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The Church of Somewhere

Sympathetic unbeliever John Derbyshire visits Dover Beach with Roger Scruton.

By From the March 2013 issue

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Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England
By Roger Scruton
(Atlantic Books, 224 pages, $32.95)

When I mention religion, I mean the Christian religion; and not only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion; and not only the Protestant religion, but the Church of England.

Thus Rev. Thwackum, the schoolmaster in Tom Jones. That was the 1730s, or about halfway through Roger Scruton’s Our Church. The Rev. Thwackum is drawn satirically, but his smugness was well justified.

The religious passions of the previous century had subsided or been pushed off to inconsequential border territories in Ireland and the North American colonies. The Church of England had been incorporated into England’s unwritten constitution. Her—the gender of that pronoun is explained by Scruton—bishops sat in Parliament. Her clergy, typically younger sons of aristocrats or landed gentry, were comfortably knitted into the English class system. (“The Church or the Army” was the rule for those drawing short straws in the primogeniture lottery.)

The Church’s core documents, the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, were known at least in part to all educated Englishmen and had lent innumerable phrases to the common language. She coexisted peacefully with numerous Nonconformist sects and with remnant patches of Roman Catholicism. (That “Roman” prefix is necessary in this context: Reciting the Nicene Creed in their Eucharist service, Anglicans declare their belief in “one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”)

Roger Scruton’s book sufficiently covers the 200 years of the Church’s history previous to Rev. Thwackum, and the following 280. Our Church is not really a history, though. Scruton keeps to a chronological sequence, but takes off on long diversions into theology, literature, hymnology, architecture, and entirely personal reflections. The book is, as Scruton says of the Church herself, “a creative muddle.” Possibly some readers will dislike it on that account. For myself, I found it charming, very English.

The Church of England is easy to mock. The English themselves have never taken her very seriously, as that Tom Jones quote illustrates. The silly vicar has been a stock character in English comedy and satire through Jane Austen and Trollope to P.G. Wodehouse, Benny Hill, and Beyond the Fringe. (“Life is rather like opening a tin of sardines: We’re all of us looking for the key…”) Not just silly either, but also sexually eccentric: Choirboy jokes were a staple of playground humor in my own English schooldays.

Not all the mockery is well founded. Roman Catholics jeer that the Church only exists because Henry VIII wanted a divorce. There is much more to be said than that. Henry’s father had become king after decades of strife over who should succeed to the throne. Henry wanted to ensure a clear succession for the peace of the nation, but his wife was barren. Scruton: “The refusal of the Pope to grant an annulment of Henry’s first marriage was experienced by the King as a threat to his sovereignty.” Henry was driven by rational statecraft, not—or not only—by sexual boredom.

Henry’s break with the papacy was, in any case, only the last act in a centuries-long record of restlessness against Roman authority among England’s political elites. The English barons, pushing back after King John’s groveling to Innocent III in 1213, made John sign the Magna Carta, in which the Church is referred to as Ecclesia Anglicana. A half century before that, there had occurred the colorful dispute between Henry II and Thomas à Becket, his archbishop of Canterbury, centering on clerical immunity to the king’s laws. (Having mentioned Becket, I want to thank Scruton for including the “à,” which is nowadays usually dropped for reasons of footling pedantry.)

Henry’s reforms did not go unchallenged. Among the common people of England there was still much devotion to the Roman religion, which they perceived in terms of relics, images, pilgrimages, fasts, and the doctrine of Purgatory. Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars describes all this in superb detail. It also, however, supports Scruton’s point that “the parish priest, rather than the wealthy bishop” was seen as the true representative of the Church. “Heaven is high, the Emperor far away,” murmured the Chinese of old; 16th-century Englishmen seem to have felt the same about the pope. Given the great piety of the medieval English, noted by many foreign visitors, the surprising thing is how little resistance Henry met. This was, remember, a regime with no standing army or police.

A key point of difference at the intellectual level was the doctrine of transubstantiation, which asserts that the Communion bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ. Anglican authorities were still thundering against this in Queen Anne’s time (early 18th century). Scruton makes much of the dispute, arguing that:

The revulsion that the doctrine aroused among the Elizabethan divines derived not from any rejection of sacraments but, on the contrary, from a desire to retain them—to establish a sacramental church that honestly explained itself to its members. This, in a nutshell, was the Anglican mission, and it began with Wyclif [an Oxford theologian, late 14th century], long before the Reformation had turned the order of Christendom upside down.

I am not sure why transubstantiation is less “honest” or harder to explain than its Anglican competitor, the “real presence” doctrine. As with those centuries of aristocratic restlessness, though, it is useful to be reminded that revolutions, including religious revolutions, are usually culminations of a long process, not thunderbolts from blue sky.

And when Scruton returns to his point about a sacramental church, as he does several times, he clarifies it with each returning. Thus 80 pages later we read of Scruton in the organ loft of the 15th-century English country church whose instrument (it “has one manual, three stops, and no pedals”) he plays. He is musing on the institution for which he is “pumping out” hymns.

The Anglican communion is a form of sacramental religion…in which anathemas and excommunications long ago ceased to have a point. And I rejoice that the Church to which I belong offers an antidote to every kind of utopian thinking. The Church of England is the Church of somewhere. It does not invoke some paradisal nowhere; nor does it summon the apocalyptic destruction of everywhere in the manner of the seventeenth century Puritans.

That is all very well; but does the somewhere that the Church of England is the Church of, still exist? It is poignant to read Scruton, early in his book—he is writing about the Norman and Plantagenet kings—say this: “Our common law is inimical to laws made outside the kingdom.” Not anymore it isn’t, pal. England is currently bracing itself for a flood of immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria, who from January 1, 2014, under EU rules, cannot be denied entry, common law be damned.

THE CHURCH HERSELF has been losing market share for decades. Entire large districts of English cities and towns are under occupation by foreign immigrants who give not a fig for the Church, nor indeed for Christianity. News stories about the installation of the new archbishop of Canterbury are decorated with gloomy asides about dwindling church membership.

Part of the problem, Scruton notes, has been the Empire, which diffused the Church over vast territories, but whose English inhabitants later melted away, taking their Englishness with them; or in the case of the North American colonies, rebelled…but then again, American Episcopalianism was birthed in Scotland, not England—an offshoot of an offshoot. The Church of Somewhere became the Church of Everywhere, and therefore, of course, of Nowhere. As Scruton writes glumly, “Its most important controversies today—those over women priests and homosexuality—are being fought out between American liberals and African conservatives, with the old English establishment looking on in mild astonishment at the fuss.”

Our Church is full of good things. Scruton writes fluently, with many memorable touches. I especially liked his recollection of his teenage self at Communion, listening to the organist’s improvised sequences: “It was as though the Holy Ghost himself were present, humming quietly to himself in an English accent.” He has provocative insights, too, as when he writes of “the pagan heart of the Roman Catholic liturgy.” He is only occasionally tedious, mostly when writing about theology, a subject in which I, along with most Anglicans (admittedly lapsed, in my case), have zero interest.

I liked this book. However, I was raised, like Scruton, in mid-20th century England, in a culture now as comprehensively extinct as that of the Moabites. Whether Our Church will find favor with, or even be comprehensible to, readers of different nativity, I would not venture to speculate. 

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About the Author

John Derbyshire writes "Shelf Life," a books column, every other week. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism (Crown Forum).