The Church of England, like all churches, has always struggled with the tension between the affirmation or assimilation of culture, and the call of the gospel to confront and transform it. Its raison d’etre – its social vocation – is to mediate between the extremes. This was originally between Wittenberg and Zurich (not Wittenberg and Rome, as some believe, though it may have come to be seen as that during the 17th century as anti-Catholicism in the state was incrementally dealt with by statute, and religious liberty increased). But now the CofE’s mediating role is between scepticism and faith, between belief and doubt, pomp and satire, a longing for the sacred combined with a sense that we create the sacred for ourselves.
It does this with an unmistakable Anglican dignity, which is almost a ritualistic disposition embodying the spirit of England. Not only in the beauty and majesty of the Authorised Version, Cranmer’s Prayer Book and echoes of the XXXIX Articles, which together consecrate the ordinariness of English life. It also does so through England’s poets, painters and composers, with which and to which we still baptise our babies, join men and women in holy matrimony, and bury the dead to a solemn peal of bells.
We know it through Trollope’s Barchester and Larkin’s ‘Church Going’; through the sonnets of John Donne, the hymns of Herbert and Vaughan, and the verse of TS Eliot, Ruskin and Rosetti. It is a literary and artistic holiness which permeates the heart of England, for churchgoers who fleetingly feel the presence of God in their lives, and who, as Roger Scruton expressed it, ‘wish to be on the right side of Him with the minimum of effort.’
What we see now is a remnant of faith: chocolate-box parish churches where God lurks among polished candlesticks, marble memorials, wooden pews, and the playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir.