has a place in our literature. The experience that we glimpse in the churches that stand in our towns and villages is only a memory. But we know that these buildings are not simply places in which quarrelsome people took their conflicts to God for a judgment in their favour. They are places where people consecrated their lives and acknowledged that love is more important than profit.

English people know these feelings, but are reluctant to express them. If God exists he must share our embarrassment — that at least the Anglican Church has taught us. In which case, he must be just as shy as we are when it comes to facing the immovable facts. Atheism is not natural to the English. But, as George Orwell wrote in 1941, ‘the common people of England are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries… And yet they have retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, while almost forgetting the name of Christ.’ This ‘tinge of Christian feeling’ had a source, and that source is the Anglican Church, whose messages have not been shouted in English ears like the harangues of the Ranters and the Puritans, but filtered through the landscape, through the web of spires, pinnacles and finials that stitched the townscape to the sky, through the hymns, carols and oratorios that rang out in all their assemblies, and through that fragment of the Prayer Book that many people still recite each day, promising to ‘forgive them that trespass against us’, while never quite sure what the word ‘trespass’ really means.

The buildings that the Church of England maintains are not just symbols, therefore: they are part of our national identity. They define our spiritual condition even in the midst of scepticism and unbelief. They stand in the landscape as a reminder of what we are and what we have been; and even if we look on them with the disenchanted eyes of modern people, we do so only by way of recognising that, in their own quiet way, they are still enchanted. Hence those who strive to preserve them include many who have lost the habit of Christian worship, and even atheists who detest that habit, and yet see our churches as a part of our ‘heritage’, like the village streets around them and the landscape in which they are set. Indeed, our churches now rely for their survival more on their beauty than their use: but in doing so, they testify to the profound usefulness of beauty.


Simon Jenkins reviews Roger Scruton’s new history of the Church of England, Our Church.

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